by Anne Somerset


In 1973, my elderly cousin, the late duke of Beaufort, offered to give a ball at Badminton House. This was to mark my brother’s 21st birthday and what, even then, it was quaint to describe as my ‘coming out’. While touched by the Duke’s generosity, my mother was appalled. Not only did she see no reason to celebrate either of these events on this epic scale, but she dreaded that the evening itself would be a fiasco.

Despite the splendour of the setting, charity balls at Badminton were traditionally dank affairs. Sedate dancing to uninspired music was permitted in the house, but all drinking and smoking had to be done within the bleak confines of a bare and draughty tent. Inevitably this cast a pall over the proceedings. My mother feared that the same thing would apply to the party now being planned.

The ball was held on a Saturday night in July. By that time, terror at the thought of presiding over a major social disaster had caused my mother to lose half a stone. It turned out that she need not have worried so much. There was a marquee, but drinking and smoking were not restricted to it. The floral wizard Ken Turner had furthermore transformed it from an unpromising expanse of yolk-yellow stripes into a heavily laden orchard. Whole branches of apple trees, still bearing leaves, had been erected in the centre of the tent, and hundreds of apples had been painstakingly attached with wire.

Inside the house, there was frenzied dancing to the deafening music of Bitch, a rock hand supposedly on the threshold of superstardom. My brother and I vainly hoped that the band’s name would commend them to the foxhound-mad Duke, but the raucous performance was at least appreciated by our guests.

I would like to pretend I was a rebel who despised the frivolity and materialism of the debutante world. But, on the contrary, I had keenly looked forward to this night. I was learning a long dress of my own design, a creation of which I was very proud, but which I now know to have been an expensive mistake. This curious hybrid contrived to combine the worst elements of Medieval, Tudor and Regency costume, while also incorporating trends from the 1970s, a stylistically blighted decade. Made of flowing white crepe festooned with strawberries, it had a flared back and tightly cuffed full sleeves. Its empire-line bodice was eccentrically trimmed with a long pointed collar that had no affinity with any other feature of the dress.

Attired in this way, it was not to be expected that I would be the belle of my own ball. The man I was in love with danced with me only once, before disappearing in pursuit of other girls. When I boldly asked a former boyfriend to dance, he replied that he would prefer to have breakfast instead. Gradually it dawned on me, as on many hostesses before, that the only enjoyment to be gained from the evening was vicarious. Other people were clearly having a better time than I. It was perhaps, some consolation. But I had hoped for rather more.