Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - Fancy-Balls

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life20.gif (47195 bytes) IN our present capacity, we feel that we are nothing more than a showman. We have been fortunate enough to obtain an engagement in a tolerably attractive and popular exhibition, through a certain portion of which it is our duly to conduct the public - pointing out, as we go on, the various beauties of our department, and commenting and enlarging upon the same, with as much eloquence as we are master of. We are sure of a numerous and fashionable audience; the attractions held out by the "spirited proprietor" render it impossible that it should be otherwise. But, that they will listen to our observations with that profound attention which we could wish, cannot, we are afraid, be counted on with anything like a similar degree of certainty. Indeed - however humiliating the prospect may be - we cannot shut our eyes to the possibility of our having to talk on unheeded. Still, as there may be a discerning few among the crowd who will deem us worthy of a minute's attention, we will do our best to make ourselves as agreeable as possible - feeling that, if we should happen to get mentioned as "that rather amusing young man, who showed us through such and such a department," with the addition that "one or two remarks that he made were [-160-] really not so bad "-we shall be more than compensated for the indifference of thousands.
    We will begin, in the style of our peripatetic brethren - Ladies and gentlemen, please to "observe the pictur." Don't be in a hurry, if you please, as there is plenty of time for you to go through the rest of the collection, and this is one that requires particular and careful examination.
    The scene is an English Fancy Dress Ball. Observe, not a vulgar Gentish affair, where pasteboard-noses, clowns, and smoking are tolerated, and whereof the harmony is likely to be disturbed by some of the company getting intoxicated and fighting with empty bottles. It is an assembly for which no tills have been robbed (save indirectly, perhaps, in the way of some bills that will never be paid) and which will not give the police any trouble in dispersing. The parties present are, in fact, ladies and gentlemen who wear their own dresses, and have arrived, and will depart, in their own private conveyances; and whose doing will be chronicled, at great length, in to-morrow's Post - the readers of which illustrious publication will receive a sort of "Dorling's Correct Card," setting forth the names, weights (in society), and colours of the riders of the various hobbies trotted out for the occasion.
    And before we go any further with our picture, let us stop awhile and consider what sort of one the Post will draw of the subject. He will doubtless give a most glowing and bewitching view of the whole affair; and as to truthfulness in every particular of lace, feather, trinket, and ribbon, we will back him for being right to a spangle. On every point on which the valet, lady's-maid, tailor, or dress-maker may be considered [-161-] an authority, his information may be relied on. If ho says that the Countess of Roseville, as Boadicea wore a blue satin paletot lined with puce baize, and trimmed with Honiton lace, four inches and one-eighth deep, at twenty-four pounds six and threepence a-yard; and a stomacher of red fustian, ornamented with two pounds and an ounce of the most expensive black bugles - depend upon it he is right. Or, if he tells you that Lord Crowdy, as Tippoo Saib, looked magnificently, in green velvet pantaloons, tied, at each ankle, with three-quarters of a yard of gold cord; and wore a superb peacock's feather, containing four hundred and sixty-four fibres-make sure that such was the case. In fact, as regards detail, his picture will be perfect. But will the true tone and general effect of the thing be given with like accuracy? We are afraid not. We rather fear that - like a regular fashionable portrait-painter, as he is - he will make his picture like enough to he recognised, but tremendously flattered. Our knowledge of his style tells us that he will represent the scene as one of such thrilling rapture and delight, as to seem - if not quite up to the mark of Elysium - at all events so near an approach to it as to answer every purpose.
    And is it not in truth a happy scene? Let us now turn to our picture and inquire. Let us see what the two prominent figures - the not by any means bad-looking fellow in the Highland dress, and his Cavalier friend with the eye-glass-have to say on the subject.
    The answer they give us is to a very different tune. According to them, the whole affair is rather "slow" and disheartening, and they are evidently feeling, in secret, rather ashamed of themselves for being parties [-162-] to it. They have discovered that their dresses, which cost them so much money and consideration, are conducive rather to discomfort and awkwardness than enjoyment. The Cavalier is not at all sure that his sword will not play him some dreadful trick, before he has done with it; and the Highlander is cold about the legs. But what annoys them most of all, is the dreadfully humiliating feeling which they have struggled hard to stifle within their bosoms - that they have been making fools of themselves to no purpose. Still, as to confess one's-self disappointed, in such a case, would be equivalent to confessing one's-self taken in - which no one likes to do - they are striving hard to conceal their discomfiture, not by pretending to enjoy themselves - that they could not manage with anything like success, were they to try ever so - but by an appearance of apathetic languor (seasoned on the Scotch-man's part with a dash of scorn) calculated to impress the spectator with an idea that they are as much pleased as two such distinguished and blasé individuals possibly can be.
    But we think we hear some one say - there are but two figures shown; and is not taking those two as a sample of the whole, a proceeding rather similar to that of the ancient sage, who carried a brick about with him as a specimen of the house he wished to sell? But we say, No; rather let them be compared to a glass of wine, which gives the taster as good an idea of the quality of the pipe from which it has been drawn, as he would get by having the head of the cask stove in. Some experience that we have had in such matters tells us that the spirit and flavour of the whole assembly - aye! and of all such assemblies - may be [-163-] got at by means of those two countenances. And it must be confessed that the spirit is by no means an ardent one, and that the flavour is dreadfully flat.
    For, we are disposed to maintain, and we will do it boldly, that all affairs of the sort must be failures. From the magnificent scene at Willis's, for the benefit of the Distressed Poles, or the Distressed Trowserstrap-button-hole-Makers, with Duchesses and Countesses for presiding spirits, down to the humble attempt made in the long room of some suburban public-house, at the very moderate figure of "Gents, three-and-six; Ladies, two-and-six," and which is for the benefit of nobody but the landlord, and especially for the benefit of nobody's morals - the same maybe said of them all. There is a restraint, in a fancy dress, incompatible with true enjoyment; and, however violent our passions for a polka, or however much we may delight in the intoxicating evolutions of a deux-temps, when properly dressed and gloved for the occasion, there is a dispiriting and wet-blanket-like influence which always attends the wearing of fantastic costumes, such as we are not accustomed to. Nor is this influence much dispelled by the melancholy attempts which are always, more or less, made to "keep up" the characters assumed - as if the character of Cardinal Wolsey were at all compatible with polkas; or the peculiarities of Roderick Dhu or Haroun Alraschid, could be expressed in the movements of a quadrille. True, there may be some to whom the scene brings no disappointment; vain ones to whom the pleasure of walking about to be looked at, in a splendid dress, is ample compensation for hours of dulness. But that the thing is dull and stupid beyond compare, we are none the less convinced.
    [-164-] it may be said that a Fancy-Ball is a fine sight. We grant that, if got up regardless of expense, it is. It is a very fine thing, indeed, to see a spacious and brilliantly-lighted room, thronged with people, dressed in fashions selected from almost every age and country - to say nothing of an immense quantity that never could have been prevalent in any age or country. It is very delightful to see haughty Crusaders, so far unbending as to fraternize with Swiss Peasants and Spanish Brigands, laying aside the rugged ferocity of their dispositions, and chatting peacefully with military officers. It is very delightful, we repeat; even though some of the Brigands be rather weak in the knees, and a portion of the Crusaders are rather too short and fat quite to come up to the notion of what those hardy warriors ought to be. But we do not consider that making one in a grand tableau is in itself very great diversion. The Poses Plastique are a very fine sight: so, for the matter of that, is the Lord Mayor's Show. But we do not know that we should much enjoy appearing as the Eagle-Slayer at the one, or officiating as "Man in Armour" at the other.
    We have had our brief say. We do not belong to the virtuous-indignation school of writers - it never having been made sufficiently worth our while to join it; nevertheless, we must plead guilty to having, in this instance, written with "a purpose." We are not vain about our influence; but if the observations in this unpretending paper should have the effect of inducing any lady of title to alter her present determination of giving a bal costumé during the forthcoming season, and make it instead, a good, festive, sociable party (at which we shall be most happy to make one), [-165-] our purpose will be answered. And whether rewarded in the manner we have just hinted in parenthesis, or not, we shall exult in the proud conviction that we have done service to a number of our fellow-creatures.


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