Lily felt the top book in the stack she carried slip slightly and hitched her arm to brace it so that it didn’t fall to the pavement. It was misting rain as it always did when the crispness of autumn gave way to London’s winter chill. She glanced down at the books. They should be in her worn leather satchel, but the copies of The Way We Live Now and Hard Times already stuffed in there next to her composition books made it too full.
A woman in a neat canary-yellow suit with her hair tied up in a scarf of blues and creams that gave the telltale shimmer of silk hurried by Lily. Across the road, a nanny stopped to fuss at her young charge, urging him to put his hat back on so he didn’t catch a chill.
This was not a neighborhood of housewives making dinner for hardworking husbands or young bohemians who considered the late afternoon a perfectly suitable time for breakfast. Belgravia was a quiet sanctuary for the elite who, at this time of day, would be taking tea in china cups as they considered whatever entertainment of dinners, dancing, or theater their evenings would entail.
Lily turned off Pont Street and onto Cadogan Place, its row of white houses decorated with columns and balconies like an iced cake facing the gated oasis that was Cadogan Place Park. Halfway down the road, she stopped, tugged at the hem of her navy school jacket, and smoothed a hand over her light blond curls. It was silly to check. She’d combed them in the ladies’ room of Mrs. Wodely’s School for Girls before taking the bus to Hyde Park Corner, and they’d been perfect because she’d set them in pin curls only yesterday night before bed, taking care when brushing them out that morning. However, she knew not to leave perfection to chance when it came to Tuesday tea with Grandmama.
Lily rolled her shoulder back, lifted her chin, and twisted the large brass key of her grandmother’s old-fashioned doorbell.
One… two… three… four… five…
The heavy black door creaked open, revealing Grandmama’s tidy, wiry housekeeper, just as always.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Parker,” Lily said as the housekeeper stepped back to let her into the hall.
“Madam is in the drawing room,” said Mrs. Parker, no expression crossing her always-composed features.
Lily placed her spare books on the entryway’s wide circular table that bore a crystal vase filled with flowers and handed her satchel to Mrs. Parker, impressed when the older woman did not flinch at the weight of the bag.
With one hand on the polished banister, Lily tried her best to float up the stairs as Grandmama had instructed her so many times before.
“A lady does not move with effort, Lillian,” Grandmama had said, watching her from a chair Mrs. Parker had brought to the base of the stairs just for the occasion.
Lily could still remember the frustration rising in her like water trapped behind a dam as she “floated” again and again up and down the stairs. Finally, Grandmama had said, “That will have to be good enough, I suppose,” letting Lily know that it would never be enough.
At the top of the stairs, Lily turned to her right, knocking softly on the drawing room door and waiting.
“Enter,” came Grandmama’s rich, measured voice.
Lily twisted the brass handle to push open the heavy door and—
Everything in the room was as it should be. Grandmama’s pure white hair was swept into the prim chignon she always wore, and there wasn’t a crease on her emerald dress with its long, slim sleeves that tapered to her wrists. As always, a silver tea tray sat next to Grandmama, the china cups painted with pale pink roses accented with turquoise ribbons and gold scalloped rims at the ready. But instead of just one seat angled to face Grandmama, there were two.
“Mummy?” Lily asked. It was Tuesday tea, not Friday dinner. Mummy never accompanied her to tea.
Mummy offered a weak smile, but Lily could see the way her hands shook in her lap.
“Good afternoon, Lillian. Your mother will be joining us today,” said Grandmama. “Please sit down.”
With careful steps, Lily crossed the room to her chair and lowered herself into it as she’d been taught. Ankles crossed and to the side. Back straight. Hands resting in her lap. After a full day at school, it took every inch of discipline not to slouch with exhaustion.
“Your mother is here because something has happened,” said Grandmama as she placed the silver strainer on top of one of the china cups and poured the first cup of tea.
“Has something happened to Joanna?” Lily asked before she could stop herself.
Mummy stiffened, and the faint lines on Grandmama’s forehead deepened.
“We do not speak of that woman in this house,” Grandmama reminded her.
Mummy’s hands twisted over and over themselves, and guilt flushed Lily’s cheeks. She knew better than to ask about her older sister.
“I’m sorry,” she said, directing the words mostly to Mummy. “Please tell me what’s happened.”
“Show her, Josephine,” said Grandmama, giving her daughter-in-law a crisp nod.
Mummy reached for her handbag that sat on the table next to her chair and pulled out an ivory envelope. She moved to open it, but Grandmama said, “Let Lillian read it herself.”
Lily took the envelope from Mummy and read the direction.
Mrs. Michael Nicholls
17 Harley Gardens
She slid her fingers through the slit made by Mummy’s letter opener and pulled the card out.
Her eyes went wide.
“Read it aloud,” said Grandmama, satisfaction playing at the corner of her lips.
She swallowed and began to read, “?‘The Lord Chamberlain is commanded by Her Majesty to summon Mrs. Michael Nicholls and Miss Lillian Nicholls to an Afternoon Presentation Party at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday, the 19th of March, from 3:30 to 5:30 o’clock p.m.’?”
Mummy leaned forward in her seat. “You’re going to be presented at court, Lily.”
The breath left Lily’s lungs in a great whoosh. “Presented?”
“Just as your mother and I were presented, as were all of the women on your father’s side of the family,” said Grandmama.
“Your aunt Angelica, too,” said Mummy, her smile quivering with unshed tears.
“You’re going to be a debutante, Lillian,” said Grandmama. “One of the last.”
“The Queen has decided that 1958 will be the final year of the court presentations,” Mummy explained.
“A tradition of centuries, gone,” said Grandmama, her tone arch. It was the closest to disapproval that Lily had ever heard her when speaking of the Queen.
Lily shook her head. “I remember that the final presentations are next year. It’s all some of the girls at school talk about. But me? A debutante?”
“It’s part of your lineage. This is what Nicholls women do,” said Grandmama.
“And Bute women,” Mummy reminded her mother-in-law. “Angelica telephoned to say that Georgina received her invitation today as well. You’ll both be presented, and you’ll both do the Season.”
At least her cousin would be by her side, but still she hesitated. She hadn’t expected to become a debutante, because everything from the court presentation party to the Season required the support of a willing family.
“Who will present me?” she asked.
Mummy swallowed, but straightened a fraction of an inch, the black silk of her best day dress rustling softly. “I will. You’re my daughter. It’s only right that I should.”
A girl could be presented to the Queen only by a woman who had herself been presented, but Lily couldn’t imagine Mummy standing in the queue outside the palace with all of the other mothers and debutantes. Not when the circle of people Mummy willingly associated with was so small.
“Your mother agrees that it is time she reenters society,” said Grandmama, seeming to read Lily’s mind. “It has been long enough since Michael died.”
Mummy’s hands went white at the knuckles at the mention of Lily’s late father. It had been eighteen years since Mummy had retreated to this half-reclusive life. Since she’d last worn color outside of her bedroom. Lily had never known her mother to be anything except what she was now.
“She lost her bloom when she came back from America and Michael wasn’t there to greet her at the port. I know it was her greatest regret that she wasn’t there when he died,” Aunt Angelica had once said before hurriedly adding, “Of course, none of that is your fault, dear. Or your sister’s for that matter. Who could have known that when Joanna fell ill, Michael would, too?”
But Lily could still remember the sinking sensation that had tugged at her when she realized that it might have been Joanna’s illness that had called Mummy to America, but it was the newborn Lily who had been the anchor that had kept her there.
“Your mother will accompany you through the Season, and I, of course, will guide you and lend my support at a few of the more important parties,” said Grandmama, pulling Lily back to the drawing room, the tea, the invitation. “Do you have any questions?”
Lily looked between Grandmama and Mummy. “Do I have to be a debutante?”
Grandmama’s cup rattled against its saucer. “Have to be? Do you know how many thousands of girls applied to the palace for an invitation? I wrote to the lord chamberlain myself to secure you a position.”
“I’m sure Lily didn’t mean to sound ungrateful,” said Mummy, shooting Lily a worried look.
Grandmama fixed Lily with a hard stare. “I should hope not, especially when I am underwriting the cost of your Season.”
Dread rose in Lily’s throat.
Not another allowance.
She knew she should be grateful to Grandmama because, without her, she and Mummy wouldn’t have the house on Harley Gardens, and Lily wouldn’t be able to afford to attend Mrs. Wodely’s. There would be no money for shoes and handbags—even if their housekeeper, Hannah, had taught her long ago how to cut a pattern and thread a sewing machine.
Lily could still remember a time before Grandmama had swept into their lives like a savior. Mummy had tried hard to hide it, but even at twelve Lily had known that her mother was desperate. So one Saturday afternoon, Mummy had put on her best dress and left Lily with Hannah, only to return some hours later. Mummy had called her into their little-used sitting room and told her that she would be going to a new school—one her Grandmama had selected.
Soon there was more money for little things like new hats and gloves for all seasons, and Hannah lit the coal fires in both the morning room and the sitting room morning and night—an extravagance that never would have been tolerated before. Yet there were other changes, too. Every Tuesday after school Lily would go to Grandmama’s house for tea, and every Friday Mummy would join them afterward for dinner. Mummy had tried to make it sound fun—like an adventure—but Lily had heard the strain in her voice and knew. None of this generosity came without a cost.
“My apologies. I’m very grateful that I will have a Season, Grandmama,” she murmured.
“Good. Josephine, the first thing you must do tomorrow is book an appointment at Worth for Lily’s coming-out gown. She’s tall, but I’m sure they can make up something flattering to cope with that,” instructed Grandmama.
Mummy nodded, even as Lily’s lips parted at the thought of the expense of a dress from the legendary fashion house.
“Surely I can make my own,” she said.
“Make your own dresses for your debut? Who ever heard of such a thing,” Grandmama scoffed. “We shall also have to consider your outfit for your presentation, Lillian. It’s such a shame that trains and feathers are no longer worn at court. Day dresses and hats seem so shabby in comparison.
“And then there is your dress for Queen Charlotte’s Ball. That will have to be white, of course. And you’ll need at least three other gowns and a handful of cocktail dresses. Oh, it will be such a bother.”
Lily’s head began to spin.
“I thought that we could have Mrs. Mincel run up some of the simpler dresses,” said Mummy, naming her own dressmaker. “And then there’s Harrods.”
Grandmama pursed her lips, no doubt thinking of grander times when she had come out. A deb would never have dreamed of showing up to a ball in a dress from a department store, even if it was one as distinguished as Harrods.
“Angelica says that all of the debs are going to Harrods these days,” said Mummy.
Grandmama inclined her chin, silently conceding on this one point.
“We’ll have to do something about your hair, Lillian,” said Grandmama.
“I can take her to Mr. Antoine,” said Mummy.
Lily touched her shoulder-length hair, horrified at the thought of trusting it to her mother’s hairdresser, who seemed to specialize in the tight clouds of curls that graced the heads of so many of her schoolmates’ mothers.
“She will go to Mr. Gerard. He has an uncommon eye for elegance, and I have been with him for years,” said Grandmama, her tone conveying exactly what she thought of Mr. Antoine’s work.
“For Lily’s coming-out do, I was thinking a cocktail party hosted with Georgina. It can be done for two hundred pounds,” said Mummy.
“She should have a ball,” said Grandmama.
“Oh, no,” said Lily quickly, drawing both generations of women’s attention. “That is, I’d much rather have a cocktail party with Georgie. I don’t know many girls outside of my school friends.”
Grandmama’s expression softened at her distress. “If that is what you wish, a cocktail party at an appropriate location would suit. The Dorchester or the Hyde Park Hotel, perhaps. And I have no objections to you joining with your cousin, Lillian. Georgina is a good girl.”
At least that would be a relief. The thought of an entire party dedicated just to her seemed a daunting novelty. Some girls might enjoy the attention, but Lily had never had so much as a birthday party.
“These next few months will be critical, and we will all need to do our part. I shall begin to write to my friends and secure what invitations I can. While Lily is in Paris, Josephine, you will need to attend the mums’ luncheons to do the same.”
How could her reclusive mother be expected to launch herself back into society? And then—
“Paris?” she asked, the city just registering.
Grandmama tilted her head slightly. “Yes. Paris. You’ll need to be finished.”
“But I’ll be in school,” she said.
“I think we can agree that Mrs. Wodely’s establishment has served its purpose,” said Grandmama.
“What more can they really teach you, Lily?” Mummy asked, her voice softly imploring her not to disrupt the delicate balance of Grandmama’s favor.
“But the school year isn’t over yet,” she protested weakly.
“Be serious, Lillian. This”—Grandmama gestured at the invitation Lily had placed on the table—“is what is important. You’re rather unpolished, and you cannot possibly navigate the Season without attending finishing school.”
Lily pressed a hand to her chest, trying to slow her rapidly beating heart. It felt important to finish the year. To say that she’d stuck with it through the end. That she’d done something completely on her own.
“You must have a successful presentation and Season, and the only way to do that is to prepare,” said Grandmama.
“I thought the lessons that you gave me every Tuesday had done that,” said Lily.
“Your manners are passable, but that is not good enough. They must be immaculate. A finishing school and lessons would be necessary for any girl, but for you even more so. You have the misfortune of family working against you.”
Her family. Her mother, plunged into the depths of mourning so deep that she hadn’t emerged in eighteen years. Her estranged sister, a wild girl sent off to America only to return to Britain after the war and leave her family behind without a word.
“You must be perfect this Season,” said Grandmama. “You have one chance to show them that you are not your sister. One chance to charm the right sort of man, or you will be left with so few options for a husband.”
“A husband?” she whispered, suddenly feeling a strange new sympathy for every heroine of every nineteenth-century novel she’d ever read.
“Or a nice boyfriend. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Mummy offered her a little smile.
“This is what women of our class do, Lillian. This next year will determine the rest of your life,” said Grandmama.
Lily bit her lip and nodded. In the space of an afternoon her world had changed completely. She let Grandmama speak about dancing and curtsy lessons with Madame Vacani, finishing school in Paris, debutante teas, when to meet the other girls she would come out with. There would be fittings and photography appointments—nothing too vulgar, of course, just a few shots that could go in The Sketch in March when all of the debutantes vied to have their photographs featured to help encourage the first flush of invitations to cocktail parties and balls.
By the time Grandmama dismissed Mummy and her, Lily could hardly think straight for all of the instructions.
Since she was with Mummy, Mrs. Parker had secured them a taxi to take them home to Chelsea rather than Lily’s usual bus. They were just rounding Sloane Square when Mummy reached over and took Lily’s hand, the softness of her leather gloves comforting against Lily’s skin.
“I know that being a debutante must seem overwhelming,” said Mummy, “but you will do this, won’t you? It would make me so happy.”
If Lily had had any doubts that the next year as a debutante was set for her, that one sentence banished them to the back of her mind. She couldn’t say no to Mummy. Not when it had been only the two of them for so long. Not when, for the first time in years, Mummy seemed determined to venture outside of the boundaries of their house.
“What shall we do first?” Lily asked.