“The Last Dance of the Debutante,” Julia Kelly’s historical fiction about the last group of British debutantes who got presented at Court to the Queen in 1958 is, as might be said about many of the debutantes, a frothy delight. Getting to sneak vicariously into debutante parties and reading about the effort and expense that went into a debutante’s season in 1950s England is fascinating, and Kelly provides us with the inside story. It was a time when, at least for upper class women, their goal as debutantes was to meet other debutantes and expand their social circle, all in the pursuit of one overarching aim: to find a husband who would increase their social value. So the daughters of the extremely well-connected and wealthy might demand a suitor with a title or prospective title, and the daughter of an impoverished but noble family might simply need a suitor who could provide the funds to keep the family estates going. Each debutante had slightly different goals, but almost all were in pursuit of a husband.
Kelly did her homework for this historical fiction, and we get the sense that much of what happens in the pages of this book is accurate in terms of the kinds of parties that were thrown, what went on at the luncheons and balls, where the girls went for their dresses, and even what was served at the parties. We also see the different kinds of girls who participated in the season, from the daughters of titled families to the fictional deb in the story nicknamed “The Millionaire Deb” because of her wealthy (but from humble beginnings) newspaper-magnate father. The rule is that a debutante must be presented at Court by someone who was, herself, presented at Court. For those without a mother, grandmother, or other relative who was herself a debutante, there is a way around that requirement. They may hire a “professional chaperone paid by families without connections to prepare and present their daughters.” While the main character does indeed possess a mother and grandmother who were presented at Court, others in the story do not.
We see the season through the eyes of Lily Nicholls, an intelligent teenager who loves to read and attend school. Her father had died when she was an infant, and she lives with her reclusive mother. Her grandmother insists that she be a debutante and forces her mother to rejoin society so that she can be there for Lily’s parties and attend the events with her. Lily doesn’t really want to leave school prematurely, but she realizes that her grandmother supports her mother, and if she doesn’t do as her grandmother wishes, all such support will be withdrawn. Her mother would have to sell their house and find a job, and her mother’s mental state is not a healthy one. The death of her husband all those years before has damaged her.
Through Lily’s eyes we meet girls from all types of backgrounds who demonstrate all types of character. There is Leana, the spoiled and often cruel daughter of a wealthy diplomat; Georgie, Lily’s cousin and friend; Katherine, the aforementioned “Millionaire Deb” who is only doing the debutante season because it’s very important to her parents — she has a future planned of her own; and a few other girls who become good friends. We learn about the “deb’s delight,” the young men who squire the debutantes around and attend to them by bringing them drinks, fetching their wraps, and dancing with them. It’s the deb’s job to find the right young man to ensure that she fulfills her parents’ expectations by getting married appropriately.
The novel is not just about the debutante season, as Kelly provides a main character whom we come to admire for her ever-growing spine and her determination to not do what is most expedient, but rather to act on her moral beliefs and values, even when those beliefs are not shared by her mother and grandmother. Over the course of the story, Lily learns the truth about a family scandal. It’s not a huge mystery, and most readers will have guessed, or at least suspected, what that truth is early in the book, but it does make Lily rethink her life and her goals.
The novel is a delight to read as we are immersed in the action through well-written dialogue, character development, and just the right amount of description. We enjoy the descriptions as those are what enable us to “see” the details, the names of the clubs, the magazines, and even the fabric of the dresses that the debutantes wear. It’s thrilling to read about a party at the “Royal Automobile Club’s St. Jame’s Room” and know that such a place actually existed. There are plush red velvet booths at restaurants, velvet sofas in houses, high heels and tulle dresses, flasks of alcohol and debutantes who drink too much. We see the highs and the lows of the season, and we see revealed the prejudice and snobbery that has permeated upper class British society historically and to the present.
Like the frills on the debutante dresses or the frosting on the tiered cake carefully prepared by bakers to be cut with a sword at Queen Charlotte’s Ball, this novel will be savored and enjoyed. Its January release means that it’s also a novel that can give us pause in this new year to consider what is important to us in these turbulent, COVID-filled times.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.