The Five Best Things About A Georgian-Era Masquerade Ball
Updated: May 4
By Julie Cooper, co-author of A Match Made At Matlock
1. An Occasion for Angering Folks Like Mr Collins
Moralists, clergymen, and the English press denounced ‘this pernicious invention’—the masquerade. The famous Isaac Watts published his opinion on such frippery events:
“The next forbidden diversion is the masquerade. By all the descriptions that I have heard of it, it seems to be a very low piece of foolery, fitted for children and persons of low and trifling genius, who can entertain themselves at blind-mans-bluff. And as the entertainment is much meaner than that of the theatre, so it is something more hazardous to virtue and innocence. It does not so much as pretend to any such improvement of the mind such as the theatre professes; while it lays a more dreadful snare to modesty, and has made too often a dismal inroad on the morals of those that frequent it.”
Mr Watts quoted ‘the Right Reverend late Lord Bishop of London’ declaring, “Amongst the various engines contrived by a corrupt generation to support vice and profaneness, and keep them in countenance, I must particularly take note of masquerades, as they deprive virtue and religion of their last refuge, I mean shame, which keeps multitudes of sinners within the bounds of decency...”
Tell us what you really think, Mr Watts!
2. Media Play: Lots of Celebrity Gossip
Whatever their opinion on the pros and cons of a masquerade, there is no question that reporting on them sold papers. The good folks at All Things Georgian clipped these two tit-bits on various masques from the newspapers of the day:
Oracle and Public Advertiser, April 28, 1795:
Some very ugly old ladies are labouring to revive the horrible absurdity of long waists; and they ascribe the unnatural innovation to our illustrious Princess. Her Royal Highness has more taste about her than to renovate deformity. The Princess of Wales wore at the Royal Ball and Supper, a spangled crape dress, exactly like the robe worn by Miss Wallis in Windsor Castle and among the fair styled ‘the Wallis robe’.
The Morning Herald, May 24, 1786
Opera House Masquerade, King’s Theatre
“In point of numbers, Monday night’s masquerade at this place was inferior to any former ones, but equal in insignificant dullness to what we have seen before. Harlequins without wit, clowns known only by the stupidity that is their natural characteristic; nosegay girls, men turned into women and vice versa, equally distinguishable by their impudence, together with a world of characters badly supported throughout, until the fumes of port and other such palatable wines, though we must own the best in their kind, had inspired the representatives with a fictitious glee, composed the whole group of above 600 masks assembled on the occasion. However, the supper was good, the wines answerable and the purveyor, justly commended.
“The least exceptionable of the masks in the room was a little brunette, who sung several songs in French and English, with tolerable good humour. His Royal Highness, who came in late, was for a long while pestered, with a little blue eyed nun of St Catharine, who was, and remained, masked so very close, that we could not guess at her sex, much less ascertain her real identity.
The dances introduced during the entertainment were highly relished by those who can feel the merit of some of the very best dancers in Europe. The whole, we understand, was under the direction of Mr Degville, the ballet master. We cannot congratulate him on the manner of which the entertainment was conducted, but give him joy of a well-earned and not inconsiderable gain on the occasion.”
3. They Put the Fun in Fundraisers
Of course, the word ‘fundraiser’ didn’t hit the dictionaries until 1957. But masquerades definitely drove up the ‘fun’ factor on benefit balls, which were often held to raise money for the impoverished and various charitable causes. Evidently, letting attendees throw on a costume or domino and a mask heavily incentivized the opening of purses and wallets.
The May 31, 1810 issue of The Times advertises this one:
Masquerade, Argyll Rooms. – By Permission of the Right Hon. the Lord Chamberlain.
– S. Slade most respectfully informs the Nobility, Gentry, and his Friends in general, that his BENEFIT MASQUED BALL will take place on Wednesday, the 6th of June. Gentlemens Tickets 1l 11s 6d Ladies Tickets 1l 1s; to include Refreshments, Supper, old Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Claret, to be had at the Office, Little Argyll-street. To prevent the intrusion of improper persons, no ticket will be issued, unless the name and address is left at this Office.
Don’t be attempting to sneak in without paying, improper persons!
4. Can You Say ‘Diversity’?
Well, you could have said it, but few would have known what you meant. Still, a ball held in April 1782 at the London Pantheon, with a guest list swelling to over 1,500 persons, included a wide assortment of costumed characters, including:
“[A] Savoyard girl; Merlin in the character of Fortune … a man in a pair of bellows … a heavy-heeled Harlequin; half a dozen fresh-water sailors; some old women without tongues; a yeoman of the guards, a country parson … two warriors of Sandwich islands … some American Indians, and two Laplanders … beautiful women, decked in a profusion of jewels and the most elegant dresses…[and] sultanas, [etc]”
How does one disguise oneself as an elderly tongueless female? Unfortunately, this information has been lost to time.
5. An Opportunity to Brush up on One’s Shakespeare…or Not
Who thought Twelfth Night was invented by Shakespeare? Raise your hands! (Wait…is it only me? **Slinks back down into her seat, hoping no one noticed**)
As Kathryn Neves of the Utah Shakespeare Festival explains, “Twelfth Night is a Christmas play. You see, Shakespeare probably wrote the play for a Twelfth Night celebration. (The fact that the play’s plot has little-to-nothing to do with the holiday is neither here nor there.) Twelfth Night was a holiday usually celebrated the twelfth day after Christmas: January 6.”
Twelfth Night Masques were hugely popular holiday balls, with hostesses assigning characters to her guests—sometimes beforehand so they could arrive dressed, sometimes providing them with costume items after drawing slips of paper with character names upon arrival.
We can assume at least some of Mr Watts’s fears were justified, as the Twelfth Night events were frequently raucous, full of drinking and mischief-making. However, since Miss Fanny Austen-Knight participated, writing a set of characters for her family’s masquerade ball, we can assume they were often just plain fun.
“On Twelfth Night we had a delightful evening…about our dress King and Queen, W Morris was King, I was Queen, Papa– Prince Busty Trusty, Mama– Red Riding Hood, Edward– Paddy O’Flaherty, G.– Johnny Bo-peep, H.– Timothy Trip, W.– Moses Abrahams, Eliz.– Mrs O’Flaherty, Ma.– Granny Grump, C– Cupid (by his own desire), Louisa– Princess Busty Trusty, Uncle H.B.– Punch, Aunt H.B.– Poll Mendicant, Jane– Punch’s Wife, Mary– Columbine, Uncle John– Jerry the Milkman, Mrs Morris– Sukey Sweetlips, Sophia– Margery Muttonpie. Soon after, according to a preconstructed plan, some of us retired upstairs to dress Jane as Punch’s wife, in a witches hat, a green petticoat and a scarlet shawl (the remains of our last year’s masquerade) Mrs M.J. and I in beggars clothes to sing carols at the parlour door, and myself in a long scarlet cloak for a royal robe and a wreath of natural primroses (which we had gathered and made up in the morning for whoever would be queen) around my head.”
In my latest literary effort, co-written with talented authors Jan Ashton, Amy D’Orazio, and Jessie Lewis, four couples—including Mr Darcy and Miss Bennet—struggle to find ‘the perfect match’ at a house party at the Matlock estate. “A Match Made at Matlock” features the denouement of two weeks of experiment and error, tenderness and trial, an extravagant masquerade ball.
Will ‘Donning Costumes and Masks Gives Heroes and Heroines the Freedom to Express True Love’ become number 6 on this list, or even number 1?
No spoilers here…except…Mr Watts, you had best turn your head.
This author would not, ordinarily, compare the ‘Godfather of English Hymnody’ and author of ‘Joy to the World’ to Mr Collins. I simply could not resist republishing his very vocal opinions on the masquerade.
Isaac Watts, The Improvement of the Mind, or A Supplement to the Art of Logic, 1801, pp 279-280
All Things Georgian, Eighteenth Century Masquerade Balls, retrieved 3/11/22, https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2015/03/19/18th-century-masquerade-balls/
The Hibernian Magazine, Or, Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge, 1782, p. 202.
Letter, Fanny Austen-Knight to Miss Dorothy Clapham, February 1812