A Study in Silks … and Etiquette

As A Study in Silks begins, Evelina Cooper and her best friend, Imogen, have recently left school and are about to embark on their first Season in high society. It’s 1888 and, while there are more options available to women than before, a young girl of good breeding was still supposed to find a respectable husband and provide an heir. So, between murder, magic, and troublesome automatons, Evelina and Imogen have to deal with suitors. Not that our young ladies are averse to dashing beaux, but it’s a little hard to find the time.

Even without adventures, the nineteenth-century debutante had a lot to cope with. The longed-for moment that marked the change from schoolgirl to young woman came when one was presented to the reigning monarch—in this case, Queen Victoria. This was an elaborate, invitation-only ceremony that usually happened around Easter. The importance of the presentation diminished over the century, but it was meant to be the sign that a young lady was admitted to Society and was fit to wed a gentleman. The current crop of debutantes was sure to receive invitations to balls, parties, and musicales and to be the focus of Society’s attention—and the prettiest (or richest) would be spoken for by the time the fashionable set retired from London for shooting parties in August.

As the Season drew near, the Lord Chamberlain carefully reviewed the list of eligible young women, striking those with any hint of scandal from the list. Once he was done, the queen would go over it again. Once she was satisfied, the invitations went out—but an invite was only the first requirement. A debutante also needed a sponsor, a lady who had herself been presented and could vouch for a young girl’s character. Usually this was a mother or aunt, but it could also be a friend of the family.

But once the sponsor was in place, there was shopping to do—not just for party clothes, but for the ceremony itself. The Lord Chamberlain issued a list of requirements for the proper attire, down to the dimensions of the dress’s train.  The gown had to have a low neck, little to no sleeves, and should be white for unmarried girls. The regulation headdress was three white feathers—which were apparently difficult to keep in place. The presentee was required to curtsey just so and kiss the queen’s hand, then back away without tripping on her train. I’ve often wondered how many had nightmares about falling on their bustles in front of the entire royal court!

Needless to say, there was an industry dedicated to coaching young women through the ordeal. Fortunately for our heroines, their finishing school (zombies aside) would have covered the proper etiquette in their lessons.

But for Evelina the glitter and fluff of the Season only lasts so long, and then murder interferes. As A Study in Silks unfolds, the lure of a springtime of dancing and parties fades as her eyes are opened to threatening new prospects. The Baskerville Affair trilogy is a steampunk fantasy, in which fantastic inventions, sorcery, and romance all play their part. Evelina’s uncle, Sherlock Holmes, has his role as well—but not even he can protect her from the discoveries she needs to make before the game is done.

 

(originally published at Melissa’s Mochas and More)

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