Recently, I received this question from an author/reader: Can you tell me if a young lady could have her debut ball at age 17 or 18, instead of the age 16 we customary read in Regency romance? Would a death in the family delay her being presented to society? I am working on a tale where I want my heroine to wait for the hero to return from war before her ball. Naturally, he will be present for her “debut” into society.
First, make certain, you do not refer to the young ladies as “debutants.” This would not be correct during the Regency, and it was not necessary for a ball to be hosted in her honor to be considered “out” in society. Being out or not being out was more nuanced and less dependent on one event to announce the young lady as “accepting the attentions of young gentlemen.” By the time a girl was sixteen, in the country, she would probably be going to dinner with neighbors and eating dinner with the family when there was company at home. She could likely stand up with friends and neighbors at a country assembly. Then she might be taken to London for added lessons in dancing and French. All this was especially true in the country and among the gentry. If you recall, the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourgh is Pride and Prejudice was shocked to learn all the Bennet sisters were out in society at the same time.
“Are any of your younger sisters out, Miss Bennet?”
“Yes, ma’am, all.”
“All! What, all five out at once? Very odd! And you only the second. The younger ones out before the elder ones are married! Your younger sisters must be very young?”
“Yes, my youngest is not sixteen. Perhaps she is full young to be much in company. But really, ma’am, I think it would be very hard upon younger sisters, that they should not have their share of society and amusement, because the elder may not have the means or inclination to marry early. The last-born has as good a right to the pleasures of youth as the first. And to be kept back on such a motive! I think it would not be very likely to promote sisterly affection or delicacy of mind.”
Highest Life in London – Tom & Jerry ‘sporting a toe’ among the Corinthians at Almacks in the West by IR & G Cruikshankin Tom and Jerry: Life in London by P Egan (1869 first pub 1821)
As to the aristocracy and being presented to Queen Charlotte, in the latter years of the 1700s and up to 1811, the queen hosted regular drawing rooms when young ladies were presented to her for approval before making their come out. Even then, some were not presented, if the young woman would not be regularly attending court affairs. Some even waited until after they were married to be presented. If the queen was hosting a drawing room, the girl would be presented, but we must recall, by the Regency era, the drawing rooms hosted by the queen were few and far between, sometimes more than a year apart and very crowded. Moreover, Queen Charlotte passed in 1818, so those of the aristocracy did not depend upon attending a drawing room to announce their daughters as out in society.
Many did not have a ball in the girl’s honor until she announced her engagement.
In truth, before 1800, many thought age 16 was much too young to marry, so most did not make their curtsey to the queen until they were seventeen or eighteen.
Sometimes, a hostess might have a ball to return entertainments, and her daughter would stand in the receiving line with her parents. This might come after she had been attending balls and Almack’s for weeks. At Almack’s, supposedly, the young woman could not waltz until she received the permission of one of the assembly rooms’ patronesses, but such did not prevent the young woman from dancing as a form of entertainment and to take on new acquaintances. In fact, being seen at Almack’s was as better than an “official” announcement of the young lady being out in society. Afterwards dancing together before watchful eyes, the young man might call upon the household during receiving hours “at home.”
A girl was considered out when her parents let it be known she was old enough to be invited to dinner and balls. She would first be presented at dinners in her own house when the family had guests. Families had their own way of doing things, but, basically they let it be known the daughter was old enough to marry. In the 1780’s and 1790’s, sixteen was considered old enough to marry, but by the Regency, it was thought the young lady should be older.
The young woman’s mother would write to friends and relatives saying they were coming to Town for the season in April and their daughter would be accompanying them. When they reached Town, the mother would make calls on friends taking the daughter with her. The invitations would then include the daughter, and she would be out.
Ballroom, Scarborough, from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough by F Wrangham, W Combe and J B PapworthPub Ackermann (1813) from Metropolitan Museum of Art
For your reading pleasure, I have added a couple scenes from A Touch of Scandal (original title, The Scandal of Lady Eleanor) where Lady Eleanor Fowler and her cousin are preparing to make their curtsies to Queen Charlotte. As the daughter of a duke, Lady Eleanor should have made her curtsy years prior, but the late Duke of Thornhill had ignored all but his own pleasures. The first scene is shorter, as Eleanor’s maternal aunt (also a duchess) decides both Eleanor and Velvet should wear black for their presentations and then Queen Charlotte’s reaction. ENJOY!
Because Fowler had an appointment with Shepherd, he had left “his” ladies on Bond Street, ordering ball gowns, morning dresses, day dresses, intimates, hats, gloves, pelisses, ball slippers, half boots, and everything else required for a successful Season. By silent assent the women had decided to begin the Season in colors of half-mourning, not wishing to appear callous over William Fowler’s passing. In reality, they should wear black, but no debutante would appear in black for the Season. Again, under Bran’s orders, they would tell everyone the late duke’s long illness had served as the mourning period.
Fittings for Presentation gowns had taken up much of the morning. Queen Charlotte expected young ladies to take a step back in time: Unfortunately, they stepped back while wearing hooped skirts. “I think this might be the place to show respect for your late father by having the Presentation gown made in black,” Agatha conjectured.
“Black?” Eleanor and Velvet exclaimed in unison.
“Queen Charlotte is a stickler for decorum. Your father passed but three months prior, Eleanor. If he was a simple nobleman, we might consider ignoring the Queen’s edicts without engendering censure; but as a duke is directly below a prince in nomenclature, I would not wish to incite Her Highness. Black should be the color.”
Ella looked at Velvet, attempting to judge her cousin’s thoughts. “We bow to your opinion, Aunt Agatha.”
However, she heard Velvet murmur, “So much for using my Presentation dress for my wedding.”
Their Presentation day had found Eleanor and Velvet bedecked in the black gowns. The duchess had commandeered Lord Worthing’s carriage to complement the one Bran had provided, as the dresses were so elaborate that fitting both in one carriage would be impossible. Queen Charlotte expected the gowns to have old-fashioned hoop skirts and to be worn with a stomacher, lying over the triangular front panel of the stays and held in place by the gown’s lacing. Most of the young unmarried women waiting in the halls for their moment with the Queen wore white, which made Ella even more uneasy, although Velvet, after her initial complaint, had taken it all in stride. Low-cut and with short sleeves, the black silk complemented Velvet’s natural coloring and her coal-black hair, but Ella saw herself as a scorched tea kettle with golden curls. The single towering ostrich feather, pulled downward by the black veil attached with black pearl hairpins, threatened to topple from her thin blond hair.
They waited in their carriages for two hours outside St. James’s Palace before being admitted into the too-warm hallway of St. James’s Gallery, where they waited another hour. As the daughter and sister of a duke, Eleanor would be among the first to be presented. Velvet would wait with the others in order of precedence, as her father, Lord Averette, a viscount, was of middle importance according to such standards.
When the time arrived, Aunt Agatha escorted Ella to the Queen’s receiving room. As the door opened, Eleanor heard her aunt caution, “Breathe, child,” forcing her to suck in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then Ella stepped forward and handed her card to the Lord Chamberlain while a gentleman-in-waiting spread out the ten-foot train, which was attached to her dress, behind her.
“Lady Eleanor Fowler, daughter of William and Amelia Fowler, the Duke and Duchess of Thornhill,” the man’s voice boomed throughout the hall.
Eleanor slowly made her way across the great room, praying with every step she would not trip on her train or finally lose the ornate headdress until she could complete the required curtsy. Before the throne, at last, Ella executed the deep obeisance necessary for the Queen, murmuring “Your Majesty,” as she did so. Then she gave a briefer bow to the remainder of the court before dipping low once more to her monarch. This one she held, waiting for the Queen’s release.
“Your niece, Your Grace?” the Queen asked, although the queen was well aware of Agatha’s relationship to Eleanor.
“Yes, Your Majesty. Lady Eleanor’s mother passed some seven years prior.”
Queen Charlotte motioned to both ladies to stand. “And your father, Lady Eleanor?”
“Passed three months prior, Your Majesty.”
Ella prayed Aunt Agatha had made the correct move by having Ella wear black.
“Ah, we had forgotten. We are pleased you chose to display the proper respect for your family, Lady Eleanor. Not many of the young cling to the old ways.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” A sigh of relief nearly slipped out, but Ella swallowed it.
Queen Charlotte motioned to one of her courtiers, who made notations in a gigantic book he held, before returning her attention to Eleanor. “Your brother has assumed the title?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. His Grace returned from the Continent and entered upon his duties as Thornhill.” Ella began to become nervous all over again. Any conversation with the Queen was unusual. This one of some substance was infinitely unlikely.
“Your brother claimed his place with the King?” Queen Charlotte demanded.
“His Grace has seen to his petition for a writ of summons, Your Majesty.”
“Excellent … excellent, indeed.” Queen Charlotte paused before adding, “And I understand you cared for the late duke during his illness?”
“My father was abed for nearly two years, Your Majesty. I did what I could to ease his suffering.”
“You perform your duties well for one so young, Lady Eleanor. You may tell His Grace we do not believe mourning clothes appropriate for a daughter of England during the Season.”
“Thank you for your gracious condescension, Your Majesty.”
Again, Ella curtsied, aware her time complete. Later, Velvet would be asked to kiss Queen Charlotte’s hand, but as the daughter of a duke, Eleanor received a different acknowledgment: Queen Charlotte kissed Ella’s forehead.
Then, very carefully, Ella rose; another gentleman-in-waiting assisted her to drape the train over her arm, and she backed from the room, constantly aware of the liveried footmen who tactfully guided her steps.