I read this excellent article today about how Vanity Fair was maybe the greatest book about Waterloo ever written. What I didn't realize was that the ball the characters attend in the novel the night before the battle was based on a real ball in Brussels given by the Duchess of Richmond.
The Duchess's ball has apparently gone down in history as one of the most famous balls ever given (at least in British history). The reason for its significance is more than just timing in relation to the battle; its guest list also included pretty much every major officer in Wellington's army.
Imagine every person who was strategically important to an entire army going to a single party, only to be told halfway through the festivities that your enemy has stolen a march on you and is banging on your front door, and you're all going to have to stop waltzing immediately to go fight what is clearly going to be a decisive and awful battle. "Sorry to cut the dancing short, ladies, we'll likely all be dead by tomorrow, and you all better scatter, because Napoleon is going to overrun the city after he's killed us all, and you probably don't want to be here when he does."
Even for a high society ball, that's a hell of a lot of drama.
"I really hope you don't die, my love. I have no idea how to get my hair down from this elaborate contraption without your help."
(Brief note on the battle–skip this if you don't give a crap about military history)
Strictly speaking, the ball wasn't the held the night before Waterloo, but rather the night before the Battle of Quatre Bras, in which the British and Dutch armies technically won against the French, but were also forced north to meet up with Napoleon's army two days later at Waterloo. Despite being slightly outnumbered and short on heavy cavalry, Wellington managed to significantly trounce the French army, largely through strategic positioning of his forces and through concealing the size of his army to opposing scouts to throw off their calculations and subsequent movements.
(End brief note on the battle)
The Duchess's ball had a few other moments of scandal or amusement.
Her daughter, Lady Louisa, wrote what she remembers of the night, "I well remember the Gordon Highlanders dancing reels at the ball. My mother thought it would interest foreigners to see them, which it did. I remember hearing that some of the poor men who danced in our house died at Waterloo. There was quite a crowd to look at the Scotch dancers."
That's what you took away from it? Foreigners were amused by the way Scottish people danced? And also some people died?
According to a Rev. George Griffin Stonestreet, a contemporary commentator, the English high society season in Brussels revealed the worst elements of the British aristocracy: they managed to be cold and unfeeling, while at the same time being salacious and hot blooded. They were overly concerned with social decorum, and yet flung themselves into the wild abandon of public indecency. He writes,
"Whenever they get together the severest etiquette is present. The women on entering always salute on each side of the cheek; they then set [sic] down as stiff as waxworks. They begin a ball with a perfect froideur [coldness] they go on with their dangerous waltz (in which all the Englishwomen join) and finish with the gallopade, a completely indecent and violent romp."
THIS IS HOW WE DANCE WITH OUR PREGNANT BEST FRIEND'S HUSBAND AT THIS BALL, APPARENTLY.
Put it away, Becky Sharp. That sickening little turd isn't worth your time, let alone the rubbing of your bazooms upon his arm. HE AIN'T WORF IT.
At the Duchess of Richmond's ball in particular, the dancing reached a partciularly inappropriate level: Georgiana, Lady De Ros writes that:
"When the duke [of Wellington] arrived, rather late, at the ball, I was dancing, but at once went up to him to ask about the rumours [of Napoleon's march]. He said very gravely, "Yes, they are true; we are off to-morrow." This terrible news was circulated directly, and while some of the officers hurried away, others remained at the ball, and actually had not time to change their clothes, but fought in evening costume.
"I went with my eldest brother (aide-de-camp to the Prince of Orange) to his house, which stood in our garden, to help him to pack up, after which we returned to the ballroom, where we found some energetic and heartless young ladies still dancing. I heard afterwards that it had been said that 'the Ladies Lennox … did not do the honours of the ball well.'"
I'll admit, that's pretty cold. Huge terrible battle in which all of the men there might die on the morrow? Sobbing relatives and people frantically running to pack? A general atmosphere of distress? Fuck it, I wanna dance. Ain't gonna let nothing spoil my night, let alone old Boney.
On the plus side, though, the ball itself has become an annual event (which started in 1965 for the 150th anniversary) which raises money for charity. BizarreVictoria field trip, my lovely readers? Anyone want to meet me in Belgium next year? If I ever end up going, I promise a solemn oath to do my hair to this degree of crazy, or greater:
Reese Witherspoon knows how to gate-crash the Duchess of Richmond's party. $50 says she would have been one of the women still dancing while her husband marched off to war.