Readers of Regency romances can tell you that to “go to town for the season” means that the person in question will be spending the official social season in London. For as anybody who is anybody knows, London is the only town worth mentioning, and the social season is the only season that matters. It was the playground of the ton – high society, the rich and wellborn – where they gathered to party and parade themselves in all their finery, and to find eligible marriage partners.
You would be hard pressed to learn any of this from Jane Austen, though. Jane Austen is known for never writing the sort of scenes about which she could have had no personal knowledge (interactions between men when no ladies are present, most notably), so this must be at least part of the explanation for why none of her heroines gets a London season; Jane Austen never had one herself. The Austens simply would not have had the money and connections to make such an endeavor viable.
The closest thing I could find in Austen canon is in Northanger Abbey, where “the season” is mentioned more than once, but “the town” is Bath.
Mrs. Allen was so long in dressing that they did not enter the ballroom till late. The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. (chapter 2)
As soon as divine service was over, the Thorpes and Allens eagerly joined each other; and after staying long enough in the pump-room to discover that the crowd was insupportable, and that there was not a genteel face to be seen, which everybody discovers every Sunday throughout the season, they hastened away to the Crescent… (chapter 5)
The same elements are involved – showing off your fine wardrobe, balls and other social events every night, hoping to see and be seen to advantage, the chance of meeting a mate – only on a less grand scale. The other difference is that the Bath season was something Jane Austen had experienced to some extent, having lived there for a time.
So when, for my current work-in-progress, I decided to send Mr. Knightley to London for “a season,” I had to look beyond my usual primary source: Jane Austen canon. I was especially concerned that I get the timing right, that I didn’t make the unforgivable blunder of sending him the wrong month of year. So when exactly was the London social season?
I remembered running into the same question when writing an earlier book and never feeling very confident, since different sources told me different things. Here’s part of the answer:
The London season developed to coincide with the sitting of parliament. During the months when parliament was in session, members of both Houses needed to be in attendance in London and came to the capital bringing their families with them. The London season grew up in response to this influx of upper class people who needed to be entertained.Rachel Knowles, Regency History
So, yes, the season happened when Parliament was in session. That much I knew, but exactly when was Parliament in session!?! That was the real question and the one for which I had received conflicting answers in the past.
The reason I kept getting mixed messages is that, as explained in this same article, the dates were different in different years. While in the 18th century, Parliament ran from November through May, the beginning of the session was gradually postponed. By the Regency period – the period in which Jane Austen lived and set her novels – Parliament (and hence the season itself) ran more like February through July. Aha! at last the answer I needed.
So I’m sending a 24-year-old Mr. Knightley to London just after Easter to partake of a portion of the season. He’s not happy about it, by the way. Here’s what he has to say after agreeing to go (from Mr. Knightley in His Own Words):
Afterward, I puzzled over exactly how it had happened. I reviewed the conversation again and again to see where it had all gone wrong. In the end, I was left with the distinct impression that I had been somehow outmaneuvered, that Mrs. Woodhouse had cleverly tricked me into agreeing to her outrageous plan.
So you see, I am not to blame; it was all Mrs. Woodhouse’s idea! (Mrs. Woodhouse is a delightful creature, btw, and I’m having so much fun writing her part! I hate to think that she won’t be will us much longer, but alas, that’s the way it has to be.)
So how do you think Mr. Knightley will fare in London? Will he fit in with the privileged class enjoying their privileges? Will he find young love and romance? Will he get over his disinclination for dancing (or is this when it developed in the first place)? I’d love to know what you think!
Progress Report on Mr. Knightley in His Own Words: 37,000 words, 126 page, 18 chapters. To read excerpts, go to previous posts (here and here) and this post at Austen Variations.
Interesting. I look forward to reading this newest story from you.
I’m very glad to hear it, Sheila!