For well over four decades, Fiona MacCarthy's brief season as a debutante remained "one of those jumbled, intermittently beautiful and slightly shaming dreams". If it figured in her life at all, it was as something she had reacted against. Yet in writing off her fellow ex-debs as merely snobby and frivolous, she was not only excising a part of her own past but a fascinating slice of English social history. It is this that she has set out to resurrect, in all its absurdity and poignancy, in Last Curtsey (Faber, £20).
MacCarthy grew up in a fairly sheltered, all-female household with her mother and sister - her father was killed in the North African desert in 1943 - where they were "always off to dancing classes". She attended a girls' boarding school and, following her "season" as a debutante, a women's college at Oxford. Yet it was biographies of three powerfully radical men - Eric Gill ("the Roman Catholic patriarch and sculptor, whose back-to-the-land communities purported to be cells of good living"), William Morris and Lord Byron - that have brought her great acclaim.
In the last of these, Byron: Life and Legend, she notes how the picture of Byron as heroic freedom fighter and lady-killer has been kept alive by "literary wishful thinkers, male biographers who portrayed their subject according to the image they wished to appropriate for themselves". Her own tone is notably cool and unshockable, sympathetically amused but seldom impressed or outraged by the bad behaviour or sheer sexual appetite of Byron and Gill. (Others were a good deal more upset by her frankness in discussing Byron's homosexual side and Gill's incestuous relations with his sisters and daughters.) Along with her tireless research, it is this that makes her accounts of some very well-trodden lives - Byron had 400 previous biographers - so contemporary and compelling.
All these books explore worlds very different from the demure dances at the Dorchester that MacCarthy attended in her youth. She "came out" and was presented to the Queen in 1958, one of the last batch of 1,400 debutantes. Shortly after graduating from Oxford three years later, she achieved the ultimate deb's dream and married an up-and-coming businessman from "the county set". Yet a job at The Guardian in 1963 exposed her to values strongly opposed to those of her in-laws' "sociable military family". "That gave me a new focus," she says now, "and I got rather carried away by the working-class ideal." It was hardly a place where one could ever admit that one's first love had been a Master of the Eton Beagles.
MacCarthy left her first husband and, fascinated by people who actually create, who make things with their hands, found her "working-class hero" in a designer and silversmith called David Mellor. She now works in an environment which sounds like a pragmatic modern version of Gill or Morris's ideal community of craftsmen: "I have a son who's also a designer-maker, who's married to a photographer. I work where David's factory is, about 12 miles from Sheffield, in a wooden hut up on a hill, which is completely by itself, with no phone and no interruptions. It's part of a working complex which is also a cutlery factory with a design office where my son comes each day. So there's a lot going on. At 8.30am people come in and start making knives and forks, and I go up the path to my wooden cabin and start writing. There's quite a buzz of activity; it has a kind of latter-day Arts and Crafts feel."
Although MacCarthy often comes down to London to see friends, her working life is highly disciplined, something she attributes to "self-consciousness about coming from a very frivolous world where ideas were shunned - girls were ridiculed for any aspirations to intellectual life. I had a slightly frenzied need to be taken seriously. I was rather haunted by my mother's life. When I was a little child, her day used to begin with breakfast in bed and chatting to her friends for a few hours of the morning. I knew I didn't want to live like that."
MacCarthy implies that she embarked on her new book partly because family reasons now make it impossible for her to undertake the kind of travels her biography of Byron had required. But if it was ever intended as a potboiler cobbled together from memory and "a few trips to Colindale to look up old Tatlers, Sketches and things", she soon realised that the era of the "last debutantes" was actually far more interesting: "I thought of it as a sort of silly season, but it was also symbolic of so much else. I hadn't thought of what was happening in these families, how fragmented many of them were, how hard it was for the fathers coming back from the war and finding this very fast-changing scene."
This was the moment when Suez had just put an end to Britain's delusions of imperial grandeur; when traditional high society, already diluted by "new money", was about to give way to celebrity culture. MacCarthy remains astonished that people were once so interested in debs that it merited an item in the Evening Standard when she and another girl arrived at a party in the same dress.
Buckingham Palace put an end to the ritual of presentations, partly because every debutante required a sponsor from the limited pool of ex-debs, which meant that places were, in effect, being sold off, and (in Princess Margaret's words) "Every tart in London can get in." Newspaper columnists described the never-to-be-repeated scenes - "One girl had drunk so much champagne that when she went to curtsey to the King and Queen she fell down flat on her face" - as if they represented England at its glorious best. Yet for those like the MacCarthy sisters, who had been dressed in "identical check tweed winter coats" and felt strong emotional ties to the royal family, there was genuine puzzlement and distress at the decision to put an end to the debutantes.
Within a few years, though, it all seemed unbelievably archaic as the "Swinging Sixties" swept aside all notions of deference and decorum - a change reflected, as always, in the fashion industry. "I was the elegant 1958 girl," MacCarthy recalls. "Two years later, my sister was a kind of 'Chelsea girl', a very different style and kind of life."
Last Curtsey is in part a trip into a wonderfully bizarre lost world, where hundreds of girls in "wild blue silk" queued eagerly for their few seconds with the Queen; where mothers compiled black lists of unsuitable young men under categories such as NSIT (Not Safe in Taxis); where it was acceptable for ex-debs only to take jobs which were "not demanding or indeed even averagely remunerative" in places like upmarket florists; where divorce was considered not so much immoral as impractical since, as well as the children, "The likely effect on the few remaining servants, the gamekeepers and tenants, even the dogs and horses, came into the equation." The "season" was always both irredeemably fluffy and yet, in its underlying aim of snaring the best husband, utterly ruthless.
In researching the book, however, MacCarthy also began to focus on some of the positive things she had gained from her life as a deb. Being packed off to beautiful country houses to stay with strangers for a weekend helped to develop an interest in architecture and offered "an early, forcible immersion into the lives of others", which proved good training for the future journalist and biographer.
Meeting up with debs she had not seen for 40 years also made MacCarthy realise how much she had stereotyped and underestimated them. "They don't even look the same because the style then was so fixed and so ageing. You see people in their mid-sixties who almost look younger than they did then, because we were all imitating our mothers... Women's lives altogether have changed so much... The thing about that society was how tight it was, how conventional in its outlook. Some haven't changed at all, but now two-thirds of them are very different." Many have proved highly effective in running and reviving great estates. The old sexual double standards are largely defunct. "Sally Croker-Poole wouldn't put up with the Aga Khan's philandering," MacCarthy informed me. "She even sold off the jewels." As this remark probably suggests, Last Curtsey brilliantly combines memoir and sociological analysis with just the occasional dash of Hello! magazine.
Matthew J Reisz is the editor of 'Jewish Quarterly'
Fiona MacCarthy was born in 1940 and grew up in Chelsea (and the family-owned Dorchester Hotel). She took part in the last debutante "season" in 1958, studied English at Oxford, worked on The Guardian and became a highly successful journalist. She has written exhibition catalogues and books on design, as well as a long essay on the painter Stanley Spencer and a life of the Arts and Crafts Architect CR Ashbee. Eric Gill (1989), the award-winning William Morris (1994) and Byron: Life and Legend (2002) firmly established her as one of Britain's leading biographers. She now lives in Derbyshire. Last Curtsey: The End of the Debutantes is published by Faber & Faber.