The pleasures of the season, 1827
Wait, HOW MANY pairs of satin shoes?!
(Hello, this is Histories, a weekly email exploring first-hand accounts from the corners of history… Do please share this with fellow history fans and subscribe to receive it in your inbox for free.)
There is bonus material to accompany this edition, called Snapshots of Georgian Life, available free to iPhone/iPad users: download the free Threadable app to your device, go to the Circles section and use the code 61001, and I’ll see you there!
People who were shabby enough to ask for invitations were well served in the answers they usually got; the men were rejected because they were old or vulgar, and the ladies because they were ugly.
Last week I introduced John Wilson Croker (1780–1857), a rather divisive Anglo-Irish writer and politician who counted many famous names of the early 19th century among his friends and his enemies. He is little known today, but his connections and frank style make some of his journal entries and letters an interesting read.
Croker thrived in the political sphere and spent much of his career as First Secretary to the Admiralty – last time I discussed his friendship with the Duke of Wellington, and in fact he was also close to the Prince Regent, who became George IV in 1820. These connections brought Croker close to the whirl of high society in this Regency era and at times his writings evoke the world described by his contemporary Jane Austen. Croker himself is believed to have inspired a variety of literary characters – the self-serving Rigby in Benjamin Disraeli’s Coningsby, for example, and the literary reviewer Con Crawley (author of a “fluent tirade of pedantic jargon”) in Lady Morgan Sydney’s Florence Macarthy – this was a clear act of revenge for Croker’s excoriating reviews of her work in the Quarterly Review.
It’s no surprise, perhaps, that Croker wasn’t actually invited to the lavish party he describes1 in this week’s extract below – but he manages to convey its flavour anyway, and the scene he depicts is one of remarkable extravagance. The text is from a letter2 to his friend Lord Hertford (Francis Charles Seymour-Conway, aka Earl of Yarmouth). It also refers to the ailing George Canning, then Prime Minister (and the shortest-serving one in British history – 118 days), who died not long afterwards, in August 1827.
The great “Carousal” of the year has been the fete at Boyle Farm [home of Lord Henry FitzGerald] on Saturday last. It would fill three letters to give you any account of this entertainment, and of all the impertinences which preceded and accompanied it. It was exclusive to the last degree; the founders of the feast, Alvanley, Chesterfield, Castlereagh, H. de Ros, and Robert Grosvenor ballotted, it is said, for every name proposed for invitation. The wags say that Lord and Lady Grosvenor had four black balls; on which Robert Grosvenor said that really he could not be of it if he were not to ask papa and mamma. Upon this he was allowed to invite them, but on an engagement that they should not come. People who were shabby enough to ask for invitations were well served in the answers they usually got; the men were rejected because they were old or vulgar, and the ladies because they were ugly. It was really amusing to hear at the Opera the reasons which the excluded ladies gave for being seen at so unfashionable a place as the Opera was that night. I will not make you stare with all the fables which are reported; roads watered with Eau de Cologne — 500 pair of white satin shoes from Paris to counteract the damp of the green turf. More gallons of Roman punch than Meux’s great brewing vats would hold. Fireworks ordered on this scale — the Vauxhall man was asked what was the greatest expense he could go to, and then ordered to double it ; and so I need hardly add that I was not invited; but it really, and without exaggeration, was a most splendid fete. Alex. Baring calculated the expense at 15,000l.; but no one else that I have heard carries it higher than 3000l. or 3500l.
Canning looks tired, but his intimates say that he is only tired; the Opposition say that he is really ill. The Duke of Devonshire has lent him Chiswick, as his father did to Mr. Fox. I hope it may not be ominous.
People are staying longer in town than usual, I think, and are therefore prolonging what they call the pleasures of the season; breakfasts and water parties which, (on account, I presume, of the chief motives of such gatherings,) find so little countenance from the heavens above, that every day that has been fixed for one of these things, down goes the mercury, and down comes the rain. The Speaker made us laugh by a practical illustration of these (really) “contretemps.” While he was dressing, the other morning, in a bright sunshine and perfect white-trousers-weather, he heard a noise of music on the river, and on inquiry from his servant found that the Corporation were going on the water for a day’s pleasuring. “Are they so?” said the Speaker, “then give me a pair of cloth pantaloons,” and, to be sure, the day changed to as dirty a one, as the sailors call it, as ever drenched silk or blew away feathers.
To-day has been tolerably fine, although there is a pic-nic breakfast at Putney — a real pic-nic. They have hired or borrowed a lawn for the occasion, and each person brings a dish and a bottle. The Duchess of Leinster is the founder of the feast — ’tis a mighty economical mode of entertaining the town. Her Grace needs only bring a cheese-cake and a bottle of soda-water — that fulfils the requisites; and then one might hope that her Grace of St. Albans would bring a round of beef and a bottle of brandy. This fête champêtre was held, or I should say more truly, is now holding, at a villa at Putney called the Cedars, from some large trees which you may remember; but those who either would not go, or were not asked, are called the seceders, so that it looks like a party thing. They say that Lady Glengall has persuaded Leach to attempt a kind of Vauxhall party in the Rolls garden — a place about ten feet square at the back of Fleet Street. It will be more fruitful of jokes than of anything-else: they talk already of light let into Chancery — smelling of the oil — that the garden is really the court — and “hot rolls in the month of July.” I spare you many more. Mrs. Fox was saying the other day at dinner that the Master of the Rolls had given a dinner-party to Lady Glengall, Mrs. Fox herself, and half a dozen other women. “ And really,” said Lord Dudley, “were there no men but the Master of the Rolls and Lady Glengall?”
I forget whether the ladies had burst out into flower before you went; they now wear bouquets like our grandmothers, and not merely in their bosoms, but they carry them about in their hands as large as brooms, and when they sit down to dinner they stick their nosegays into the water glasses and the table looks like a bed of flowers. Some one was saying that young Lady Londonderry has relays of them, and that when she dines out a page follows her with a fresh bouquet. They talk of reviving the fountains in which our grandmothers used to carry their flowers about their persons. If they succeed, we may repeat Horace Walpole’s jest and say, “What a number of sore throats there will be from the over-setting of the fountains.” But all this fashion will be gone before you return; at least, it is to be hoped so. This fountain-spilling would be dreadfully inconvenient.
In the bonus extra material (install this app and use code 61001), you can find Croker’s lively description of a visit to the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, the Prince Regent’s much-loved seaside retreat. Next week: a last dip into Croker’s writing.
’Tis evening now, the sun is sinking,
To warn us from protracted drinking.
Yon lighted, boarded, chalk’d pavilion
Is destined for the gay cotillon.
As last week, taken from Volume I of The Croker Papers, published in 1884.