It’s autumn – rose gold light, pumpkin spice lattes, cuddly sweaters (in the San Francisco Bay Area, the weather turned distinctly crisp last week). And Halloween was just last week. It was always one of my favorite holidays growing up, not for the candy but for the magic of masquerading as someone else (inevitably a favorite historical or fictional character) for the day.
Thinking about Halloween made me think about masquerade balls. I’ve always loved them in books. Costumes allow characters to highlight their personalities or to masquerade as someone quite different. And masks allow for all manner of intrigue, romantic or otherwise. My mind tens to run to suspense when it comes to intrigue. My idea for The Mask of Night began with the image of a masked man floating, stabbed to death, in a fountain, and Mélanie in black Elizabethan dress, reaching a lace-cuffed hand reaching into the water to examine the body.
Masked balls were a frequent form of entertainment at the Congress of Vienna. In a city filled with dukes, princes, kings, and emperors, where rules of protocol and precedence hung over most public events, masquerades provided unexpected freedom. Not to mention an opportunity for sexual and diplomatic intrigue. A masquerade at the Hofburg Palace marked the start of the Congress. At another masked ball at the Hofburg on 30 October, 1814, a masked figure slipped Prince Metternich a note from his political and romantic rival, Tsar Alexander, concerning Wilhelmine of Sagan, a woman they both pursued.
Costumes at these masked balls followed a variety of themes. At a masquerade Mettternich gave in November at his summer villa (which is the setting for a sequence in Vienna Waltz), the sovereigns were told to wear black and ladies were asked to dress in regional costume. Peasant dresses swirled on the dance floor, many stitched with enough jewels to feed an entire peasant village for a month. Lady Castlereagh excited comment by wearing her husband’s Order of the Garter in her hair. At midnight, many of the guests exchanged masks, adding to the masquerade mischief. And despite the glittering guest list, not all those present were monarchs and aristocrats. Metternich sent Wilhemine of Sagan tickets for her maid Hannchen and Hannchen’s daughters and even suggested Hannchen and Wilhelmine could switch masks if they liked.
In January, yet another masked ball at the Hofburg followed a glittering sleigh rideto the Schönbrunn and back. Only Lent put an end to the endless round of masquerades, though not to the romantic and political intrigue.
Do you enjoy masked balls in books, as a reader or a writer? What do they allow that isn’t possible in non-masquerade party scenes? Any favorite sequences in books?
I’ve just posted a new Fraser Correspondence letter from Mel/Suzette to Charles/Malcolm on their anniversary in 1814, a companion piece to his letter to her last week.