In the last few weeks, I’ve been sleeping in one of my upstairs bedrooms. The east-facing window ushers in the day, so I don’t need an alarm clock. And I’m close to my office, making it easier to work late into the night and comfortably stumble to the boudoir for a few winks.
During this lovely New England summer season, it’s like the sun never sets. There is lawn to mow and gardens to tend; I sometimes break from my office work during the dinner hours and come back to it after dark settles on the yard. The change of sleeping chamber works well, all things considered.
Speaking of seasons, I recently watched a 2001 BBC Timewatch documentary called “Debutantes.” It first aired on May 18, the approximate date of the Queen Charlotte’s Ball. Loosely based on Angela Lambert’s book, 1939: The Last Season of Peace, the documentary chronicles Britain’s 1939 social season with reminiscences by now-elderly men and women who were part of it.
I found the series while doing some web-crawling about the late Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. The youngest of England’s infamous Mitford sisters, the Duchess is fondly remembered for restoring and promoting the Cavendish ancestral home, Chatsworth. Debo, as her sisters called her, “came out” in 1938 and like so many of her contemporaries, was presented at court as part of a social ritual that must appear stifling and absurd to women of the same age today.
The start of the social season, the Queen Charlotte’s Ball, featured the presentation of a large cake while all the attending debutantes curtsied to it.
Ruth Sebag-Montefiore, a one-time debutante, remembered the cake curtsy in the documentary. “It was a joke, it really was a joke…curtsying to a cake,” she said. “But again, it was one of those things, that as the Americans would say, you ticked off. There it was so you did it unquestioningly.”
The 2001 documentary included a bevy of old aristocrats, all well-heeled and proper in sitting room stage sets that may or may not have been their homes. Considering this cast of interviewees were in their mid-80’s at the time of production, their recollections and storytelling is refreshing and marvelous. Compared to the internecine ramblings of today’s current crop of celebrities, politicians, and social media pseudo-celebrities, “Debutantes” will leave you longing for a strong cup of tea and a comfortable sweater.
Coming out balls, curtsying, and debutantes…if all these things leave your head spinning a Brit, er, bit, never fear. The Timewatch crew naturally steers to the usual narrative of “life is so much better now that we are not curtsying to a cake.” The best example of this is at around 9:20 in the video when former debutante Peggy Cripps, complete with strange and supernatural background music, says of being presented at Buckingham Palace, “I was glad I’d done it, I’d tried that…I don’t know, it was an archaic idea, wasn’t it.”
All in all, Cripps is the only downer in the debutante punch bowl. The documentary is 50 enjoyable minutes in a place and time that will never exist again.