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The Last Curtsey: The End of the Debutantes by Fiona McMarthy

The Last Curtsey: The End of the
Debutantes by Fiona

Young daughters of nobles and aristocrats of the years gone by consider it a rite of passage to curtsey to the queen. However, the decline of the British Empire also meant that it has to end. 1958 was the last year when debutantes where presented at the Royal Court. Under pressure to shine, not least from their mothers, the girls became the focus for newspaper diarists and society photographers in a party season that stretched for months among the great houses of England, Ireland and Scotland.

In her book, Last Curtsey: The End of the DebutantesFiona MacCarthy looks back to the stories of girls who curtseyed that year; and showed how their lives were to open out often in much unexpected ways. MacCarthy was initially hesitant about writing about her debutante years, especially in the 1960s when she was a journalist for the Guardian. She revealed that “the debutante season was my taboo subject, an unmentionably embarrassing secret history.” She thought no one would take her seriously “once they knew I had been amongst the final group of debutantes to curtsey to the Queen.”

MacCarthy’s book was a “defence of debutantes against the cartoon image of the vacuous and flighty society.” But what has motivated MacCarthy the most to write about her experience was the fact that she was “a witness to a scene so far removed from present-day experiences, so strange and so arcane, that it is worth recording.” The book also highlights MacCarthy’s interviews with some of the last-surviving debutantes who referred to the event as “elaborate social rituals that lingered through the post-war years and the underlying concepts of elegance, good manners, belief of protocol, love and respect for the monarchy, deference towards your betters, courage, kindness and idealism, qualities which before long appeared impossibly old-fashioned.”

MacCarthy’s book was praised by Independent’s Matthew Reisz because it “brilliantly combines memoir and sociological analysis,” while Francesca Segal of Financial Times described the book as “an elegant portrait of a bygone era…. a seductive mixture of ancient courtship rituals and impossible glamour, ostrich feathers and family tiaras.”

Daily Telegraph writer Frances Wilson quips: “MacCarthy remembers these parties in toe-curling detail, but she also remembers the houses in which they took place, and one of the many fascinating aspects of this thoroughly absorbing book is the way in which she positions each party, in all its social inanity, with a broader, grander history of the house and its previous inhabitants.”

Grab a copy of Last Curtsey: The End of the Debutantes. Now available on Amazon. 


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