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What Did It Mean to Be a Member of Victorian Society?

The term Victorian society might be generally applied to any middle class Victorian family that could afford to take part in the expanding social activities of the day. There is another meaning to the term society in Victorian England and that is the term Society (note the capital S) referred to a group of families that were either royalty, titled aristocracy (Dukes, Duchesses, Earl's etc.) or established land owners. Some prominent politicians, wealthy merchants, doctors and other professional people were also included as a part of Society. Although it is not that clear (unless born to) as to how one got into this elite group it is estimated that approximately 10,000 (from around 1,500 families) made up this group in Victorian England.

Being a member of Society brought with it certain responsibilities and a life style that meant you were only seen in the so called right places with the right people. Indeed any humiliating or embarrassing behavior in public would qualify an individual for removal from Society.

People in Victorian Society would take part in activities that made up the Season. The Season, or London Season, referred to a series of social events, parties and activities some of which were public but others, being the most important, were private. Although any individual could attend the public events that made up the Season, i.e. Ascot and Derby horse racing, it was the private events (dance balls, private parties and concerts etc.) that were reserved for Society members.

The expression "coming out" or "coming out into Society" was used to describe a young lady, about 18 years old, who was to take part in her first Season. Prior to the age of 18 a lady was considered a child and would not join in the Season, even if she belonged to Society. The Season, with dozens of dancing events (Balls) and parties provided the main social contact that the young ladies of Society needed to find suitable husbands. In Victorian times marriage was encouraged only between people of the same class (i.e. Upper, Middle and Lower). Marrying "above yourself" was discouraged as these matches seldom worked out and you would be seen as an "upstart". Also to marry someone of a lower class was considered marrying beneath oneself. For the elite, members of Society who were considered the top layer of the Upper class, it was important for both men and women to find suitable matches from within Society.

For young ladies at the highest level of Society there was the opportunity to be "presented at court" as a first step to entering Society (and joining in the Season's activities). Being presented at court literally meant being presented to Queen Victoria. This ceremony only took a few minutes, during which the young lady would kiss the queen's hand, but after this the young lady could attend all the private parties and balls having had the highest blessing that she was indeed a member of Society. Even though the actual presentation, to the queen, took only a few minutes there was weeks of preparation involved. This preparation required a full curtsy to the queen which, when done in the traditional long dress, took some practice. On the day of presentation many young ladies would wait in their carriages at the appointed time, as a procession of debutants (the name for the young lady making her debut into Society) were lined up and presented.

Having entered Society there were many rules (etiquette) as to how ladies and gentlemen behaved during the events of the Season. These rules included:-

A single woman could not address a gentleman without an introduction (from a third party).

A single woman never walked alone (she had to be chaperoned by an older married woman).

A single woman would not call, alone, upon single man at his home.

These rules of etiquette placed very strict standards of behavior on both men and women during the first few years after a lady had entered Society. Following these rules ensured that the gentlemen behaved like gentlemen during the courtship of the debutantes and helped the debutantes find a suitable husband (their main goal in entering Society at 18 years of age).

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