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The Last Dance of the Debutante


The Last Dance of the Debutante

Julia Kelly's novel about the last group of British debutantes presented at Court to Queen Elizabeth II in 1958 is a frothy delight.

Sneaking 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. 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, while the daughter of an impoverished but noble family might simply need a suitor who could provide the funds to keep the family estates going.

Kelly did her homework for THE LAST DANCE OF THE DEBUTANTE. We get the sense that much of what happens in these pages 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 these functions. The rule is that a debutante must be presented at Court by someone who herself was presented at Court. For those without a mother, grandmother or other relative who was a debutante, there is a way around this requirement. They may hire a "professional chaperone paid by families without connections to prepare and present their daughters."

"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, THE LAST DANCE OF THE DEBUTANTE will be savored and enjoyed."

We see the Season through the eyes of Lily Nichols, an intelligent teenager who loves to read and attend school. Her father died when she was an infant, and she lives with her reclusive mother. Her grandmother insists that Lily be a debutante and forces her mother to rejoin society so that she can be there for her 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that her grandmother supports her mother, and if she doesn't do as her grandmother wishes, all such support will be withdrawn.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, whose mental state is not a healthy one, would have to sell their house and find a job. The death of her husband all those years ago has damaged her.

Through Lily's eyes, we meet girls from different backgrounds who demonstrate all types of character. There’s Leana Hartford, the spoiled and often cruel daughter of a wealthy diplomat; Georgie, Lily's cousin and friend; Katherine Norman, nicknamed “the Millionaire Deb,” who is only doing the debutante season because it's very important to her parents (she has a future of her own planned); 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 man to ensure that she fulfills her parents' expectations by getting married appropriately.

THE LAST DANCE OF THE DEBUTANTE is not just about the debutante season. We come to admire Kelly’s protagonist for her ever-growing spine and determination not to do what is most expedient, but rather to act on her moral beliefs and values, even when they are not shared by her mother and grandmother. Over the course of the story, she learns the truth about a family scandal. It's not a huge mystery, and most readers will have guessed (or at least suspected) what it 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 are able 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. James’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 the prejudice and snobbery that has permeated upper class British society.

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, THE LAST DANCE OF THE DEBUTANTE 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 during these turbulent, COVID-filled times.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on January 7, 2022

The Last Dance of the Debutante
by Julia Kelly