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19 October 2011

The Magic of Masquerades


It's autumn - rose gold light, pumpkin spice lattes, cuddly sweaters (well, maybe not yet in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we're having some of our warmest weather of the year). And Halloween is just around the corner. 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 my book The Mask of Night began with the image of a masked man floating, stabbed to death, in a fountain, and my masked heroine 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 my 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?

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9 Comments:

Blogger Elena Greene said...

I love masquerades in books and have written them into two of my own books. What appeals to me is the chance for a character who lives a fairly conventional life to express his or her wilder traits. Children talk about who they will "be" for Halloween as much or more than who they will be "going as". For adult characters, it's a chance to tap into hidden aspects of themselves.

7:07 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I think that sums it up exactly And yes, I remember always talking about who I'd "be" for Halloween, and as you say I think masquerades function the same way for characters in books - which, in a novel, can lead to all sorts of adventures and complications.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

I also love masquerade balls. Georgette Heyer's Pistols for Two, an anthology of short stories, includes one set at a masked ball. Both the hero and heroine behave very unlike themselves thanks to their masks' freedom and the story's definitely one of my favorites.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I forgot about the masquerade in Pistols for Two, Diane. I read it ages ago (probably close to 30 years, I was a teenager). Masks definitely allow for all sorts of character development, and they can be a great device for getting reserved characters to act in ways they normally wouldn't!

1:10 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I love them. I just have to be careful not to put one in every book (because I really, really want too, LOL!). I think my favorite image of one is from the late 18th century and shows the Prince of Wales and his set all dressed as topiary.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I could put one in every book too, Isobel. I haven't seen that image of the Prince of Wales and his set - must look for it!

9:26 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I'll try to find which book it's in tonight...

12:59 PM  
Blogger Juliet Grey said...

I adore masked balls, as both a reader and as an author. And I love it when history hands an author an actual masquerade to dramatize. On January 30, 1774, Marie Antoinette, who adored masquerade balls, met the man who would change her life, the handsome Swedish mercenary Count Axel von Fersen, who may or may not have eventually become her lover. He certainly was her soul mate and they corresponded for years. He sent her a dog as a gift, while on his travels (which she named Odin), and he risked his life several times to aid her, most notably in the ill-starred flight from the Tuileries that was aborted in Varennes. In BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE, I dramatized their first meeting at the masquerade ball.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Oh, how cool, Juliet! I didn't realize Marie Antoinette met Axel von Fersen at a masquerade ball! That must have been a fabulous scene to write.

9:00 AM  

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