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19 January 2011

The Duchess of Richmond's ball


I love parties. The picture to the left is from New Years Eve this year, when I spent a lovely evening drinking champagne and watching fireworks with some of my closest friends. But in my writing lately, I've been consumed with a much more more lavish party nearly two hundred years in the past. On 15 June 1815 the Duchess of Richmond gave a ball at the house in the Rue de Blanchiserie that she had her husband had taken in Brussels. Among the guests were many officers in the Allied Army, gathered in Belgium preparing for battle against Napoleon Bonaparte, recently escaped from exile on Elba and restored to power in France. A number of the aristocratic British ex-patriates who had taken up residence in Brussels that spring were present as well. So were a gilded assortment of diplomats, along with Belgian royals and dignitaries. Of course the Duke of Wellington, commander of the Allied Army, was on the guest list for the ball. He was an old friend of the Duke and Duchess of Richmond, looked on as a sort of indulgent uncle by their large family of children. Three of the Richmonds' sons were in the army.

The ballroom was a converted carriage house, where the Lennox children played battledore-and-shuttlecock and the youngest members of the family did their lessons. The duchess draped the rose trellis wallpaper with swags of crimson, gold, and black, the Royal colors of the Netherlands. Ribbons, wreaths, and flowers garlanded the pillars. It was a warm evening ,but the younger Lennoxes threw open the French windows that ran along one side of the room, letting in a welcome breeze. The duchess, a daughter of the Duke of Gordon, had engaged kilted sergeants and privates from the 92nd Foot and the 42nd Royal Highlanders to entertain the company with sword dances.

Rumors that the French were on the move swirled throughout the ballroom. Wellington was late, adding to the talk. By the time he arrived with a group of his aides-de-camp, as skilled at waltzing as they were at war, the duke had known for some hours that Napoleon has crossed the frontier from France. But he believed the reported attacks to the east were a feint. He thought the real attack would come from the west, to separate them from the sea and their supply lines. He needed confirmation before he could order the army to march. Meanwhile, he needed to forestall panic and also to confer with a number of his officers, who were conveniently gathered together at the ball.

Wellington confessed to the duchess's daughter, Georgiana Lennox, that the army was off tomorrow, but he gave every appearance of sang-froid. As the company moved into the hall on the way to supper, a mud-spattered officer, Harry Webster, pushed his way through the crowd. He had a message for the Prince of Orange. The twenty-three-year-old prince, commander of the Dutch-Belgian army based on his birth not his experience, tucked the message away unread, but Wellington asked to see it. Wellington read the message and at once ordered Webster to summon four horses for the Prince of Orange's carriage. The message, from Constant de Rebecque, whom the prince had left in charge at his headquarters, revealed that Bonaparte had crossed the Sambre river at Charleroi. He was attacking not from the west but on the Allies' eastern flank, trying to separate them from their Prussian allies.

Wellington maintained a cheerful demeanor through supper, laughing with young Georgiana Lennox and his Brussels flirt, Lady Frances Webster. But after supper, he asked the Duke of Richmond if he had a map of Belgium in the house. In the duke's study, Wellington stared down at the map spread on the desk and declared that Bonaparte had humbugged him. He had ordered the army to concentrate at the crossroads of Quatre Bras, but he feared he would not be able to hold the French there. He pressed his thumb against the small village near which he would then have to fight Napoleon. Waterloo.

Meanwhile in the hall and ballroom, the illusion that they were at an ordinary ball had well and truly broken. The front door banged open and shut. Soldiers called for their horses, girls darted across the floor shouting the names of their beloveds, parents scanned the crowd for sons. The musicians had begun to play again in the ballroom, but the strains of the waltz vied with the call of bugles from outside. Georgiana Lennox slipped off to help her eldest brother, Lord March, pack up his things. She thought the young ladies still waltzing were "heartless," but for many of them it would be the last chance to dance with husbands, sweethearts, and brothers.

The Duchess of Richmond's ball has been dramatized by many novelists, including Thackery in Vanity Fair, Georgette Heyer in An Infamous Army, and Bernard Cornwell, in Waterloo, part of the Richard Sharpe series. I wrote about the ball myself in one of my historical romances, Shores of Desire, and I've been writing about again in my current WIP. Even though this is the second time I've approached the ball, I was a bit intimidated by such an iconic historical event. I'm currently on my third draft, and I'm starting to be fairly happy with how the scenes are shaping up. I had to write them in layers. The historical details, the physical setting--from the glitter of the ball to the chaos it dissolved into--the more intimate emotional landscape of my characters, real and fictional, saying farewell to loved ones.

Have you read fictional accounts of the Duchess of Richmond's ball or seen it dramatized on film? What party scenes stand out in your memory from historical fiction? Writers, is there an historical entertainment you both want to dramatize and find yourself intimidated by?

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6 Comments:

Blogger Erastes said...

I did a scene at the ball in my first novel Standish--the protagonist wasn't taking part but was merely making a deal somewhere...

It's one of those pivotal scenes often seen isn't it, like Titanic. if all the people who were actually written about were on Titanic it would have sunk before it left the port! And the Duchess would have been turning away thousands of gatecrashers!

12:47 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

So true, Erastes--there were actually only about 200 people there (compared to the thousands at balls during the Congress of Vienna). I love the idea of your using it from the viewpoint of a character not actually taking part in the ball.

1:32 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Tracy - I think you're very brave setting a scene there! Especially doing so in two separate novels.

Personally, I'd be hideously intimidated by writing anything set at Ford's Theater on the night Lincoln was assassinated. I've handled Civil War Washington and I just wrote an entire novella set inside a Victorian theater. But I can't imagine trying to intersect one of my stories with that date and time.

7:59 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I was intimidate, Diane, both times! I still am. But also intrigued. I've wanted to write about the Duchess of Richmond's ball ever since I first discovered it in Heyer's "An Infamous Army." The key, I think, is that one isn't trying to get the definitive version, one's trying to get one's own version, that suits the story one is telling (it's quite different in my two different novels, as is the battle). I can see how the night of Lincoln's assassination would be intimidating. But it's also such an important, tragic historical moment. I've love to see you tackle it!

8:13 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Tracy, I'm always impressed by your ability to use historical events and persons in your fiction. I confess I'm a little intimidated by "real history" and prefer to make up all of my characters from whole cloth, rather than have them interact with real historical people. You do it so well and so seamlessly!

11:34 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Doreen! I've been working more real people and event into my book lately. It's a bit intimidating, but I also find it a very fun challenge.

9:50 PM  

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