The world upside down. The 18th-century Masquerade
5th February 2013
During the 18th century the masquerade was always a popular and well-attended social event in England - as elsewhere in Europe (particularly Venice). There were many private masquerades and parties, but also public ones in which people from all classes of society could attend for little more than the price of a ticket and their costume.
These could be staged in theatres or special purpose-built venues. Some of the best were organised and run by women. There could be hundreds of guests, all mingling and circulating together in their various disguises. A Duchess could mix with a shop assistance, a Prince with a wig maker. Beneath the costume and mask, identities were blurred, social conventions abandoned. Because of this, the 18th century masquerade was sometimes called 'The World Upside Down.'
The audience become the actors in this theatre masquerade - a painting by Giuseppe Grisoni, London 1724.
Gardens and romantic liaisons
Masquerades were held outdoors as well as inside. In Georgian times, the great London pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh regularly hosted masquerades in the summer months. It was quite acceptable to attend and wander about in masks at such places as well at almost any time. They were notorious venues of romantic liaison and intrigue. In distinction to our modern festivals or party-events, however, the masquerade was governed by fairly stringent codes of conduct. One of these was that you simply could not attend as yourself. You had to be in costume. And, of course, you had to behave yourself!
The thing about 18th century society was it was all very polite. Politeness was considered a mark of gentility and style. We only need to look at the letters from those times to understand the immense richness and skill of communication that was prevalent among the Georgians. People spoke to one another politely. They argued politely. Good manners were considered the mark of a lady or gentleman. Seduction and romance, too, was conducted through polite language, full of metaphor and colour. Even when people resorted to the violence of the duel, it was usually conducted politely, with a strict code of conduct and formality throughout.
Those attending were sometimes even listed in the newspapers, along with the characters portrayed.
Etiquette at the Masquerade
At the typical masquerade it was permissible to stare and to touch and to speak to complete strangers. But this was usually conducted in a well-tried and acceptable fashion. The etiquette might be, for instance, to begin with the question of, 'Do I know you, Sir/Madam?' The answer would be couched in suitably enigmatic language, since nobody wished to give away their identity until much later in the evening. It was then when the masks would be removed. Lots of eating, drinking, gambling and general flirtation were not only acceptable at the masquerade, but were positively encouraged. It was a special occasion and a very thrilling one, no doubt, for all concerned.
The famous Rotunda pavilion in Ranelagh Gardens hosted many a masquerade.
One of the themes running through the story of WILDISH is that life itself is a masquerade. It is full of people who might not always be quite what they seem. We, too, as individuals must put on a disguise or two of sorts much of the time. These are the roles we are forced to play in life, the appearances we need to maintain for those we strive to impress or influence.
And if it's true that 'life is a masquerade' then it must be equally the case that we cannot always choose whom we invite to the ball. In a sense, the modern internet is the ultimate in masquerades. People and organisations hide behind any identity they may care to create for themselves. Who can we trust? Where, then, is the reality? I hope the story shows where it might be found. The sub-title might hold the key 'A Story Concerning Different Kinds of Love.'