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November 1, 2006updated 10 Jan 2016 3:08pm

Last Curtsey: The End Of The Debutantes

By Spear's

Last Curtsey: The End Of The Debutantes
Fiona McCarthey
Faber and Faber

‘Women: know your limits’ was Harry Enfield’s marvellous spoof 1950s public information film in his 1990s TV series. It told women how to behave: a 1950s upper middle-class dinner party, rendered in crackly black and white, has four couples in evening clothes sat round a mahogany table, the men bantering with each other, the women smiling sweetly.

Then the big question comes up: should we keep the gold standard? The men seem to have settled the matter between themselves but ‘one of the women is about to embarrass us all’, says the voice-over. One breaks rank and starts taking about the impact on the price of British exports. The men are disgusted, the other women hang their heads in shame. ‘The lady has attempted to join the conversation with a wild and dangerous idea of her own.’ In the re-run we see how to do it properly: ‘I don’t know anything about the gold standard but I do love kittens.’

Fiona McCarthy’s Last Curtsey, a personal account of the post-World War II tail-end of the deb’ (debutante) world suggests Enfield got it about right. ‘How was it,’ McCarthy asks herself, that ‘a girl so hyper-educated as me got through a London Season so uncritically? Why was I not driven mad by its vacuity?’ The answer was ‘sheer tiredness’ and ‘the sudden discovery of sex’. 

But McCarthy has certainly redeemed herself now: she’s almost a certified bluestocking. After coming out in 1958 – the last real deb’ year, the last time girls actually curtseyed to the Queen rather than a giant cake in a Park Lane hotel – she studied English at Oxford, and went on to join that hotbed of wild and dangerous ideas, The Guardian, as a kind of Swinging Sixties correspondent, interviewing difficult metropolitan artistic types who would never have been welcome at those 1950s dinner tables.

By the 1980s she had become a prize-winning biographer. But not of Queen Charlotte (originator of the deb’ ceremony) or Lords Napier or Stubbs, class-correct Sloane subjects with nice pictures attached, but Eric Gill, about as unpleasant and difficult and un-Sloane as you could get, then William Morris, an arty class traitor-socialist, and Byron, more difficult stuff (incest, buggery and poetry) – all outsiders.

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