Since this is Downton homage week, this seemed like a good time to give you a little snippet of the postwar portion of The Ashford Affair.
It’s the social Season of 1919, crepe paper instead of flowers in the ballrooms and a marked lack of able-bodied escorts. The world has changed… but not everyone has acknowledged that yet.
The portion below is told from the viewpoint of the Debutante of the Decade, Addie’s charismatic cousin Bea, middle daughter of an earl and acknowledged beauty. Bea is the undisputed success of the Season, but she can’t help feeling like something is missing….
Her mother caught her as she was making her way to the powder room.
Bea telegraphed her excuses to Camilla and Mary with a smile and a roll of the eyes. “Yes, Mother?”
Her mother motioned her off to the side of the room. Her stiff social smile was firmly in place, nearly as stiff as her posture, but her voice indicated that she was Not Amused. “Did you just refuse Rivesdale a dance?”
Bea had and quite deliberately, too, but she didn’t think her mother would appreciate the finer points of her grand strategy of flirtation. “Topper Bingham trod on my train. I need to pin it up.”
Her mother was not appeased. “You don’t want to go putting Rivesdale off,” she warned. She looked around the ballroom, dismissing the progeny of her peers with one, damning sniff. “You’re not going to do better.”
Ah, those loving, maternal words that warmed the cockles of one’s heart. Bea stretched luxuriously, chest forward, shoulders back. “Maybe I can do worse.”
“Beatrice,” said her mother sharply.
“Yes, Mother.” It was easier to humor her mother than to fight with her. God, she was gagging for a gasper, but her mother didn’t approve of smoking; she’d be horrified if she knew Bea did.
But, then, Mother was horrified right and left these days, ever since the War had turned the world topsy turvy, decimating an entire generation of eligible gentlemen, loosening the old codes and rules. For other people, that was. Mother had staunchly refused to bend. Corseted like Queen Mary, she made the round of the same drawing rooms in the same houses, turning a blind eye on the missing faces, the bright lipstick, the new music. If she didn’t choose to acknowledge it, it wasn’t there. The new fashions hadn’t touched her. Jazz was “that caterwauling”, nightclubs someplace other peoples’ wayward children went.
She wouldn’t hear of Bea taking any part in the war effort; that was for other peoples’ daughters, people whose lineage was lesser, who marital prospects were scarcer. She had received the news that the Duchess of Rutland’s daughter had been allowed to train as a nurse with horror and indignation. Consort with the wrong sort of people—handle strange men—expose oneself to infection—most certainly not!
Addie had gone instead. Addie was expendable. Her mother hadn’t said so in so many words, but Bea knew that was what was meant. It didn’t matter if Addie picked up coarse expressions from the troops or came down with Spanish flu; she wasn’t expected to uphold the family honor by making a grand marital alliance. Dodo had mucked in, too, poulticing wounded soldiers as though they were sick horses, clicking and clucking over them, tireless and cheerful. Dodo had been more popular in the sickroom than she had ever been in the ballroom; she had received a number of proposals. Most were unsuitable. Some, surprisingly, were not.
Who would have thought that Dodo could land the son of an earl? An Irish earl, but still an earl. He had been a younger son when Dodo snagged him, but a well-placed shell had fixed that. Dodo was now the future Lady Kilkenny. Bryan was shorter than Dodo and short an arm, but he had the best stables in Ireland. He and Dodo spoke an incomprehensible argot of hocks and withers. They had settled at Melton, setting a fashion for being fashionable by being unfashionable.
Meanwhile, Bea had fidgeted and fumed back at Ashford. Always Ashford. Someone was needed to keep an eye on the home farm, her mother had said. Her father had greater matters on his mind and heaven only knew what those land girls might get up to.
Bea knew that was rot. Her mother’s instructions contained an endless list of don’ts. Don’t spend too much time in the sun; don’t get brown; don’t ruin your hands. She wasn’t contributing to the war effort, she was being rolled up in cotton wool, stored away to be taken out after the way, like a precious china figurine or a very old bottle of port, too valuable to be jostled.
This. Bea regarded the ballroom with a decided sense of ennui. They were halfway through the Season and Bea felt as though she had been to the same dance again and again and again; the same people, the same clothes, the same music, the same tired streamers, the same gilt chairs tenanted by the same drowsing dowagers.
This was what they had been saving her for. This is what she had been waiting for all those long years, all those endless hours in the nursery at Ashford. This was supposed to be life! Romance! Adventure! And what did she get? Tepid ices from Gunter’s, girls in droopy pastel dresses, and a ballroom full of graying men her father’s age and boys just out of the schoolroom, pulled in to make up the numbers. The band plunked dispiritedly at a waltz. Even though it had been eight months since the Armistice, London still hadn’t quite recovered from the exigencies of the war. Paper streamers and some dispirited vines hung limply in the place of the flowers that had once filled the ballrooms. The hothouses and flower gardens of five years ago had been plowed up for vegetables, while would-be debutantes wilted on the vine, aged past their prime as the war raged on.
Out there, Bea knew, beyond these ice blue walls, there was music and dancing, real dancing. The few able-bodied men in the room, meekly fetching lemonade, being polite to the dowagers, would bolt before the evening was over, seeking out their real entertainment in smoky clubs in the remote hinterlands of the city where there were no chaperones to monitor them, no endless rules and restrictions.
God, she was bored. Damnably, painfully, unutterably bored.
But it didn’t do to show it. The trick, she had learned, was to always look as though one were having the best of all possible times, as though one were reveling in a delight secret that one just might, with the correct inducements, be willing to share.
Only three more months until The Ashford Affair!