|The first quadrille at Almack's|
from The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow (1889)
Many a Regency heroine has gone to London to have a ‘season’ in the hope of finding a husband. But when was the London season?
The London season developed to coincide with the sitting of parliament. During the months when parliament was in session, members of both Houses needed to be in attendance in London and came to the capital bringing their families with them. The London season grew up in response to this influx of upper class people who needed to be entertained.
|The House of Commons from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)|
So when was parliament in session?
The aristocratic ‘season’ came into existence not only to further the marriage market but to entertain the upper classes while they carried out their political duties. The season followed the rhythm of Parliament: it began in late October with the opening of the new session, and ended in June with the summer recess.1
An article on the court in The Penny Magazine (1837) suggested similar timing:
The London ‘season’, or winter, was reckoned, during the last century [the 18th century], from about the month of November till that of May. It was regulated, as it is now, by the usual duration of the session of Parliament. Affluent people, who divided their time between London and the country, had less inducement then to absent themselves from the metropolis after the winter had set in, than they have now; and the state of the roads and means of communication rendered it convenient to the legislature to meet before travelling became, if not dangerous, at least very troublesome and annoying.2
The shift of the season
|The Opera House|
from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
But this is talking about the season in the late 18th century, long before the Regency
started, so was the season held at the same time throughout the Georgian period?
The article in The Penny Magazine sheds some light on this:
During the present century [19th century], the commencement of the London ‘season’ has been gradually postponed. Since 1806, the opening of the session of Parliament has been veering from November to January; since 1822, it has almost settled into a rule (unless, of course, when interrupted by anything extraordinary) that it should not be opened till about the month of February, the session extending till July, or the beginning of August. Thus the London ‘season’, or winter, has been thrown into the months of spring and summer.2
So, when was the season?
To summarise, parliament traditionally sat from late October or November through to May or June. As travel was difficult, there was little incentive to leave the capital once the winter weather had set in and therefore it was convenient for the upper classes to stay in London during the whole of the winter period and the London season was fixed accordingly.
However, as travel improved with the spread of turnpike roads
and more investment in the infrastructure, the ton was able to travel more easily to and from London during the winter months. It was no longer necessary to become established in London before the winter weather set in and so the opening of parliament, and hence the season, shifted to January or February. The most active part of the season was the period between Easter and when parliament adjourned for the summer, in July or August.
An interesting observation
|A drawing room at St James's Palace|
from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
If you examine the actual dates of the parliamentary sessions, you will discover that, during the 1780s, parliament often began in January and conversely, many of the parliamentary sessions after 1800 began before Christmas. The shift in the start date of the parliamentary sessions from October/November to January/February was certainly not consistent and the shift in the season had more to do with the increased ease of travel during the winter.
The summer recess
After the close of the parliamentary session, in June to August, the nobility would leave the city and return to their country estates. They might visit a spa such as Cheltenham or Bath or a seaside watering place such as Brighton
, or go travelling abroad.
The little season?
from Weymouth and Melcombe Regis New Guide
by E Groves (1835)
The question arises as to whether there was, in fact, a ‘little season’ in the Regency period, held during the autumn months of September to November. Although this concept is used in many Regency romances, I have not been able to find any contemporary evidence that such a season existed during this period, although it was definitely a part of the Victorian social calendar.
No doubt those people who came back to town early, in September or October, typically those who did not own country estates, entertained each other during these months, but the existence of an official little season is questionable.
The royal family in residence
The Debrett’s website suggested that the timing of the season was determined by when the royal family were in residence in London, from October to December and from April to July.3 This broadly corresponds with the normal parliamentary sessions, though with a gap over the winter, and might help explain why the period after Easter became the height of the London season during the Regency.
|St James' Palace|
from Leigh's New Picture of London (1827)
Have you come across any references to the Regency season which suggest different timing? In particular, do you know of any references to the ‘little season’ in the Regency period?
Knowles writes clean/Christian historical romance set in the time of Jane
Austen. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives
in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast
of England, with her husband, Andrew.
Find out more about Rachel's books and sign up for her newsletter here.
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1. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman (1998).
2. A looking-glass for London – no. XI – the Court from The Penny Magazine (April 1837).
3. Debrett's website visited in 2013 - the page about the history of the season no longer exists.
Sources used include:
Ackermann, Rudolph, and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature Volume 1-3 (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
Chancellor, E. Beresford, Memorials of St. James’s Street and Chronicles of Almack’s (1922)
Foreman, Amanda, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (HarperCollins, 1998, London)
Gronow, Captain RH, The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow (1889)
Groves, E, The Weymouth and Melcombe Regis New Guide (E Groves, 1835, Weymouth)
Leigh, Samuel, Leigh's New Picture of London (London, 1827)
The Penny Magazine (1837)
History of Parliament online
A very interesting post. Many Regency writers do refer to the 'little season' that seems to be set in the fall, and often talk about many of the ton moving out of the city during the deep winter, to their country estates, or visiting house parties, etc. Lots of references to the city being thin of company during the winder. And the regular season, then, seems to correspond to what you mentioned as occurring during the Spring, with people leaving, again, during the heat of summer.ReplyDelete
Not having researched that part of the period particularly, I wasn't aware of the information you shared.
I imagine that whenever people were in town, there would have been entertainments, but the spring does seem to have been the busiest time, certainly in the Regency.Delete
Great post! While I haven't examined it, I think it would be interesting to take a look at the hunting seasons which could draw folks to the estates and might also affect the London season.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Regan. The hunting seasons may well have been a factor, especially during the Regency when travel was easier. The grouse hunting season started in August, when the aristocracy was usually on their country estates for the summer. The fox hunting season was from about November through to March which may have contributed to the main London season during the Regency being delayed until after Easter.Delete
Ladies were presented to court on two dates before Easter and two dates after Easter. Debs considered this a proper'kick off' to their first season, and might delay coming out until then. Of course, this cut the expenses for the first season, which was needed, on account of the expenses involved in the presentation! The dress alone could cost up to £500! Then the lace, veil, jewels, hair, carriage, and not to mention the ball to celebrate it all would add a greater expense. The after Easter balls were best because that's when the rich people celebrate debutantes coming out. Although, they weren't called by the word "debutantes" until much later. Also, men went to leveés, sometimes held by the prince during this time. They wore uniforms if they had served in the military. Look up court dress code for regency era. Very strict rules! But people who could afford to buy all of the one use only dresses and things were wealthy and threw the best balls. Hence, the Season.Delete
The Regency Companion by Laudermilk and Hamlin as well as Georgette Heyer's Regency World by Kloester as well as some other sources state the Little Season began in September.ReplyDelete
Thanks for your comments, Ella. What I have not been able to find is a primary source to support the existence of the 'Little Season' during the Regency. Do either of the books that you mention quote from one?Delete
Just checked Kloester's book, she doesn't mention sources persay. I was just about to write the Little Season into my latest WIP, but no more!:)Delete
I was surprised to find no original source to back up the existence of the Little Season during the Regency. If it did exist, there must be a contemporary record of it out there somewhere!Delete
Susan: While I don't wish to appear pedantic, I think the word you meant by "persay" is actually per se. I'm sure you would want to be correct being an author.Delete
Great post Rachel. I always thought it was January to June but now I see it was a little more fluid than that. Good to know and have some facts to back it up. Many thanks.ReplyDelete
I'm glad you found it helpful. I found it interesting to discover that the season shifted somewhat over time.Delete
I agree I always thought the little season was just the kickoff period before the actual season began. Too bad I didn't know that before I read all those Heyer novels ;ReplyDelete
I think that many of us have fallen into the trap of assuming that Heyer got all her Regency facts right!Delete
It's true that it might be something of her own creation for her own novels that other writers have adopted the use of but I think it's also entirely possible that back in her day in England she may have come across an actual source that has never been digitized and/or is no longer available maybe except in a library so there is very little record of it. It could also have been a first person source passed down in her own family about someone who attended the season as well as a 'little season'...so it could be perfectly accurate and just very under-recorded until the Victorian age.Delete
However, without knowing for sure, while it wouldn't stop me from using it if it was unavoidable in my plot I would definitely see if I could avoid using a 'little season' first. :)
Thank you for putting together this article! I'm writing a series that has a few books during the Regency time (my personal favorite), but I've always been confused by the exact dates of the Season. Nice to know that the people who lived in that time weren't always sure either ;) The time of year has a big impact on how different scenes play out, or what kinds of scenes would even be possible. Thanks again!ReplyDelete
Glad that you found the article helpful. I was surprised how difficult it was to pin down the dates for the season and delighted to find a few sources that helped me to understand how it worked.Delete
Great post! Thank you for information. I wasn't ever sure when the season happened:)ReplyDelete
Thank you :) I was surprised how difficult it was to find a fixed date for the season. It was only after I started researching that I realised that the dates were more flexible than that and changed considerably over time.Delete
Fascinating. There are so many things that "everybody knows" that turn out to maybe not be quite what "everybody" always thought. And certainly not very certain.ReplyDelete
Yes, no clearcut answers to any of my questions, but more a 'feel' for the way things came about.Delete
If you were presenting your daughter at Court, it would have to be when royalty was in town -- Queen Charlotte holding a Drawing Room -- so that would be another schedule to check.ReplyDelete
If one studies the dates Parliament actually sat, one sees that it seldom did in the autumn. The state opening of Parliament-- after a general election-- was usually in October or November. Some matters such as wars had them meeting earlier and longer. !819 they met kin the fall and left on 24 December not to return until 2 Feb 1820 but the death of the King made changes in the schedule. I doubt the place of residence of the Royal family had much to do with the season or parliament. The King was at Windsor after he was confirmed in being ill. The Prince Regent lived in Carlton House or Brighton. The Queen's birthday was celebrated in January or February-- I think February-- when many made the journey to participate. Some people lived year round in metro London with short excursions into the country.ReplyDelete
The newspapers kept track of the nobility and royalty and recorded where they went and with whom they dined.
Does anyone know if the Queen held a Drawing Room at Easter so that debutantes could be presented? Since George III died in January I wondered if this would affect the schedule?ReplyDelete
As his consort, Queen Charlotte would have been in deep mourning for a year and so would not have held any drawing rooms for a year as I understand it. Ladies with daughters/nieces to present would weigh the known state of health of royalties whose demise would affect presentation drawing rooms when deciding on the timing of their charges' debuts.Delete
Charlotte Betts--- Queen Charlotte died in 1818. King George III in 1820. They had mourning until through February.Delete
ladies only needed to be presented to go to court. They didn't need to be presented to be "out."
Because I needed an autumn ball or similar larger social activity in 1813 London to set the scene for important events in my latest novel, I tried very hard to find support for a "Little Season," but sadly, no solid references were found. Logic states that when the nobility planned to be in Town for parliamentary sessions, dinners and balls would be planned of a scale that suited the expected influx of the bon ton. The actual dates the King opened and closed parliament each year are available from Hansard. 1810-11 was "the year with no Christmas," when members of Parliament were in ad-hoc meetings over the King's illness well into December. Since the meetings were unplanned, it's doubtful there were a great deal of large social events that autumn. In 1813, the year I wanted a "Little Season," Parliament opened in late November, two months later than I would have liked! It created a difficult gap in my time-line, then scrunched up critical events near Christmas! I don't yet know if my editor will insist on refining the events and time line. The scene in question is near the end, and we're editing Chapter 6 for an autumn 2016 release. I appreciate blog posts like this one, that add further facts to my arsenal of knowledge on this topic. Thanks, Rachel!ReplyDelete
Thank you for clarifying. From Jane Austen's books, it seemed the season did begin in the Fall and carry through till Spring,when it seemed more likely that people would want to be in the country or traveling. I got really confused reading the Wikipedia page stating the season ran from Easter till August.ReplyDelete
As others have noted much confusion surrounds the idea of a fall season. I don't think Parliament met regularly in the fall until later in the century. In the early years of the 19th century, parliament met in the autumn after a general election when there was a state opening of parliament. That only happened about once every seven years. However, deaths and other events could cause autumn meetings and elections out side the seven year pattern.People lived in and around town all year and government officials and royals entertained year round. There were some months where the newspapers carried little in society news beyond the report of the health of the royal family and whether the Duke of York attended a dinner for army veterans.People entertained all year around-- they usually didn't hold big balls or launch girls on their season all year. Dinners and routs, musical evenings and theatre parties were held. People didn't abandon town -- though they might leave during August for a stay in the country. Aristocrats lived and worked and entertained in town most of the months of the year. The season for launching daughters was after Easter to July.ReplyDelete
Even well before the Regency period it was rare for the House of Lords to sit at Christmas, which was generally celebrated at country estates. Indeed, it was rare for the Lords to sit at all during midwinter, because this was the hunting season, particularly in the Home Counties. For their wives and daughters, continuing to entertain in London was quite another matter; however, it was often conducted more or less without men in attendance during those months. In addition, I've caught Georgette Heyer out in one or two historical errors but I wouldn't bet against her where the "Little Season" is concerned. She began collecting her large personal reference library in the 1920s, when the world she wrote about was only a century distant; it is now 200 years vanished, and a great many sources have simply disappeared.ReplyDelete
There was a little season in Heyers own youth which she transposed back to the regency period. It was rare for wives and daughters to be in town without a brother or husband unless the mother was widowed. The newspapers of the day seldom report large balls during October and November. Those were the prime hunting months. Hunting stopped around February and didn't pick up again to August for fowl and September October for foxes. Heyer had an incorrect use of a special licence in The Reluctant Widow and had errors in other places. She had the British library but she didn't have the convenience of computers and search engines. She is much more accurate than most authors. No one should depend on Gronow except for atmosphere. He was one of those to whom the patronesses of Almacks' refused to give vouchers-- if his report of their doing so is true.ReplyDelete
If I had world enough and time ---
I would be interested to know your source for the information about a "little season" in Heyers' youth, which would have been during WW1, or even if "the seasons" would have continued during the war, partly due to the lack of young men.Delete
I think this is a very informative article about the season:ReplyDelete
Read Gilded Butterflies-- a book about the season.ReplyDelete
The URL you give is mainly post regency. For one thing, the author says the ladies went to Paris to get a suitable wardrobe. Of course they didn't do that during the early days of the regency because the countries were at war. During the regency the Queen's drawing rooms were not held on a regular schedule and it wasn't necessary for a girl to be presented to be OUT. The girl hoped to be married and would be presented as a bride whether presented as a single girl or not. The organized system of debutantes came later in the century.
How did the Season work with the fasting and other rules around Advent and Lent? Were menus limited to non-meat items?ReplyDelete
That's a fascinating question and one that I don't know the answer to! I don't remember ever having come across any references to Lenten fasting in London during this period.Delete
Sorry, put it below! The season always started after Lent. You couldn't marry during Lent, have big parties, and all the places of entertainment were closed during Lent.Delete
So not so much fasting, as observing Church dictates. Look in the church calendars for the period you're interested in.
The fasting of Lent didn't enter into the matter because the season started after Easter. Also, strict observance of Lent was considered something for Roman Catholics and not for the Church of England. There generally weren't any balls during the Lenten season . members of parliament returned to town in February when Parliament resumed after the Christmas break if it had sat in the fall at all. Quite often parliament didn't meet between July and February. The season was from after Easter to June or July .If Parliament was in session in November and December, people entertained as they would. Usually the Advent season sees people partying more rather than less. According to the newspapers, there usually weren't any balls during Lent and the theatre put on more benefit concerts than regular plays. The theatres were closed and people didn't party during Holy week-- the week between Palm Sunday and Easter .ReplyDelete
An important marker for the start of the season was Lent. You couldn't get married during Lent, and all the places of entertainment were closed. It would have been bad form to have a big party during Lent, as well. So after Easter, whenever that was.ReplyDelete
I don't think there can have been hard and fast rules. In my research for my latest book, set in 1810, Easter Sunday was 22 April and whilst I have found evidence for the theatres closing for the week running up to Easter, I have also found details of routs, balls and other entertainments that took place during Lent. The Queen held a birthday drawing room on 18 January which was well attended and this may well have prompted many people's return to London.ReplyDelete
It seems as though the Queen celebrated her birthday in either January or February-- I have seen the date in both months. of course, January was before the beginning of Lent. I haven't seen all the newspapers of all the years for February and March but the ones I have seen tell of people holding dinners, and routs and musical evenings and other entertainments-- they didn't report holding balls. However, that didn't mean that none of the gatherings included dancing. They wouldn't necessarily advertise that they were going to dance. The Queen's birthday was usually held around the time Parliament was to resume sitting after Christmas. Unless the men had to take the oath or unless there were urgent matters to deal with, many members didn't bother to come until later. The government officials and law judges were in town or returned from where they had spent Christmas. The big balls were usually held after Easter from what I gather form social notes.ReplyDelete
This is interesting, thank you. I was looking at theatre history online when I came across performance dates for the Adelphi Theatre in London. Their season commenced in October 1815 and continued through to April 1816, which seems to suggest there must have been people in London then to provide them with an audience, or perhaps they played not to the aristocracy in the autumn and winter but mostly to the middle classes or tradespeople.ReplyDelete
There were many who lived in town all year round. Some might go off to visit friends or relatives in August or at Christmas but there were many who were in Town for most of the year.Royals and government officials as well as the regular townspeople and the people of the city. The area was never completely empty of aristocracy or nobles. Even when parliament wasn't in session the cabinet and privy council were conducting business. The courts had a Michaelmas term from October to December The world's largest city was always busy. Though the parliamentary season could go from fall to July, parliament often didn't meet from July to February. The Queen's birthday was often celebrated in February or January and many people returned to town for it. If the man was active in politics he and his wife were often in town during January with Parliament sitting in February. The entertainments slowed down-- even at the theatres-- during Lent but never completely stopped.. Parliament wasn't on a strict schedule. They generally held sessions in the autumn after a general election or when dealing woth a national emergency like a war.ReplyDelete
I find it interesting, how there is much confusion about the use of the term 'Débutante' which was later Anglicised to 'Debutante' and how it would later usurp the terms 'Presentee', 'Elevee' or 'Entrant'. The term 'Débutante' was formally used at the French Royal Court since King Louis XII, although some argue earlier, but by Louis XIII it definitely was part of the French Court vernacular. The awkwardness of its use at the English Court was two fold. One due to Anti-French sentiment, but more importantly the Debuts were not as formalised as they were at the French Court. In most cases, they were essentially private balls or the like hosted by Grand families for members of other Grand Families. This way the breeding and assurance of the country's wealth was kept within the circle of these Grand Families thus maintaining the Status Quo. The term was further tainted due to when women were finally permitted to perform on stage during the late 17th Century on both sides of the English Channel with permission of Louis XIV in France and King Charles II in Britain. The complexity of such relaxation towards women's involvement in public spectacles is layered. For example, the Paris Opera finally allowed women to enter into the profession of dance and opera in 1680; even though French noblewomen along with members of the French Royal Family, been performing in ballets since 1581. However, this was always within the confines of the French Royal Court. This resulted in the term, 'Débutante' being applied to any woman who was being presented to a public audience on stage for the first time thus drawing parallels with those young chaste noblewomen being presented at Court also for the first time. Molière even drew similar parallels between the Diva ad Primum and the Debutante with the added drama of "... lambs to the slaughter". Charming??? However, this did not mean the term was never used in English social circles, be it usually in a mocking way. Some social critics would use it as to infer how young respectable young ladies were expected to 'Perform' at such events. So it was during towards the end of the Regency Era did the term begin to take more 'Respectability' due to what would eventually give rise to the 'Romantic Era'. This had a lot to due with how ballet would give the 19th Century the 'Prima Ballerina' as she embodied 'Perfection' with her ethereal attributes. By which, the 'La Dame Artiste' had become respectable and by Queen Victoria's reckoning with her overhauling the exacting protocols of 'Coming Out' the term would become steadfast. So given its evolution, the term could be used as a double edged sword. This is doubly so as it was often used, and still is, for young men entering the field of battle for the first time or sporting event. This was reflective of the notion of how a boy must leave the comforts of his mother's bosom to leave his childhood behind. So in context of the Regency Era, the term was not to misunderstood, just more obscure and was regarded being that 'French word' as they would had it. Given by what known documentation, although many scholars still debate this, 'Presentee' seems was most common even though it did vary from season to season and by whom. So it appears it was very discretionary. No wonder why Queen Victoria would later put her foot down. How could anyone know what was going on?ReplyDelete