A Midnight Masquerade in 18th-Century London
by Linda Collison (disguised as a ship surgeon's mate)
“Do you know me?” The black domino, a masked figure wearing a full length hooded cloak croaks as we present our tickets and enter the Haymarket masquerade in our costumes. We exchange glances; indeed, we do not know if the cloaked figure is a friend or a stranger. Yet the domino seems to know us (or is he or she just bluffing?) Feeling bold in our disguises, we answer flirtatiously and dart away, losing ourselves in the crowd. The great theater is filled with masks (an 18th-century figure of speech for people wearing masks.) Many liberties will be taken and much mischief will happen here tonight, mark my words!
The English word "masquerade" is of foreign origin and had come into common usage by the second decade of the 18th century when the masquerade as a commercial entertainment became established in London. Advertised in newspapers, one purchased a ticket to attend. Count Heidegger is credited with the development of the public masquerade in England as a capitalist venture (Terry Castle). Stylized and commercialized, these urban masquerades were a vestige of the ancient carnival.
In one form or another, ritualized disguise has been around for a very long time and is an important part of many cultures. The 18th-century masquerade, like those of Renaissance-era Venice, allowed the different levels of society to mix and mingle. When one is in costume one is free to say and do things one wouldn’t ordinarily do. There was a lot of excitement associated with these masquerades, as well as license taken. They were an excuse to speak one's mind, express one's secret self, flirt, fondle, or be carried away. Masquerades brought out the exhibitionist or the voyeur in all who attended.
“I love a masquerade,” wrote Harriette Wilson in her memoir of the period, “Because a female can never enjoy the same liberty anywhere else.” (Castle, pg. 44)
Rooted in medieval English and Celtic festivals such as May Day, Midsummer’s Eve, All Hallows Eve, and the Christmas Gambol, the Masquerade developed into an urban phenomenon in 18th-century England, influenced by the carnivals of Venice.
The 18th century London masquerade enjoyed both popularity and reproof throughout the 1700’s. Many novelists, including Henry Fielding, Francis Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Daniel Defoe all made use of the masquerade as a setting for intrigue. Sometimes shocking things happened at masquerades, including prostitution and rape, and many essayists and religious reformers railed against them.
Three types of costumes predominated in London’s 18th century masquerades. The “domino” was a neutral costume, a great hooded cloak that totally enveloped the body. Worn with a mask or a hood, it was a complete disguise but a generic one. “Fancy dress” was the second general category, including a wide array of character types (milkmaids, clerical figures, military, exotic foreign dress, such as Turkish, oriental, pirate, that sort of thing.) The third type were costumes meant to portray a particular character, a specific individual. The goddess Diana, Van Dyke, Rubins and his wife, Harlequin and Punch, Don Quixote, Henry the VIII, Mary, Queen of Scots and Old Harry himself were ubiquitous characters at London masquerades of the period.
“There is something inherently appealing in the idea of the masquerade – an ineluctable charm in the notion of disguising oneself in a fanciful costume and moving through a crowd of masked strangers,” writes historian Terry Castle in Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction. This excellent scholarly work is a must for students of the 18th century British novel.
Personally, if I weren’t an author I would surely be an actress. I love the adventure of putting on a disguise and pretending to be someone else, explore the world in someone else’s shoes. Come to think of it, that might explain why I am compelled to write fiction...
I have not yet employed the public masquerade in my novels, but the theme of disguise figures prominently into my historical fiction. (Knopf;2006) is my first novel that inspired the series. Surgeon’s Mate; book two of the Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventure Series was published by Fireship Press in 2011. Yankee Moon is forthcoming. Check my website for details: http://www.lindacollison.com or follow my author’s blog at http://www.lindacollison.com/blog
If you’re having as much fun as I am, check out this virtual Masquerade
For further reading:
Castle, Terry. Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction. Standord, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.
Schofield, Mary Anne. Masking and Unmasking the Female Mind: Disguising Romance in Feminine Fiction 1713 to 1799. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1990.
Munns, Jessica. The Clothes That Wear Us: Essays on Dressing and Transgressing in Eighteenth Century Culture. Ewark, DE:University of Delaware Press, 1999.