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A walking Christmas tree

May 5, 2009


Spent the morning hunting for a trimming for my dress, with Harriet Ives Wright among the rose and ivy bushes, for I am quite resolved to look my very best for Mr -‘s edification and discomfiture…I was amply repaid however for this expenditure of time and trouble, by his start of admiration when I entered the drawing room, purposely late, just before dinner: a a cloud of white tarlatane, wings of the same on my shoulders, festooned and trimmed everywhere with trailing ivy sprays, interspersed with clusters of scarlet rose-berries – the same ornaments in my hair. There was a murmur of universal admiration* from the women during which I happened to turn to Mr -: our eyes met: and I being adept at reading their language gave a proudly slightly conscious smile – the projected conquest is certain…

This passage is from the book Every Girl’s Duty, the real life diary of Victorian Debutante Alice Miles, edited with a commentary by Maggy Parsons. Rereading this brilliant glimpse into Victorian society I’m always amused by the editor’s footnote to the “murmur or universal admiration”. Maggy Parsons has written: *Was that “murmur” one of unmixed admiration? Or did Alice look like a walking Christmas tree?

Alice Miles came to London with her family for the Season in 1868. (The keen eyed among you may spot the image is from 1837- I wanted an image of a white Victorian flower strewn dress and I couldn’t find a later example- it’s from The World of Fashion for 1837.) Alice asserts mockingly that “it is every girl’s duty to marry £80,000 a year” and, despite her mockery, it seems she believed this was her mission as a debutante. But very far from being the insipid Victorian maiden one might imagine, Alice’s diary reveals a witty, slightly spoilt, spirited girl. Although she attracted the admiration of some of the great men of her day, her lack of any great social standing or fortune (and possibly her own headstrong character?) meant most of these men only flirted outrageously with her, rather than proposing marriage.

The book is a fascinating read, and although its now out of print, a search on Amazon brings up tons of market place sellers who are selling it very cheaply. I love the idea of Alice rootling spending the day rootling around in the undergrowth for dress trimmings and gliding down to dinner bedecked with half the garden. Alice was famously noted for her beauty though, so if anyone could pull off the walking Christmas tree look, she could…

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