Monday, December 26, 2011

Almack's - it's not quite what you think...


by M.M. Bennetts



Almack's. The name conjures up images of a glittering Regency ball attended by ladies in elegant silk gowns and gentlemen in the formal attire of the age, all dancing and bowing together--Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet only in polished London setting. Though this, I suspect, may be down to the frequency with which the late Georgette Heyer wrote of the place.

The reality, regardless of the fictional lore, was somewhat different.

Almack's Assembly Rooms were located on King Street, St. James's. The Assembly Rooms themselves had been opened in 1764 by a Scot by the name of MacCall who, allegedly, decided on an approximate anagram of his name for the rooms.

There was a large ballroom--some ninety to one hundred feet long and forty feet wide--which was decorated with gilded columns and pilasters, classic medallions and very large mirrors. By the late Regency (so post 1814-15) it was lit by gas, in elaborate cut-glass lustres.

There was a balcony at one end where the small orchestra were seated. Refreshments (such as they were) were deliberately (revoltingly) mediocre: weak lemonade or orgeat or ratafia, dry biscuits and day-old brown bread and butter. (Although good wine or alcohol was never served on the premises, many gentlemen would have arrived already drunk.)

There was also a dais or raised seat at the upper end, where the Lady Patronesses sat, "nodding acknowledgement as the invitees arrived."

Balls were given once a week, on Wednesday evenings, for a twelve-week period during the Season--roughly from the beginning of March until early June. Until 1814, only country dances were permitted. Thereafter, quadrilles and the waltz were introduced to liven things up. No one was admitted after 11 p.m., but frequently the dancing went on well into Thursday morning.

By 1801, the required 'uniform' for a gentleman was the look made famous and fashionable by George Brummell: a dark coat, (navy or black) white cravat and black knee breeches and silk stockings or tight black pantaloons with thin shoes (men's black dancing pumps), and chapeau bras. Wider trousers or any introduction of colour were unacceptable and the wearer would be turned away at the door.

Admission to these balls was by ticket only, or by 'voucher' (a cardboard square) as they were called, which were on sale on Bond Street.

And the cost of this? Almack's membership fee was ten guineas--around £350 in today's money according to the UK National Archives. One then had to buy one's tickets at a cost of ten shillings each (£17 in today's money).

But these vouchers were only made available to those on the List. And the means for inclusion on this List is among the most important things one needs to know about the place. For Almack's during the early years of the 19th century was an exclusive club. Very exclusive. And it was run by women.

And not just any women. These are ladies of highest birth, fortune and snobbery. And possibly the last of those qualities is the most important. They are the Lady Patronesses.

In 1812, the Patronesses were:

Lady Emily Cowper: daughter of the Earl and Countess of Melbourne; by 1814, the lover of Lord Palmerston and then his wife; sister of William Lamb and therefore sister-in-law to Lady Caroline Lamb who is the niece of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and daughter of the Earl and Countess of Bessborough;
Lady Jersey: wife of the 5th Earl of Jersey, the granddaughter of Robert Childs, a banker, and a considerable heiress; sister to the 11th Earl of Westmorland (and yes, her nickname was Silence because she never shut her mouth);
Lady Castlereagh: wife of Viscount Castlereagh (later the Marquis of Londonderry--he was Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons from 1812 until his death in 1822), she was the daughter of the 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire--he'd been the British Ambassador to Russia and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland;
Mrs. Drummond Burrell, wife of the notable dandy who was enobled so she later became Lady Gwydry and eventually Lady Willoughby de Eresby; Lady Sefton; the Austrian Ambassador's wife, Princess Esterhazy; and after 1814, the Russian Ambassador's wife, Countess Lieven (who deserves her own blog as she is one of the most opionated, odiously officious, haughtiest busybodies ever to breathe oxygen).

Unofficially, until he fled to the Continent to escape his debtors in 1814, Mr. Brummell also wielded a great deal of influence over whom to admit to the List and whom to strike off.

And probably it is this description of those who wielded the power to include or exclude that is most informative about Almack's. Because although politics (and sex, London street riots, and the war) were all forbidden topics of conversation there, these were women at the pinnacle of political power and patronage, influence and wealth, not just in Britain but in Europe itself.

Between them, they weighed and scrutinised Britain's nobility and gentry. And in most cases, found it wanting. Probably some full three quarters of Britain's aristocracy failed to gain their approbation. Wealth--especially if it 'smelled of the shop'--was no guarantee of entry. Nor was birth. Good looks or talent might help. Dancing well, especially if one were male, was a definite asset.

According to Captain Gronow in his Regency Recollections: "Very often, persons whose rank and fortunes entitled them to the entree, were excluded by the cliqueism of the lady patronesses: for the female government of Almack's was a pure despotism and subject to all the caprices of despotic rule."

The travel writer, Major Chambre, in his Recollections, wrote of the 'Rules of Admission': "No lady or gentleman's name could continue of the list of the same patroness for more than one set of balls. No gentleman's tickets could be transferred; nor could ladies procure them for their female friends, nor gentlemen for gentlemen. A mother might give hers to a daughter, or one unmarried sister to another. Subscribers who were prevented coming, were requested to give notice to the lady patronesses on the day of the ball by two o'clock...that the vacancies might be filled up."

Moreover, having been on the List one year did not necessarily mean one could look to be included in the next year's List. Often too, in what might be described as playfulness (some might call it bitchiness) the patronesses would extend vouchers to a lady, but not her husband. Or vice versa. Particularly if it was felt one had married beneath oneself.

Almack's was, in short, a place wholly given over to the pursuit of sex and marriage--and these are alliances based on property, money, political influence and prestige. It is not about 'love-matches'.

In Austenite language, (though Jane Austen herself never mentions it) Almack's was a place where Miss Georgiana Darcy could be safely introduced to eligible young men, without her brother or her trustees worrying that she might encounter a fortune-hunter of the stamp of Wickham or Willoughby. Likewise these eligible young men would be sure that Miss Georgiana Darcy had been vetted by the Patronesses, that she was possessed of the fortune she claimed to have, and that she was suitably well-born.

For those who are devotees of Downton Abbey, if I may give another example, Almack's provided one setting where the Lady Mary Crawleys of the age might encounter suitable gentlemen with whom they might form an alliance. It was never a place for ingenues from the country.

It was a hot-house atmosphere of gossip, music, dancing, and repressed sexual tension perhaps, but above all, it was a place where the very rich and very powerful played, partied, and reigned supreme...

In Gronow's words, Almack's was "the seventh heaven of the fashionable world."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British and European history, and the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out more at www.mmbennetts.com.

9 comments:

  1. As an author of Regency-era fiction,I greatly appreaciated your article. Human nature tends to the "better than thou" attitude, and Almacks was certainly built and maintained upon that principle. Nazi Germany was an example in the extreme. Thanks for your article.

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  2. Very interesting post.
    Human nature is such a fickle thing - just because it was snobbish to go there it was all the rage.
    Day-old bread - now there's a reason to go...not!

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  3. They did also occasionally serve 'dry' cake--by which they meant not iced or frosted. And the bread had to be a day-old at least so that they could slice it very thin. Parsimonious? Not half! Ha ha.

    But it's the thought of having to 'cope' with the likes of Sally Jersey and Dorothea Lieven that would just send me heading for the hills.

    Gronow wrote of Sally Jersey, "Lady Jersey's bearing, on the contrary, was that of a theatrical tragedy queen; and whilst attempting the sublime, she frequently made herself simply ridiculous, being inconceivably rude, and in her manner often ill-bred."

    Very glad you enjoyed the piece though.

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  4. "In Austenite language, (though Jane Austen herself never mentions it) Almack's was a place where Miss Georgiana Darcy could be safely introduced to eligible young men, without her brother or her trustees worrying that she might encounter a fortune-hunter of the stamp of Wickham or Willoughby. Likewise these eligible young men would be sure that Miss Georgiana Darcy had been vetted by the Patronesses, that she was possessed of the fortune she claimed to have, and that she was suitably well-born."

    Great, great point. Historical romances, which I read much of but lost interest in once I became a romance novel cynic, almost always have an Almack's scene. But after reading this article I realize how many, many authors are totally unaware of this fact. Thanks for sharing!

    -June

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  5. I enjoyed this article. It is hard to read a regency era novel without the people ending up at Almack's. It's fascinating about all the rules that were imposed here and the personalities of the Patronesses.

    Thanks for the post!

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  6. I have been trying to discover, and thus far failing, in what year Almack's installed gas lighting. Does anyone have that information? Thank you.

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  7. Naomi, the article says this: "By the late Regency (so post 1814-15) it was lit by gas...". Did you want a more precise date?

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  8. Thanks, Helena, that's excellent info! More precision is not needed. Thanks for responding.

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  9. Did Almack's have outdoor space? A balcony or a garden?

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