Regency History

A Debate Over Debutantes

As a word geek, I do apologize for splitting hairs, but I really must take a stand: there were no debutantes in the Regency.

Sarah Siddons on the boards

Ok, let me clarify: during the years 1800-1830 there were young ladies who were referred to as debutantes, but never in the way we have come to know the word. The word “debutante” is a French word meaning “lady beginner,” and was almost universally applied to new actresses until around 1830, when it began to bleed over into society use.

But it still didn’t mean what we think it means (darn right, Inigo). The word “debutante,” when not used to describe a new actress—as it continued to be through the end of the century—was used as a term of derision, to describe a woman new to society who either did not know how to act, or who knew so well how to act that she might as well have been on the stage. It was not until the 1840’s that the term took on the meaning we know today, of a young woman just coming out into society.

How dare I claim this? Well, for one thing, I have never come across the word “debutante” used in its modern sense in the novels that were actually written during the Regency. This made me question whether the word as we know it was in use back then. So I turned to the Hathi Trust, an awesome online resource that takes digitized works (millions of them) and makes them available to search. Their Bookworm tool allows you to search for a specific word (or even two words to compare) and charts the results by number of hits and date. Awesome, huh? Here’s the result for “debutante” between 1801-1900:

So if you just went from this, you’d think, “Oh! Debutante was totally in use in the Regency! I can go ahead and use it with impunity in my Regency romances!”

You would, however, be wrong. Because the next cool thing about Bookworm is that you can click anywhere along the graph line and it brings up a list of the works wherein the searched word appears. Then you can go directly to that work and see how the word is used. In this case, it would show you things like this:

From The Satirist 1814, p. 95
The Monthly Mirror 1818, p. 158
Ladies Monthly Museum 1820, p. 185

And then, in the 1820’s, there are these:

Taken from a scene where a society woman tried to use her influence inappropriately; A Letter From the King to His People 1821, p. 47
Description of a society man’s listening prowess; Pen Owen 1822, p. 292

You can see that the first three uses of the word are clearly applied to actresses, and the last two illustrate the derisive use of the word beginning in the 1820’s (though, I’d argue that the last one is actually describing an actress because of “her lovers,” which unmarried ladies of quality were never supposed to have, while women who had taken to the boards were fair game).

When we search “debutante” in the 1830’s, we start to see a shift, very possibly from the influence of the U. S., which seems, from the following, to have fully embraced the modern meaning of the word:

“How to Illustrate for Money,” Redbook, New York, 1836 p. 43

Redbook was distributed in London, and may have contributed to the gradual acceptance there of the word “debutante” to mean a young girl coming out into society. But it was a long haul. Note the derisive tone of the following description using the word in a London publication of the same year:

The New Belle Assemblee 1836, p. 153

“Debutante” was not generally positively used in society until at least 1840, which is well out of the Regency proper, and only at the tail-end of the extended Regency. Even the word “debut” was more often applied to the stage or the ring than to society. The terms most often used were “appearance” or “come out” to describe the fact of a young lady’s entering society, and “out” or “in her first season” to describe the girl’s social state.

“…supposing Fanny was now preparing for her appearance, as of course she would come out when her cousin was married.”

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, p. 153

“She has never been presented yet, so she is not come out, you know; but she’s to come out next year.”

Cecilia, Fanny Burney, v. 2 p. 149
Pin up the Train, Hugh Thomson

Admittedly, it is quite a mouthful to have to say “the young lady who was making her come out” rather than “the debutante,” or “the other young ladies in their first season” rather than “the other debutantes,” but they liked to use more words during the Regency anyway, so it’s just more historically accurate to do the same, right?

Oh, boy. I could go on about that, too, but that’s a post for another day.