Determined Debutantes

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Determined Debutantes

Strong Women in the Age of Courtship

The long storied "debutante season" has been played out in countless movies and TV shows including Downton Abbey, The Buccaneers, and more. While now extinct, the tradition of the "social season" involved a young woman entering society and "coming out" in order to be officially eligible to marry. These historical novels start at the height of the social scene in the late 1800's to its eventual demise after World War II. Each book tells of a different time in English society and is equally peppered with relevant themes of their respective era. Whether it includes wealthy American interlopers, the Suffrage Movement, or even war, each story finds itself embarking on modern times despite the often stifling traditions of the past. In every story, "winning" the best match (wealthy, titled, and handsome) is ideal. Well researched and well written, there’s a story for any historical fiction aficionado.

The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin
Featuring two strong women, The Fortune Hunter tells the story of Sisi, the Empress of Austria and Charlotte, who is heiress to a large fortune. In 1875, class standing and money were more than just status symbols - they governed society. And despite all the wealth and "power" possible, a woman was still only as good as the man she married. The young heiress has a large inheritance and a passion for photography, but without a suitable husband, all of her dreams of traveling the world for photography will be dashed. This is the dilemma Charlotte faces as she is courted by Captain Bay Middletown, a charming upstart in society with no money or prominent family name. It is not until he attracts the interest of the Empress that his social stock seems to rise.  But it is enough for ­­ Charlotte to defy the wishes of her family? And in the end, is love worth losing her freedom? Beautifully described and relevant to the pressures women face today, The Fortune Hunter addresses the challenge of trying to "have it all."

American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
A common story in Victorian society, a handsome Count with vast land and a stately mansion courts a wealthy American heiress for a sole reason: money. At a time in history when even the most respected English gentry have lost the fortunes, the newly wealthy American captains of industry seem to be the unlikely solution. In order to raise their own social standings, these rich American families begin entering their daughters into the annual "season," where young ladies are encouraged to meet their future husbands in a respectable setting. Problems arise when ­Cora, a beautiful and intelligent American girl meets and falls in love with Ivo, a Duke with land and a title but no fortune behind to support it. Despite the love she feels for him and her determination to succeed in English society, Cora does not know if she can make the transition into a world she barely understands. Poignant, and at sometimes heartbreaking, American Heiress depicts the real disappointment one feels when pushed into a large decision for the reasons on paper rather than their true feelings deep down. 

A Mad Wicked Folly Biggs Waller
A departure from the rest of the books on this list, A Mad Wicked Folly is a Young Adult book more influenced by the time it was written in rather than the time in which the story is set. The young debutante in this novel is a rebellious young woman from a newly wealthy family trying to hold on their fragile position in London society. Set in 1909 at the height of the British suffragette movement, Victoria Darling becomes fascinated and later involved in politics despite the wishes of her family. Victoria attempts to participate in the social season and secure a respectable match for a husband while secretly living a double life as an artist and women’s voting rights activist. If you’re looking for a romantic book full of lively characters, then this is the YA book for you. 

The FitzOsbornes in Exile (The Montmaray Diaries, #2) by Michelle Cooper
While The FitzOsbornes in Exile is the second book in the Montmaray Diaries trilogy, it can easily be read out of order. The second book of the series finds the exiled court of the small island nation in England.  Forced from their home after an attack from Nazi forces in the 1930s, the young King and Royal Highnesses find themselves thrust into English society, first as a novelty, and later the talk of the town. Both princesses are forced by their aunt - who married into the aristocracy long ago - to enter the social season and find respectable (and rich) husbands. Instead, the two incredibly brilliant and independent young women focus on freeing their beloved Montmaray from the Nazi occupation. Peppered with cameos from everyone from the King to the Kennedys, this book is as fun and it is engaging. Funny, smart, and incredibly well researched, this novel is as timely today as it is relevant. 

Past Imperfect by Julian Fellows
Straight from the king of English period dramas, Julian Fellows (creator of Downton Abbey), Past Imperfect tells the story of last days of English debutantes. Set in the 1960s, the debutante season has fallen out of fashion and is no longer attended by the royal family. Age-old traditions of English aristocratic society are nearing their end. Stories about the time are told from the present and are narrated by one of the former participants who always felt he had one foot in the society circle and one foot out. This is also the only book in this list from the perspective of a man.  Possibly unreliable, the narrator goes on a quest to track down all of the young women he knew from the debutante season. His memories of past events are not always correct, and the women he once knew correct his misconceptions about themselves and the events they were involved in. Past Imperfect reminds us that you can never really know a person fully, even one you were in love with. And that the promises of the future don’t always live up to our expectations.