Wednesday, June 29, 2011

July 2, 1897 --- The Jubilee Ball at Devonshire House

The fancy dress ball at Devonshire House on Piccadilly is the highlight of the social calendar surrounding the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

The 700 guests are instructed to attend in "allegorical or historical costume dated earlier than 1820." The invitations are for 10:30 and the crush of carriages clogs the street for blocks. Guests are greeted by the Duke of Devonshire attired as Emperor Charles V; the Duchess wears the habiliments of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra. Lady Randolph Churchill - as the Empress Theodora - noted that the Duke and Duchess greeted their guests "by bowing, curtsying or salaaming, according to the characters they represented." The
Prince of Wales comes as the Grand Prior of the Order of Jerusalem. THE TIMES carried extensive detail on the costumes, just the Prince's hat merited a paragraph: "purpoint of black epingle velvet, richly embroidered steel and black jet tiny beads with passementerie of jet, etc." Princess Alexandra - who later admitted to being "horribly bored" by the whole affair - attends as Margeurite de Valois.

Stifling heat made it most uncomfortable and impossible to dance, especially for those in suits of armor. An argument over a young lady leads to a brief scuffle in the garden involving Lady Randolph's younger son, Jack, seconded by his more famous older brother. Yet, TOWN TOPICS enthused that it was a night "never to be equalled within living memory," and the overwhelmed Timesmen pitied the departing guests: "[They] will awake today upon a world that must indeed seem commonplace in comparison with the jewelled page of romance upon which, for a moment, they gazed last night."

An immediate dose of reality greeted the Duchess of Marlborough, who recalls the walk home across Green Park: "On the grass, lay the dregs of humanity. Human beings too dispirited or sunk to find work or favor, they sprawled in sodden stupor ... In my billowing period dress, I must have seemed to them a vision of wealth and youth, and I thought soberly that they must hate me. But they only looked, and some even had a
compliment to enliven my progress."

Ball guests (Baron Kenyon & the Countess of Mar) - copyright V&A.

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