A real 19th century masked ball ~ experienced through the eyes and emotions of a courtesan

Harriette_Wilson00We are in to the last thirty-three pages of Harriette’s memoirs now, and I will warn you she does not build up to a wonderful wrapped up ending. Her memoirs sort of fizzle out, after this random clutter of stories. But this particular story, is a little gem, which has been thrown in at the end, out of context and in an incorrect period of her life. But I will share it, because she is speaking about a London event that was monumental at the time. The famous masquerade (a masked ball), held at the Wattier’s gentlemen’s club. Wattier’s was the cool men’s club. White’s was more for parliamentary men. Wattier’s was where the men who liked to play hung out, including the rogues and rakes. The men of the club came up with an idea to celebrate the end of the Peninsular War, and peace with France, with a party, a party where women would be welcomed into the gentlemen’s club, and where courtesan’s could mix, concealed behind masks, with women of the beau monde, as equals for one night.

This masquerade fascinates me, as I have read about it from about five different perspectives, in various people’s letters, written at the time, as well as in Harriette’s memoirs. It was an extremely widely attended and talked about event in 1814, two hundred years ago.

So today I will be telling you about this fabulous party, from Harriette’s view, but before I do, as always, here is the background to this series of posts for anyone joining today (sorry if you want to read this story from the beginning you are going to have a lot of reading to do, but all posts are listed in the index – start at the bottom of the list). For those of you who have been following Harriette’s tales, who’ve already read this, then head to where I have marked the text bold.

In 1825 Harriette Wilson, a courtesan, published a series of stories as her memoirs in a British broad sheet paper. The Regency gentleman’s clubs were a buzz, waiting to see the next names mentioned each week. While barriers had to be set up outside the shop of her publisher, Stockdale, to hold back the disapproving mob.

Harriette was born Harriette Debochet, she chose the name Harriette Wilson as her professional name, in the same way Emma Hart, who I’ve blogged about previously, had changed her name. Unlike Emma, it isn’t known why or when Harriette changed her name.

She was one of nine surviving children. Her father was a watchmaker and her mother a stocking repairer, and both were believed to be from illegitimate origin.

Three of Harriette’s sisters also became courtesans. Amy, Fanny and Sophia (who I have written about before). So the tales I am about to begin in my blogs will include some elements from their lives too.

For a start you’ll need to understand the world of the 19th Century Courtesan. It was all about show and not just about sex. The idle rich of the upper class aspired to spending time in the company of courtesans, it was fashionable, the thing to do.

You were envied if you were linked to one of the most popular courtesans or you discovered a new unknown beauty to be admired by others.

Courtesans were also part of the competitive nature of the regency period too, gambling was a large element of the life of the idle rich and courtesans were won and lost and bartered and fought for.

So courtesans obviously aspired to be one of the most popular, and to achieve it they learnt how to play music, read widely, so they could debate, and tried to shine in personality too. They wanted to be a favoured ’original’.

The eccentric and outspoken was admired by gentlemen who liked to consort with boxers and jockeys, and coachmen, so courtesans did not aim for placid but were quite happy to insult and mock men who courted them, and demand money for any small favour.

‘It was the most brilliant assemblage I have ever witnessed. Amy, Fanny, and I were promised tickets from the very beginning; but poor Julia was not popular. After making vain applications to half the town, and to all the members of the club who were stewards of the feast, she at last addressed herself to Lord Hertford.

‘I am not a member of Wattier’s; therefore I cannot obtain a lady’s ticket for you,’ said his Lordship; ‘but, if you like to go in boy’s clothes, I have one at your disposal; but not transferable mind.’ Memoirs and letters are such fab things; who would have thought they would be giving out men’s and ladies’ tickets? I presume to ensure numbers did not become too uneven so that people had partners to dance with.

Julia was very shy and did not like boy’s clothes; but Julia’s legs were perhaps the handsomest in Europe, and then Julia knew there was no remedy; so after accepting Lord Hertford’s polite offer with many thanks, I accompanied her to Mr Stultze, the German regimental tailor and money-lender in Clifford Street.

We asked Stultze’s advice about a modest disguise for Julia, and he referred us to a book full of drawings therein exhibited, the dress of an Italian or Austrian peasant-boy and girl, I forget which; but I remember that Julia wore black satin small-clothes, plaited very full around the waist… fastened tight at the knee, with a smart bow, fine, black, transparent silk stockings, black satin shoes, cut very short in the quarters, and tied with a large red rosette, a French cambric shirt, with beautifully small plaited sleeves, a bright blue, rich silk jacket without sleeves, trimmed very thick, with curiously wrought silver bell-button, and a plain round black hat with a red silk band and bow.

I, as Julia’s fair companion, was to wear a bright red, thick silk petticoat, with a black satin jacket, the form of which was very peculiar and most advantageous to the shape. The sleeves were tight, and it came rather high upon the breast. It was very full-trimmed, with a double row of the same buttons Julia wore. My shoes were black satin, turned over with red morocco; my stockings were of fine blue silk, with small red clocks; my hat was small, round and almost flat, the crown being merely the height of a full puffing of rich pea-green satin ribbon. The hat was covered with satin of the same colour, and placed on one side at the back of the head. The hair was to fall over the neck and face in a profusion of careless ringlets, and, inside my vest, an Indian amber-coloured handkerchief.

Stultze brought home our dresses himself in his tilbury, on the morning of the masquerade, being anxious that we should do him credit. Everything fitted us to a hair. The crowd was expected to be immense., and we were advised to get into our carriage at five in the afternoon, as, by so doing, we should stand a chance of arriving between nine and ten o’clock, at which hour the rooms were expected to be quite full.

Fanny chose the character of a country house-maid. She wore short sleeves to show her pretty arms, an Indian, glazed, open, coloured gown, neatly tucked up behind, a white muslin apron, coloured handkerchief, pink glazed petticoat, and smart little, high, muslin cap.

What character in the name of wonder did Amy choose? That of a nun, forsooth! (LOL 😀 – Harriette strikes another hit upon the sister she hated. )’

Harriette and Julia remained in the street in their carriage from five until nine, delayed by the sheer number of carriages arriving. It was really common for long queues of carriages to form outside popular balls and events and for people to sit in carriages for hours, waiting for their carriage to reach the door. But I think four hours was exceptional.

At last we arrived and were received at the first entrance-room by the Dukes of Devonshire (Georgiana’s son, Hart – reference the film – The Duchess) and Leinster, dressed in light blue dominos. They were unmasked, this being the costume fixed on for all members of the Wattier’s club. The newspapers described this most brilliant fete (Now that is interesting I am beginning to wonder if they used the word ball then, that is twice when I have read about actual balls they were called fetes… Mmm, interesting)  in glowing colours long ago, and much better than I can do; I will therefore merely state that it exceeded all my highest flights of imagination, even when, as a child, I used to picture to my fancy the luxurious places of the fairies described in my story-books…

Harriette will continue telling us more about this wonderful moment of history, next week…

Jane Lark is a writer of authentic, passionate and emotional Historical and New Adult Romances, and the author of a No.1 bestselling Historical Romance novel in America, ‘The Illicit Love of a Courtesan’ and ‘I Found You’ a bestselling novel in the contemporary chart. Currently reduced to $1.99 in the USA from $7.

Book 3 in the Marlow Intrigues series, The Scandalous Love of a Duke, will be published on the 3rd April, and is now available for pre-order, click on the cover on the right-hand side to order. Jane’s novels, The Passionate Love of Rake and I Found You, will also be available in Paperback on 17th April and are available to pre-order. The Illicit Love of a Courtesan and I Found You, are already available in print in the USA. 

Why not also read A Lord’s Desperate Love the story of two of the characters from The Passionate Love of a rake which Jane is telling for free here, there is a link to each part in the index of posts. 

Click here to find out more about Jane’s books, and see Jane’s website www.janelark.co.uk to learn more about Jane. Or click  ‘like’ on Jane’s Facebook  page to see photo’s and learn historical facts from the Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras, which Jane publishes there. You can also follow Jane on twitter at @janelark