THE REGENCY LIBRARY
Part III Chapter 11 Beaux of the Regency part III Page 240-250
As a rule, the rejected hid their diminished heads for a while, and then, plucking up courage, made further efforts to enter the charmed circle; but now and then the refusal was not taken in good part, as in the case of a captain in the Guards, whose application for a voucher was answered in the negative by Willis. The captain, in a towering rage, called on Willis, who excused himself for his letter by saying, “Sir, I wrote to you at the request of Lady Jersey, saying that as her ladyship was unacquainted with you, I had been instructed to reply to your letter by stating that the Lady Patronesses declined sending you a ticket for the ball.” As this was said in public, the captain sent a cartel to Lord Jersey, who refused to meet him, on the ground that if all the persons who did not receive tickets from his wife were to call him out, he should have to make up his mind to become a target for young officers.“All on that magic List depends; Fame, fortune, fashion, lovers, friends; ‘Tis that which gratifies or vexes, All ranks, all ages, and both sexes.” If once to Almack’s you belong, Like monarchs, you can do no wrong; But banished thence on Wednesday night, By Jove, you can do nothing right.”*
Every precaution was taken to prevent the intrusion of those who had not the magic key in the form of the voucher.“What form is that, with looks so sinister!— Willis, their Excellencies’ minister— See where in portly pride he stands To execute their high commands; Unmoved his heart, unbribed his hands. See, where the barrier he prepares Just at the bottom of the stairs, Midst fragrant flowers and shrubs exotic;-- A man relentless and despotic As he of Tunis or Algiers, Or any of their Grand Viziers. “Suppose the prize by hundred miss’d Is yours at last—You’re on the list— Your voucher’s issued, duly signed; But hold—your ticket’s left behind. What’s to be done? There’s no admission. In vain you flatter, scold, petition, Feel your blood mounting like a rocket, Fumble in vain in every pocket. ‘The rule’s so strict, I dare not stretch it,’ Cries Willis, ‘pray my lord, go fetch it.’— ‘Nonsense’ you cry, ‘so late at night— Surely you know me, sir, by sight.’ ‘Excuse me—the committee sat This morning!’—‘Did they, what of that?’ ‘An order given this very day, My lord, I dare not disobey. Your pardon.’ Further parley’s vain; So for your ticket, in the rain, Breathless, you canter home again.”**
There were other rules too, to be observed besides the production of vouchers. “No gentleman shall appear at the assemblies without being dressed in knee-breeches, white cravat, and chapeau bras,” was one of the regulations, and though you were the Duke of Wellington, as indeed, once did happen, if you contravened this law and appeared in trousers, you must return home and change your nether garments.***“To the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s. “Tired of our trousers are ye grown? But since to them your anger reaches, Is it because ‘tis so well known You always love to wear the breeches!”
It was not enough to wear knee breeches and to have your ticket with you. You also had to present yourself before half past eleven before the doors were closed against all comers.****“What sounds were those?—O earth and heaven! Head you the chimes—half past eleven! They tell, with iron tongue, your fate, Unhappy lingerer, if you’re late; Haste, while ye may—Behold! Approaches The last of yonder string of coaches; Stern Willis, in a moment more, Closes th’ inexorable door, And great the conjurer must be Who can cry, ‘Open Sesame!’ “Such is the rule, which none infringes, The door one jot upon its hinges Moves not. Once past the fatal hour, Willis has no dispensing power. Spite of persuasion, tears or force, ‘The law’ he cries ‘must take its course.’ And men may swear, and women pout. No matter,--they are all shut out.”
Some ingenious person, however, found a way to evade the rule: by leaving his coat in his carriage, lying perdu in the shadow close by, and when the first batch of ladies drove off, going upstairs as if he was one of the party, with the gentlemen who escorted them to their vehicle.*****
It seems strange to-day when society is split up into so many powerful cliques, that the supremacy of Almack’s should have been so long unchallenged, and its power seems largely to have rested, not only on its exclusiveness—that bait which so surely attracts all outsiders—but on the fact that it always admitted the leaders of the dandical body, as Carlysle called the beaux, and so was assured of the loyalty of the followers of those distinguished persons. Indeed, it was to the headquarters of the dandies that Professor Teufelsdroch regarded it. “They have their Temple, whereof the chief, as the Jewish Temple did, stands in the metropolis; and is named Almack’s, a word of uncertain etymology,” that famous scholar has written. “They worship principally at night; and have their High-priests and High-priestesses, who, however, do not continue for life. The rites, by some supposed to be of a Menadic sort, or perhaps with an Eleusinian or Cabiric character, are held strictly sacred. Nor are Sacred Books wanting to the Sect; these they call Fashionable Novels; however the Canon is not completed and some are canonical and others are not.******
An assembly that could regulate the hour of arrival of its members, and could venture to turn away the Duke of Wellington for a breach of its rules, might legitimately regard itself the arbiter, even the despot of fashion; and certainly no innovations stood any reasonable chance of acceptance that were not sanctioned by it; so it came to pass, as a matter of course, that all changes in any department of fashionable life were submitted for its august approval. Nothing could disturb its serenity. You might lampoon the Lady Patronesses, but you left them unscathed. They were impervious to all comment, satirical or kindly; they swerved not from their path for any shaft of wit; and their word was law to the uttermost limits of their kingdom. Yet on one occasion they were nearly defeated, and, indeed, it is probable that they escaped such a catastrophe only by enlisting the support of a crowned head.
At Almack’s, as elsewhere in London, the day had passed when in the ball-room the minuet and other stately movements were fashionable; and during the early years of the Regency the dances in vogue were the English country dances, Scotch jigs, and Highland reels, and last, introduced into London, it is said, by Jane, Duchess of Gordon, and performed by her to the accompaniment of an orchestra from Edinburgh conducted by Niel Gow, the composer of “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” It was the introduction of a new dance that shook not only Almack’s but all England to its foundations. In 1815 Lady Jersey and Count Aldegonde, Lady Harriet Butler and Mr. Montgomery, Lady Susan Ryde and Mr. Montagu, and Miss Montgomery and Mr. Charles Standish (or, some authorities say, Mr. Haytey) danced the first set of quadrilles, which, presented by such sponsors, at once became fashionable. The quadrilles evoked much interest, but this was nothing compared with the sensation that had been caused two years earlier by the introduction from abroad of the waltz.
Some such dance, it appears had been known in England nearly a score of years before, for in The Times of February 19, 1796 we read: “The balls at Southampton are exceedingly lively and well-attended. The young ladies are particularly favourable to a German dance called the Volse: for squeezing, hugging, etc., it is excellent, and more than one Lady has actually fainted in the middle of it.” The “Volse” however, had never penetrated to the metropolis, or at least to the fashionable circles thereof; and when in 1813 it was danced at Almack’s for the first time-it was then a slow movement in trios temps—by Madame de Lieven and “Cupid” Palmerston, and Princess Esterhazy and Baron de Neumann, it divided society into two camps; those who welcomed it with open arms, and those who resented the introduction of what appeared to them as a most indecorous proceeding. Lampoon after lampoon was provoked by the new dance, and more than one of these has come down to posterity.“What! The girl of my heart by another embrac’d? What! The balm of her lips shall another man taste? What! Touched in the twirl by another man’s knee? What! Panting recline on another than me?”
Every student of English literature remembers the astonishment of “Horace Hornem” when he saw the waltz danced for the first time, and observed “poor Mrs. Hornem with her arms half round the loins of a huge hussar-looking gentleman, and his, to say truth, rather more than half round her waist, turning round and round, toad____d see-saw up and down sort of tune, that reminded him of the ‘Black Joke,’ only more ‘affettuoso,’ till it made him quite giddy wondering whether they were not so.” Byron, who on this occasion, used the pseudonym of Hornem, in the “apostrophic hymn” to the waltz indicated in the prose introduction the popular feelings on the subject, and in the poem does not speak of it respectfully.“Imperial Waltz! Imported from the Rhine (Famed for the growth of pedigrees and wine), Long be thine import from all duty free, And Hock itself be less esteemed than thee; In some few qualities alike—for Hock Improves our cellar—thou our living stock. The head to Hock belongs—thy subtler art Intoxicates alone the heedless heart; Through the full veins thy gentler poison swims, And wakes to wantonness the willing limbs.”
But even as Mr. Hornem followed his wife’s example, and, after having “broken his shins and four times overturned Mrs. Hornem’s maid, practicing the preliminary steps in a morning,” came to like the waltz best of all things, so Byron realized that the dance had come to stay.“Endearing Waltz! To thy more melting tune Bow Irish Jig, and ancient Rigadoon Scotch reels, avaunt! And Country-dance forgo Your future claims to each fantastic toe.”
Indeed this prophecy came to pass, for, in spite of all opposition and prejudice, the waltz made headway, and when during the visit of the Allied Sovereigns to England, the Emperor Alexander danced it at Almack’s, those who still entertained any prejudice towards it lay low and held their peace.
*Luttrell: Advice to Julia
**Luttrell: Advice to Julia.
***”Who is there that does not know that the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s have interdicted pantaloons, tight or loose, at their assemblies? We have seen a MS instructive (which, alas! Never was printed), from this mighty conclave, announcing their fiat in these words: “Gentlemen will not be admitted without breeches and stockings:”—Theodore Hook in John Bull, 1823.
****This rule was subsequently modified to the extent that those carriages which had lined up in King Street by half past eleven might unload their passengers, so that it was often after midnight when the last vehicle drove off. This did not work well, and was abandoned, when holders of vouchers were allowed to enter until twelve o’clock.
******Yet another unwritten rule at Almack’s may be deduced from the following: “I have seen many a man, Bacchi plenus, enter the sacred precincts of Almack’s ball, who, if he appeared in a drawing room with clothes redolent of tobacco, would never again have found admittance there.”—Lord William Pitt Lennox: Fashion.