Come On Dover

Aaaah. Ascot.

It comes around, every June, regular as clockwork, a chance to put on the heels, get on the train, have a few flute-glasses of champers as the horses hare around, and fall out of a posh frock.

My husband’s Facebook update last Ascot said it all.

“I love going through Ascot station when the races are on,” he wrote. ” Last night there was a lady in a lovely dress with a very posh hat. She was laughing when the police helped her onto the train, though her make-up suggested she’d been crying at some point, and she only had one shoe.”

In these posh parts we spend some time snorting with laughter at the expense of the little secretaries from Ewell and Guildford who pile off the train at Ascot station, warpaint applied and ready for their day-as-a-toff.

But the toffs are fewer and further between at the royal races than you might suppose.

It all started well. Queen Anne, who did love to ride through her Windsor forests, was out one day when she came to a place called East Cote. She found a stretch on the open heathland which, she said, looked perfect “for horses to gallop at full stretch.”.

A woman of action, she wasted no time. That same year, on August 11th the first races were held. Her Majesty supplied a rather nice prize of 100 guineas for the one who completed the three four-mile-long heats. It was a runaway success, so to speak: and the rest is history.

The royal connection ensured that this event has its enduring place not just in our sporting, but our social calendar. Royal Ascot is one of a handful of places where a showgirl can pick up a prince, the legend goes.

We call women who seek out financial security by marriage gold diggers. But for centuries, that was the way it was done. In Jane Eyre, the governess marries the nobleman. In Pride and Prejudice, a clever middle class girl with a nightmare family bags one of the wealthiest landowners in society.

But of course, they were very much middle class. I distinctly remember Thornfield’s housekeeper insisting Jane was the only person in the house who could supply refined conversation. The other servants didn’t figure.

Working class: now that’s another matter. Terence Rattigan, that sublime understated playwright who brought us The Winslow Boy, had a knack of homing in on our deepest hopes and fears. And he tackled this one with alacrity.

Lawrence Olivier and Marylin Munroe take Rattigans story, ‘The Sleeping Prince’, and weave it tightly into the fabric of our modern folklore. In The Prince and The Showgirl, we are immersed in the heady days before the coronation of King George V in June 1911, when nobility from all over Europe converge on London for this most portentous of days.

Prince Regent Charles of Carpathia is among them, with his son the young King Nicolas. They are taken to see a show: and Charles falls for one of the performers, Elsie Marina. It appears to be love at first sight.

It is the commonsensical attitude of the ravishing young lady which endears her to people of power: she enchants Charles and the queen mother not just with her beauty and ingenue, but also with people skills that help save a national incident.

Underlying the script I cannot help but sense a conviction on the part of us – Everyman and Everywoman- that these courteous people in their ivory towers need their gene pools stirring up a little. That while they have lost touch with what folks are saying and doing on the ground, they can remedy this by marrying a commoner. Not a member of the merchant classes, but the salt of the earth at the bottom of the pile.

Which is where Dover and his bloomin’ a*** come in.

Clever George Bernard Shaw: to explore without resolution the relationship between the bottom and top echelons of society.

Eliza, the flower girl from Covent Garden, is scooped up by Henry Higgins and equipped with all the skills to advance herself in the top social strata of society. Her appearance at Royal Ascot is iconic. She’s doing so well until she bawls at her horse, Dover, to move his behind, in no uncertain terms.

She gets a young beau, played by a young Jeremy Brett, moneyed and from the right class. But I’m left thinking her real prince was the curmudgeonly , academic Higgins. I wonder: if they matched the intelligences of Eliza and Higgins: might they be so very far apart?

The Ascot train carries more than a gaggle of clerks and secretaries. It trundles along the tracks which lead from everyday life to privilege; from the monthly pay cheque to large inheritances. Even on the train, matchmaking- however fleeting- begins.

At the close of Ladies’ Day today, most alighted the train, their circumstances unchanged and, like Phil’s lady, a little the worse for wear.

Perhaps Ascot is a little like buying a lottery ticket: perchance, to dream.


40 thoughts on “Come On Dover

  1. Wonderful romp, Kate.

    Whenever I see hats like the one your post is sporting, I think of Dr. Seuss and his “Do You Like My Hat?” Elaborate headgear and footwear always seem a bit overdone to me. 😀

    1. The one in the picture looks like a parody; but I’ll wager there were a few that big to be seen at Ascot this afternoon, Nancy! Must look up that Dr Seuss-I’ve never read that one….

    2. Turns out I’m a bit mixed up.

      P.D.Eastman wrote a book, Go Dog, Go. In it, there is some silly dialogue about a still sillier hat.
      The book is formatted like Seuss books, but it’s not by Seuss.

      1. No. There’s a dog in Go, Dog, Go who wears outrageous hats and asks, “Do you like my hat?”

        Over and over, she’s told no . . . until the very end.

      2. I’m a bit mixed up all the time: congratulations for only being mixed up tonight. PD Eastman.Got it. Those naughty marketing men led you astray by giving the book Seuss livery! Off to check it out…

  2. I would so love to wear one of those great big hats and look like Audrey Hepburn. Or look like Audrey Hepburn wearing anything, actually. But the Ascot number is one of my favorites.

    For my money, Eliza was more intelligent than Higgins. By the end of the evening at the ball, she’d figured out she was in a pickle, class-wise, and Henry was oblivious to everything but his triumph. If only he’d listened to his mother…

    1. That type never do, Kathy….it raises the question of whether the prince is always worthy of the showgirl. Or the flowergirl. On this occasion, Higgins most certainly is not.

  3. “move your bloomin” a****” ! A line that has oft been bellowed around here. What a wonderful race, Kate, to hear about from you in your delightful way. Ascot – I’ll forever think of your post when I hear of it.

  4. i wonder if all the hats were big this year, or if the fascinator thingy too over there too?

    There was a lovely sequence in the King’s Speech movie where the Aussie makes a comment about some prince, and the (then just prince) replies implying that the statement would be very different if he’s had much exposure to royalty. definitely in need of some new goldfish in the gene pool

    I think marrying into a wealthy family brings huge stresses, and maybe not much happiness. Money just makes being miserable more comfortable.

    1. There are hats of all shapes and sizes, wallflowers and butterflies and blatant exhibitionists who just want the photograph in the paper; Eugenie would (and probably did) fit right in. It’s an interesting thing you say about marrying into money. The novelists often paint the future of such a marriage as Happily Ever After. But money doesn’t always make us happy, does it?

  5. I think that’s a gorgeous hat and the dress is probably equally as glamorous! I remember at Durban’s July Handicap the ladies used to dress up like that. It was wonderful to see, and Ascot would be even more so. Those outfits were the height of good taste, certainly nothing like the majority of those worn over the last few years which I am sure are chosen as publicity stunts…

    1. Oh, Adee, when I was researching this I came up with a picture of a group of modern day Eliza’s who had no Higgins to ensure proper style and coiffure….a motley crew, with hats of which you have never seen the like! But they had a wonderful day, I am sure 🙂

    1. Wow, Doc: I would have thought the sun would make hats compulsory there! One day, if you ever come to Britain, you should try it for a laugh. But hats can become very irritating very quickly. A day is enough!

  6. But Jane and Elizabeth were in love! And they both rejected their blokes before succumbing.

    Elsie happened to speak the language (as you do) which saved the day. An unusual working class girl.

    Eliza went for the old codger, in the end, who didn’t want her.

    Jane is my favourite, because she has a pure heart. But I bet she’d disapprove of Ascot 🙂

    1. She would, Tilly! All those fripperies and that unnecessary expense!
      I’ve always felt that Elsie and Eliza were in love too….and who knows, our Esher secretaries might well have found love in the higher eschelons of society over the years…all those stories we’ll never know about…

  7. TillyBud, I wouldn’t be so sure about Elizabeth…. I’ve never been quite convinced by that as a love story- a sensible, pleasant arrangement yes, but not a big romance. But then I’m a bit of a cynic.

    The Ascot scene from the film is glorious; the style, the colour, the perfect choreography of hats. Dover. The silence. Perfect.

    I’ve never had an opportunity to marry into money. If one was so inclined it’d probably be worth trying… 😉

    1. We’ll be thinking about Elizabeth all day now…I love your comment about giving a marriage to money a try.
      I meant to marry into money, but it slipped by the wayside somewhere along the way.

  8. Love love love his blog! This one is probably my fav to date! 🙂 Hope you’ll eventually compile them into a book for us all!

    BTW…I am “locked” out of Facebook. Last time I was on was when I accepted Norma’s invite a couple weeks ago. Not certain if it is a glitch or if it has been compromised. Please do keep an eye on it for me. I may have to shut it down…if they let me. FB spport has been impossible…wondering if it even exists.

    Love to all! Jenn

  9. *sigh* I love hats. Sadly, I was born of the wrong era in the States to wear them day to day.
    Miss Doolittle, she gave old Higgins a run for his money, actually didn’t want his money for as she stated, “I’m a good girl, I am!”

  10. Must be a fascinating sight. Maybe it isn’t all hopes of fortune-hunting. Surely some of the motivation is that it provides one of the few remaining excuses to be unashamedly posh. The days when one dressed formally just to go to the cinema are long, long dead.

  11. My Fair Lady is one of my all time favorites, with Eliza’s raucous line at the race being the cream of the show. Also the loved The Prince and the Showgirl. Olivier’s nonplussed and rather stuffy adoration of Monroe is hilarious. Here, it’s hats and mint juleps for the Kentucky Derby.

  12. A dream? I would warn these social climbers to be careful of what they wish for – I have over the years being dragged kicking and screaming to such horse and polo so-called events-of-the-year (those awful business commitment things), and am always quite fascinated at how incredibly badly people behave (toffs, and no). I agree wholeheartedly with Sidey that the stress isn’t worth the money.

      1. The very public saga of Carolyn Bourne and Heidi Withers, a case in point, Kate – how excruciatingly awful this sorry tale is for both families

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