Sunday, December 9, 2018

DAY 44: Presentation at Court

Worth Court presentation gown, probably late 1890s
Not long after her marriage to Lord Randolph Churchill in April, 1874, Jennie Jerome was presented at Court. Queen Victoria's formal public acknowledgment of a young woman was a necessary prerequisite to her acceptance in Society, and Randolph's mother, Fanny, Duchess of Marlborough, would have planned her assault on Buckingham Palace as grimly as any field marshal. Queen Victoria disliked Trans-Atlantic marriages. She was not particularly fond of American women--lacking rank, birth, and precedence, they were so difficult to place on seating charts. In her memoirs, Jennie writes that she was "dreadfully frightened" to meet the Queen; but I suspect that's bunk. Jennie was rarely frightened of anything. But she hated to look like a fool. And when an unschooled American attempts to master British Court etiquette, she invites embarrassment.

Victoria's Court was rigid with ritual. The Court Drawing Rooms, as presentation ceremonies were known, occurred only four times each year--twice before Easter, and twice after. When the dates were published, Buckingham Palace was flooded with requests for ladies' presentation. Approval--and an invitation to attend the Queen's Drawing Room--was granted on three conditions: The lady must be of good moral character; she must be sponsored by a lady already presented at Court; and she must have status
Kissing Victoria's hand. To the Queen's right, the Royal Princesses, Princess Alix, and Bertie. 

Status, of course, was determined by the Palace.

Daughters or spouses of the nobility naturally had status--their titles, even if only courtesy titles like Jennie's, proved it. A titled lady would kiss the Queen's hand, then be raised and kissed by the Queen on her cheek. Untitled women who were accorded the privilege of Presentation were required to kiss the Sovereign's hand, but were not kissed in return.


Edwardian Court Presenation Gown. Note the position
of the three plumes.

Court dress was also fiercely pre-determined, and ladies were informed of the dress code on their invitations to the Drawing Room. A low-cut bodice, short sleeves, a train at least three yards long draped from the shoulders and exactly 54 inches at its furthest end, the gown white if the lady was unmarried, and preferably white even if she was. 

A headdress of white plumes was also required--two plumes if the girl was single, three if she was married, arranged like the plumes on the Prince of Wales's crest, and set on the left side of the head. (Why left? Because the Queen might kiss the lady's right cheek, and might sneeze if grazed by a waving feather.) 





Emily Warren Robling's presentation gown, 1896

If a lady was past her first blush, she was no longer required to bare her arms or decolletage, and her gown could be colored rather than white. The Presentation gown shown here, for example, was worn by Emily Warren Robling--the American who oversaw the successful completion of the Brooklyn Bridge after her engineer husband died. Emily was fifty-six years old when she was presented to Victoria in 1896, and her gold and purple gown reflects her personal sense of status. But Mrs. Robling was a rarity. 

Victoria held her Drawing Rooms at 3 p.m., but a few seconds of individual glory could demand a woman's entire day. In order to arrive in time, ladies lined up in a series of carriages the length of Pall Mall, snarling London traffic abominably. Once admitted to the Palace, they shifted their trains over their left arms, followed a footman through a series of rooms and queues of other girls, ending eventually at the threshold of the Throne Room--at which point the train was dropped, arranged carefully in the lady's wake, and she was announced to the Queen.
Jennie may have attended this particular Drawing Room in 1874

Jennie describes herself approaching Victoria and performing the required deep curtsey, so deep it approximated kneeling. She would already have removed her right glove, and while still in her curtsey, placed her bare hand beneath Victoria's, bending to kiss the back of the sovereign's palm. To Jennie's surprise, however, Victoria then lifted her and kissed her cheek. Jennie claims she was so flustered she kissed Victoria back. 

Apparently Duchess Fanny failed to think of everything. These raw Americans!



For more images from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel.