II don’t mean “the season” as we think of it today as that period of holiday celebration between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. In THE LADY MOST LIKELY the male character, after a brush with death, decides he is in need of a wife and heirs. His sister is married and he asks her to help. She laughs because the “season” is over and people will not be “in town.” Plus, all the hotttest debutantes will have been grabbed up by nobles who realized a need to marry earlier than he did.
The social season was when families of the gentry were in London rather than at their country estates. It was when young women would be presented to the monarch at “drawing rooms,” and young men at “levees.” In the recent past I have seen the presentation of debs represented on television in DOWNTON ABBEY and discussed on UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS.
But, when was this Season?
The “social” season evolved from the 17th century, and as a concept peaked in the 19th century. It continues less formally today and most events are corporate sponsored. Queen Elizabeth II abolished the presentation of debutantes at court in 1958. 1
The social season also played a role in the political life of the country: the members of the two Houses of Parliament were almost all participants in the season. But the Season also provided an opportunity for the children of marriageable age of the nobility and gentry to be launched into society. Young men and ladies were formally introduced into society by presentation to the monarch at Court. 2
The season coincided with Parliament being in session which was sometime around Christmas. And since, it would be customary for the monarch to be in town during Parliament it was a good time to be presented and make one’s way into society. Oddly, according to Daniel Pool in WHAT JANE AUSTEN ATE AND CHARLES DICKENS KNEW, after the period for “sport” which then meant fox hunting. So, this would have been after hard frosts when the fox would retreat to their dens for breeding. The height of the season however did not happen until March. 3
As many men of the Ton would be members of the House of Lords, it seems fitting that you would combine the period of political involvement with that of the social involvement in town. During this preliminary part of the season in London, according to Pool, one rose to go riding in Hyde Park, then one returned home for breakfast. After this one would shop and pay bills, and call on those one knew well. Then one lunched and men went off to their clubs or to Parliament, and the women paid more calls or were at home to calls, followed by dinners and soirees, and then balls and dances beginning at ten and going until three in the morning.4 Since this was the early season venues were not crowded and one could actually go to the opera to see it, rather than to be seen at the opera.
But after the Parliament hiatus for Easter, when families would be in the country for a brief holiday, the season began in earnest. And in May the first big gala ball, at the annual exhibition at the Royal Academy of art began. After that a constant round of parties, events, soirees and balls were put on for three months. Around all of this though, was the deadly serious task of getting one’s daughters married. Back in the country, there were not many prospects for marriage while every noble and/or wealthy young man would be in town for the season. The social events placed these young men and ladies in a controlled proximity aimed at finding someone who “would suit.” Until a girl was “out” in society, she was not really considered marriageable, and was still “in the schoolroom.” She was not to speak unless spoken to and then should only answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I imagine this so as to not take away too much attention from an older sister, already in society. In P & P Lady Catherine is shocked that all of Elizabeth Bennett’s sisters are out at the same time.
While the beginning of the season began variably with the opening of Parliament, it closed on August 12. 5 People would then return to their country estates, or their Scottish moor for bird hunting.
In Summary, season opens with Parliament, after the frost began, and, I surmise, after the harvest was in. There was a slow period for the season until after Easter when people began partying in earnest in an attempt to marry off one’s daughters. Then in mid-August, Parliament closed and people returned to their country homes, I imagine, to rest and oversee agricultural duties. Girls who had not “taken” or “been a success” went home to lick their wounds and, probably ponder their deficiencies.
3, 4, 5 Pool, Daniel: WHAT JANE AUSTEN ATE AND CHARLES DICKENS KNEW, pp. 50-54