Show Her at a Tea-table, Not a Ball: 1815

regency ball

Mr Editor,

After an absence of five-and-thirty years I returned to my native country in 1815, and have since that time resided for the most part in this city. I am an idle man and a bachelor, and derive great amusement from the Magazines and Reviews; I hope I shall not be accused of presumption, if I offer now and then to be one of your contributors, as well as one of your readers.

I should be very sorry, however, to write merely because I have nothing else to do; and I hope you will do me the justice to believe me, when I say that this letter is dedicated chiefly by a, sincere wish to do good to a certain class of readers, among whom, if I be not mistaken, your Miscellany has a pretty considerable circulation. Do not let the ladies (for it is to them that I address myself) imagine that I am the same quizzing sarcastic old bachelor who rallied them in your last Number about teeth and stays—I am a plain, well-meaning, common-place man, and my utmost ambition is to give good advice in a matter with which you will readily acknowledge I have had tolerable opportunities of making myself acquainted.

My fair readers then must know, that it is with considerable pain I have remarked a variety of changes which have taken place since my departure in 1780—I do not mean changes in dress, houses, and equipages—for these, I frankly acknowledge, have all been altered greatly for the better;—neither do I mean to insinuate, that the belles of the present day are less beautiful than those whom I remember, although such an opinion is, I confess, not unfrequently broached at the Edinburgh India club, of which I have the honour to be a member. I allude to changes in the arrangements of social intercourse, of which none, I think, have so much reason to complain as the young ladies, although, perhaps, the evil occasioned to the youth of my own sex be much more considerable than they are pleased to imagine. You must know, in a word, that the prevailing system of balls, and routs, and evening parties, is my abhorrence; and the matrons who think, as I have heard, that in establishing the fashion of these entertainments, they have achieved a great triumph in favour of their own sex, and more especially of their own daughters, may rest assured, that it would have been far wiser in them to have allowed the old usages, which they have dislodged, to remain in statu quo. The matron mind is not yet ripe for conviction on this head, but I doubt not, the experience of another ten years will abundantly do the business.

In the old state of things, when men lived more among themselves than they now do, a ball was a matter of no trifling moment. The young gentleman dressed himself for an assembly as he would have done for court, and gazed upon the elegant creatures who glided before him with high heels, powdered locks, and evanescent waists, with somewhat the same feelings of distant reverence and admiration with which a benighted poet might be supposed to contemplate the revealed gambols of a group of fairies or mermaids. But, now-a-days, there is a ball every night, and such illusions, if they do occur, are extremely short-lived. By dint of going through a few hot campaigns, the most awkward recruit becomes a fearless veteran; and the beau who dances every night for three or four seasons together, learns to face the most deadly artillery of smiles and dimples, without betraying any symptom of emotion. Every experienced general wishes the lines of his opponent to be filled with raw soldiers; and the shrewdest matron is she, that fills her drawing-room with the greatest number of unpractised Philanders. But this is not all. In the days when there were fewer balls, there were more tea parties, and there is always more occasion for flirtation at one tea-table than at twenty great assemblies, exactly as there is more room for the display of individual heroism in a skirmish than in a general engagement…

When Raphael was consulted about the disposal of one of his great pictures, his answer was, “place it by itself’” and whenever any mother shall ask my opinion how she may set off her daughter to best advantage, I shall reply in the same strain, “shew her at a tea-table, not at a ball.” If the picture be a middling one, it had better be hung up where there are no master-pieces; if it were the Transfiguration itself, it could gain nothing by being stuck into a crowded gallery. Do not allow the vain hope of favourable contrast to work upon you…Serious business is better managed in a committee than in a full house…The truth is, and matron or maid may doubt it if she will, that a marriage is becoming every day a greater rarity among us. At first sight, it may appear, that I am ill entitled to handle this topic, and I may incur some danger of having the old adage, about the Devil reproving sin, thrown in my teeth. But my fair readers must remember, that old Indians have better excuses than most other old bachelors. In their youth they have scarcely any opportunity of falling in love, and in their old age they have other things to think of. In my time there were fewer old bachelors, and infinitely fewer old maids, than now. No man—I except always the army—ever thought himself fairly set down in life till he was married, and the moment a laird returned from his travels, or a lawyer had got himself dubbed advocate or W. S. his first concern was to discover a suitable young woman, whom he forthwith courted with great diligence, and whose scruples he commonly found means to overcome by the end of a twelvemonth. If the nymph had a tocher, she was, to be sure, nothing the worse for it ; but in most cases, a good education, respectable connexions, and an agreeable person, set any young creature above the risk of dying an old maid, unless that happened to be her own choice. The single lady, of a certain age, was mostly such a one as had to thank either her own temper or some peculiar ill usage of nature or fortune for her mishap. I have seen enough of society since I came home, to convince me that they manage these things otherwise now.

My attention has been called to these matters more than it otherwise might have been, by the domestic circumstances of some relations among whom I spend a good deal of my time. I have a sister in this town, a widow lady with a small income, and six daughters, all unmarried; the eldest about thirty, and the youngest twenty-two. You will easily believe, that at their fireside circle, balls, routs, beaux, and tea parties, form no unusual articles of conversation. My sister is still an advocate for the new system, and, in her conversations with me, is backed by all the young ladies of the family. But I do not despair of converting them all by degrees, and indeed I think I can already perceive certain slight symptoms of growing conviction in the two eldest of my nieces. I fear their wisdom, even should all my expectations be fulfilled, will now avail them little practically, they will at least have the consolation of being theoretically in the right, and of shifting the reproach of their barrenness from themselves to their system.

One point is easily conceded to me by my two demi-converts, viz. that the only girl who has a tolerable chance of being married, is she who has a tolerable fortune. The most angelic beauty, they allow, may, as the world now goes, glitter in vain from seventeen till seven-and-twenty without receiving a single offer. A young gentleman of the modern cut would as soon think of proposing to the moon. The belle may be as enchanting, and the moon as bright as you please, but both must dwindle away to nothing, and be succeeded by new belles and new moons, doomed to go through the same career of dazzling, and dwindling, and being forgotten in their turn. But no sooner does an heiress come out than she is provided with a long train of indefatigable danglers. She makes her election. The next rich miss is accommodated with the same suite of wooers, and you may always know an heiress by her danglers, exactly as you do a commanding officer by his aide-du-camp and his orderlies. When two heiresses are at once upon the town, they become partners for the time, and have all their stock of lovers in common, as the Roman consuls had their fasces, or as the colleague-ministers of Edinburgh have their congregations…The two likeliest admirers marry the girls, and it is a mere toss-up of a halfpenny which marries which. The only thing the lover cares for is the fortune of his mistress, and all his sagacity is employed in discovering the exact amount of cash payable on the wedding-day. This, to be sure, is a very necessary part of his manoeuvre, for there are, it seems, at least twenty take-ins (as they are called) for one true heiress….

All this my nieces admit, but as yet they do not seem quite to approve the inference I draw from it. If I be correct in my opinion, the blame lies entirely with the matrons who have invented the rout-system. They have made beauty common-place, and they wonder that it is undervalued. They might as well pave the streets with Spanish ingots, and then complain that the price of bullion had fallen. They have removed the old phantasies of extravagant admiration and single-hearted idolatry, under which courtships were commenced and marriages coveted. It is their fault that wedlock is now become a mere commercial speculation, and that men have learned to dabble in courtship exactly as they would in the funds. They have blunted our passions, and they now blame us for having the command of our reason. Restore to us our tea parties, and our evening walks, and our little suppers, and let balls be only once a month, as they used to be, and routs never, and you daughters, you may depend upon it, will not lie so heavy on your hands. You have become traders, why is it that you cannot take a hint from the state of currency and the market?

Perhaps my matron readers may expect that I am about to end all this abuse of home with an advice to send their daughters out to India. Be assured, that if I had thought that an adviseable plan, I might long ago have had all my six nieces sent out to me nothing loath, one by one like turkeys, or two by two like pheasants, or three by three like snipes, exactly as I might have thought fit to give the hint. I remember, indeed, when a voyage to India was, for any female adventurer, a very pretty speculation. A third cousin of my own, from Inverness—a tall strapping Highland wench, with red hair and splay feet—arrived upon me in the year 1795, when I was in quarters at Cawnpore, bringing with her, as her sole testimonial, a letter of introduction from her mother, whom I had never seen, stating that she, the young emigrante, had a delicate constitution, and stood in need of a change of climate. I immediately carried my fair cousin to the commanding colonel’s lady, who agreed to get her off by way of obliging me. The aide-du-camp, accordingly gave notice that an arrival had taken place, and that the hall would be immediately thrown open for three days. There, accordingly, in the largest apartment of the government house, did the colonel’s lady and her protégée sit in full dress during the space of three days, and thither did all the officers at the station resort to take a view of the importation. Those of them who were gratified with the inspection, sent their proposals in writing to the young lady; and, at the close of the third day, my cousin, out of no less than ten admirers, made choice of a sturdy captain, whose person pleased her eye. This was really doing things in a businesslike fashion; and such, I remember, was the constant ceremonial of an Indian courtship. But, I fear, the young ladies who make voyages now~a-days will find that things are changed in the eastern market, at least as much as in the western. The formal exhibition of three days has long since been laid aside, and it would seem as if no adequate substitute had as yet been discovered in its room. The shoals of voluntary exiles that flowed in upon us for some ears, over-ran the demand beyond all computation.

Among these were many respectable women, of whom the worst thing could say were, that they had no money and little delicacy; but by far the greater part consisted of silly, giddy, glib-tongued minxes, who had flirted away their character at home—and there were not wanting some whose reputation was indeed as equivocal as could well be wished. Even they who left England with a good name, had every chance to arrive at Calcutta with a bad one. In an outward-bound Indiaman, unless the captain be a perfect Puritan, the intercourse between the passengers, male and female, is of the most easy description imaginable; and in five instances out of ten, a marriage at the Cape, en passant, with a Dutch boor, or, at the end of the voyage, with some mate or the like, is convenient, if not necessary. To a young lady who accompanies her parents to India no man can have any objection, but, in my opinion, that protection alone, and no other, is sufficient. But what is by far the most decisive objection, the Indian gentlemen are now become extremely nice in regard to the age of the emigrantes; and my readers may depend upon it, that any thing above twenty will positively not go down, I suspect that few under that age are sufficiently humble to think the voyage necessary for themselves.

The ship in which I returned to Europe, two years ago, brought home a very smart young spinster of thirty-five, who had gone out to India, seven years before, as the friend of the wife of a lieutenant in one of the marching regiments. This lady, in the sure hope of a speedy settlement, had carried out with her, in addition to her piano-forte, a complete basket of baby-linens, three sticks of coral, and a silver caudle-cup. All, however, was in vain; and she at last had made up her mind to come home and die in a garret. But it was her singular good fortune to sail in the same vessel with a jolly retired chaplain, who, it seems, was smitten during the voyage, and I myself had the honour of giving her away at Southampton on our arrival. To the tattle of the company I never gave any ear. I would not, however, advise any of your readers to make her conduct their pattern, and remain, Mr Editor, your obedient servant


Edinburgh, Dec. 18, 1817

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 1818

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil really has nothing to add to this exhaustive and instructive screed except to wonder how it was that the “Old Indian” campaigner never himself married? Was there no Colonel’s lady to assist in displaying the new arrivals? Was it his kindly, yet officious, attempts to do good, while remaining serenely oblivious of causing offence?  [Mrs Daffodil believes that the modern term for this is “mansplaining.”] Or was it simply that he never found an heiress to choose him from among her danglers?

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



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