Friday, September 9, 2016

Masquerade Balls in the Georgian Era

While the earliest record of a Carnival celebration might be that in a 12th century Roman account of the pope and upper class Roman citizens watching a parade through the city, the word “masquerade” meaning “a ball at which the guests wear masks and other disguises” seems to be Italian in origin and dates from the 16th century. By the 17th and 18th centuries, masquerade balls had become popular throughout Europe. John Moore, a Scottish physician and writer, in his memoirs published in 1779, mentioned masquerade balls held in Brunswick, Germany when he visited that city.
John James Heidegger, a Swiss count who arrived in Italy in 1708, is credited with having introduced the Venetian fashion of a semi-public masquerade ball to London in the early 18th century, with the first being held at Haymarket Opera House. London's public gardens, like Vauxhall Gardens, refurbished in 1732, and Ranelagh Gardens, provided optimal outdoor settings where characters, masked and in fancy dress, mingled with the crowds.

According to Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-century by Terry Castle,

“The Eighteenth century was an ‘age of disguise,’ the masquerade—with its sensuous, exquisite duplicities, its shimmering liquid play on the themes of self-preservation and self-concealment—must take its place among the exemplary phenomena of the period.”

My Georgian romance, To Tame the Wind, begins in 1780 as the heroine, Claire Donet, a convent student in Paris, sneaks out one night to see a bal masque, a masquerade ball given by one of the convent’s benefactors. 

For the first time, Claire, then sixteen, glimpses a glittering ballroom where men and women are dancing the Menuet de la Cour attired in elaborate costumes beneath crystal chandeliers. Here are her thoughts:

The dancing men and women were costumed in what she could only assume they had a mind to be, and not what they otherwise were. Though she was certain all were from the aristocracy, they were dressed as milkmaids, shepherdesses, jesters, pirates and a few Persian kings. It was as if the characters in the fantastic stories her mother read to her as a child had come alive.
To one side of the dancers, a devil dressed in black conversed with a cardinal in scarlet and a woman attired as a trousered hussar. The red pelisse with its gold braid worn over blue trousers might have been tailored for the woman’s curves, but Claire recognized the uniform all the same.
Many wore masks, from simple black to those more elaborate, some even bejeweled and adorned with feathers.
Her heart raced at the pageantry of it. If only she could join them.

As my heroine noted, those attending often delighted in donning the disguise of someone very unlike their normal role. Of course, there were always those who merely wore fancy, elaborate gowns or dressed up like a character from history or literature. But the more outrageous ones would be those where the costume spoke of the opposite of the person, as for example, a courtesan attired as a nun.


At such a ball, there might be a supper and, of course, much wine. The food would be served after midnight and likely cold. A masquerade ball attended by the Prince of Wales held in May of 1783 included cold “Chickens, Fowls, Lamb, Lobsters, collared Eels, and various Meats” as well as “tarts, blanche mange, ices, and other confectionary.” The wines served were “Champagne, Claret, Madeira, Port, and Lisbon”.


In my story, the heroine has eyes only for the hero, an English privateer, attending in disguise:


A flash of shimmering gold cape swirled around broad shoulders. A gilded mask of an eagle barely concealed long, blond hair tied back at his nape. At his side hung a sword in a golden sheath. His was the brilliance of the sun compared to everyone else’s candle, a mythical creature condescending to join the parade of mortals now moving in slow cadence. Tall and well-muscled, he moved with sinuous grace through the steps of the dance as his lips curved in a brilliant smile.
For the first time, her heart sped at the presence of a man, the sensation so unfamiliar her hand flew to her breast to rub the pounding spot. Oh, he was handsome, this golden one.

Who could he be?

To Tame the Wind is a finalist in three national contests for 2016. Buy it on Amazon!

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