It was an eigh-teenth century cynic who thus described the duties of a Maid of Honour: "To eat Wesphalia ham in the morning, to ride over hedges and ditches on borrowed hacks, to come home in the heat of the day in a fever, and (what is worse a hundred times) with a red mark on the forehead from an uneasy hat; then simper and catch cold in the Princesses' apartments; from thence to dinner, and after that, till midnight, walk, work, or think, as they please."
There may have been a modicum of truth in this description, for the position of a Maid of Honour at Court in the old days was certainly characterised by many curious features. So curious, indeed, that Walpole, in one of his letters, dated May 12th, 1743, says: "There has happened a comical circumstance at Leicester House (then the residence of Frederick Prince of Wales). One of the Prince' s coachmen who used to drive the Maids of Honour was so sick of them that he has left his son three hundred pounds upon condition that he never marries, a Maid of Honour."
From which it would seem obvious that the rule which is in force to-day, which stipulates that a candidate for the post of Maid of Honour must be either the daughter, granddaughter, or niece of a peer, was not then in force. As a matter of fact, Maids of Honour in the old days were appointed through a great deal of what might be termed backstair influence, and the monarch himself had not a little to say about their appointment.
Allowance of a Maid of Honour
Apparently their duties were of a miscellaneous and not very dignified character at times, for Fanny Burney, who was a Maid of Honour and Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte, complains of the humiliation of having to answer her Majesty's bell like a servant, and look after the Queen's lap-dog and snuff-box.
Even as late as the reign of Queen Victoria, it was the recognised rule that all proposals of marriage to Maids of Honour should be made through the Queen, before even the young ladies' parents were approached. Queen Alexandra abolished the 1,000 dowry, however, chiefly on account of the fact that one year several Maids of Honour married within a few months of one another, after a period of service so short as to be quite inconsonant with such a large dowry. Queen Alexandra, therefore, arranged that 100 a year should be added to the allowance of each Maid of Honour, so that each now receives 400 annually and no dowry.
It cannot be said to be a munificent allowance, in view of the expense entailed for Court dresses, etc. Indeed, it is said that in Queen Victoria's time, her "young ladies" spent fully a quarter of their pay on gloves, as they were never permitted to enter "the presence" with bare hands.
Queen Alexandra, again, strongly objected to striking apparel, such as big hats and vivid colours, and preferred that they should wear soft shades of colour, such as white, grey, and mauve - her Majesty's favourite colours. It is interesting that in the case of the twin Maids of Honour - the Hon. Violet Vivian and the Hon. Dorothy Vivian, now the Hon. Lady Haig - Queen Alexandra always desired that they should dress exactly alike, even down to the smallest detail.
But, of course, the post of Maid of Honour is coveted, not on account of its monetary benefits, but because of its high social status, and the many privileges and advantages attached to it. When, in 1908, the Hon. Margaret Dawnay, vacated her position to become a bride, there were over one hundred girls hopefully waiting to be chosen for the vacancy.
The Duties that are Onerous and Exacting
The position, however, is no sinecure; Maids of Honour fully earn the allowance made to them, for their duties are often of a particularly onerous and exacting character. Every day for three months in the year, at intervals, they are in close attendance upon the Queen, from ten or eleven o'clock in the morning until four or five in the afternoon, and again in the evening. Queen Victoria, who had eight Maids - reduced to four, and ultimately three, by Queen Alexandra - usually had two in attendance, whether at Windsor, Balmoral, or
Osborne. The duties then were even more exacting than they are to-day.
The retirement in which Queen Victoria lived made her greatly dependent upon the society of her Maids, and they were in constant demand for walks, rides, drives, music, talk, and secretarial work. In the evening they dined with her Majesty, and in the drawing-room afterwards they stood just behind the Queen's chair, quite silent, unless sent to entertain a guest or amuse one of the younger princesses.
Brightness of Court Life in the Present Day
Since the death of Queenvictoria, however, Court life has assumed a much brighter aspect, and neither Queen Alexandra nor Queen Mary are dependent in the same way upon the services of Maids of Honour. The latter, therefore, have not found their position quite so irksome. At the same time, they have little time to spare when "waiting" at Court. On all State and semi-state occasions they take their place in the Queen's suite, and accompany her Majesty to any charity function she may attend. When the Queen pays a private visit, too, a Maid of Honour is usually in attendance, also when she goes to the Opera or theatre.
When the Queen holds a Drawing Room for the presentation of debutantes, her Maids walk in the Royal procession to the Throne Room, and stand immediately around her Majesty during the ceremony. This also applies to State concerts and State balls, when they sit immediately behind the Queen and Royal Princesses.
There are occasions, however, when a Maid of Honour has some exceedingly trying duties to perform. Often she is called upon to display her musical accomplishments for her Majesty's guests, who may include world-famous artistes. Then, again, when a State visit is paid by a foreign sovereign, a Maid may be deputed to attend to the Royal ladies staying at the palace, and accompany them when sight-seeing. They must be prepared to adapt themselves to all the peculiar circumstances surrounding Royalty, and never fail in strict attention to the requirements of their Royal mistress.
It follows, therefore, that a Maid of Honour must of necessity be an exceedingly accomplished young woman. She must, moreover, be the granddaughter of a peer, if not nearer in blood; for, unless some special provision is made, the office cannot be held by anyone below that rank. Secondly, she must be a good linguist, not only because of the foreigners she will meet at Court, but because she will be called upon to deal with some of her Majesty's private foreign correspondence.
Her conversational powers must be considerably above the average, brightness and vivacity being a distinct recommendation. A talent for music and singing, and an ability to read aloud with clearness and expression, are also qualities which are taken into account in appointing a Maid of Honour.
Above all, however, a candidate must be a model of discretion and tact, and avoid gossip as she would a plague. To a Maid of Honour Court secrets are a closed book. It is a rule that she must not keep a diary; which recalls a good story of a newly appointed Maid of Honour in Queen Victoria's reign. She was telling her friends one night at dinner about this rule, when one of the men present remarked, "What a tiresome rule. I think I should keep a diary all the same." "Then," promptly replied the young lady, "I am afraid you would not be a maid of honour."
Privileges of the Post
In spite of the strict decorum which characterised Court life during Queen Victoria's reign, Maids of Honour had many merry moments, judging by one or two stories that are told. One is to the effect that an Irish Maid once danced a sword-dance, which amused her Majesty so much thatlaugh-ingly she agreed to reward the dancer with what she wished for most. And the merry Maid, entering into the jest, asked for the head of a certain unpopular Cabinet Minister on a charger. She did not get the head, but shortly afterwards received a present of a beautiful horse.
Privileges the post of Maid of Honour is that of being allowed to wear a charming miniature of the Queen set in diamonds, either as a brooch or a pendant. In a certain sense it is a badge of office, for it must always be worn when in waiting, and should a Maid marry she is allowed to keep the ornament. The title of ' Honourable, too, which is always prefixed to the names of her Majesty's Maids of Honour, when they are not entitled to it by birth, is retained after the office has been relinquished.
Queen Mary's Maids
Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of the post is that a Maid of Honour invariably marries well. She is, of course, brought into contact with highly eligible partis, and, although it is the exception, rather than the rule, for a Maid to marry early during her term of service, she does not lack suitors.
Queen Mary's choice of her Maids of Honour is interesting, and has fallen upon Miss Venetia Baring, the daughter of Lord Ashburton, and niece of Lord Hood. Miss Baring is a most accomplished needlewoman. Miss Katherine Villiers, niece of Lord Clarendon, Miss Sybil Brodrick, granddaughter of Lord Wemyss, and Miss Mabel Gye, complete the quartette. These ladies enter on their duties on appointment, and will be in attendance through the Corona-tion festivities.
By these appoint m e nts it will be seen that Queen Mary has restored the number of her Maids of Honour to four.
The Honourable Sylvia Edwardes, daughter of the Honourable Mrs. Henry Edwardes. Miss Edwardes was appointed Maid of Honour by Queen Victoria in 1897, at the unusually youthful age of seventeen
Copyright, Lallie Charles