Let’s Party!

Ball-snippetAndrea here, looking ahead to February with a sigh. Where I live, it’s usually the dreariest month—gray, cold and often snowy—and seem to go on forever, even though it’s the shortest one of the year. So perhaps I can be forgiven for daydreaming about parties to chase away the Winter Blues. Dancing, laughter, glittering candlelight, champagne . . . Well, of course, as I’m a history nerd, that immediately brought to mind thoughts of the most famous party in history—the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, held on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo.

QoN Cover-smallAnother reason it flashed to mind is because I've just finished my latest Lady Arianna Regency mystery, A Question of Numbers, (it’s available for pre-order here) and the party features prominently in one of the key scenes. (Honestly, what historical author could possibly resist using it in a book set in Brussels as the armies of Wellington and Napoleon prepared to clash!)

The duchess, born Lady Charlotte Gordon, daughter of the Duke of Gordon, married Charles Lennox, Duke of Richmond, (who famously fought a duel with the Duke of York in 1789) and bore him seven sons and seven daughters. The family moved to Brussels, where the oldest son, William, Lord March, was serving as aide de camp for the Prince of Orange, commander of the Dutch forces allied with Wellington’s British army.


Summoned_to_Waterloo _Brussels _dawn_of_June_16 _1815_by_Robert_Alexander_Hillingford_(1898)

Duchess of richmondBrussels had attracted a number British expatriate families after Napoleon a was exiled to Elba, because the British could now travel and enjoy the Continent after years of war—and because it was far cheaper place to live than London. And then, its location near the port of Antwerp made it a political and military center after Napoleon’s return to the French throne. The Lennox family were in the last wave of Brits arriving and found that all the fashionable houses in the chic neighborhoods were taken. Given the size of their brood, they had limited choices, and ended up renting the former house of a fashionable coachmaker on rue de Blanchisserie. (Wellington apparently found that quite funny—it’s French for laundry—and nicknamed it The Wash House, which infuriated the duchess, who was known as a terrible snob.) The residence included a spacious workshop and gallery attached to the main house.

Waterloo_Ball_v1The duchess wasn’t overly liked—she apparently possessed a temper and had a reputation as a “mischief-maker—but because of her social standing and frequent parties (after all, she had a pack of daughters to marry off) she quickly established herself as the leading hostess in Brussels. (Another historical note—the duchess was Princess Diana’s great-great-great-great grandmother) It helped that Wellington was an old family friend and was very fond of Lady Georgiana Lennox, the 5th Lennox child, and so wen to all the family soirees. He was quite a draw, as everyone wanted to attend a party where he would also be a guest.

Intelligence_of_the_Battle_of_Ligny

220px-Lord_Arthur_Wellesley_the_Duke_of_WellingtonNow, let’s waltz to the details of the ball! The duchess had determined to hold a ball on June 15, 1815, as the threat from the French army seemed at least a month away. But sudden troop movements after the invitations had gone out made her fear her party would be ruined. She appealed to Wellington to ask whether she should cancel (very huffily, it’s reported, for how dare war interfere with her social plans!) His answer was “Duchess you may give you ball with the greatest safety and without fear of interruption.” The reply calmed the whole city and also didn’t alert French spies to his military plans—and likely that was his intention.

And so, that fateful evening, guests were greeted by a troop of Gordon Highlanders performing their famous sword dance. Most of the leading British military officers were in attendance, and the dance floor was soon ablaze with spinning couples, enjoying music, laughter and flowing champagne.

Henry-Nelson-O'Neil_Before-Waterloo_1868Wellington and the Prince of Orange—nicknamed Slender Billy—arrived a little before midnight. Rumors of the approaching French army were already circulating and Lady Georgiana immediately asked the Wellington whether they were true. He answered that yes, the army would be moving out in the morning. Several dispatches arrived, which he coolly put in his pocket without reading. He then agreed to have a bit of supper in the gallery overlooking the dancing. In her memoirs, Lady Georgiana remembers, “ . . . At the ball supper I sat next to the Duke of Wellington, when he gave me an original miniature of himself painted by a Belgian artist . . .”

At some point, Lord Uxbridge announced, “You gentlemen who have engaged partners had better finish your dance and get to your quarters as soon as possible.” However, some of them lingered to waltz with the ladies and ended up riding off to battle in their dancing shoes. Excusing himself from supper, Wellington took aside the Duke of Richmond and asked if he had a map of the area. They retreated to Richmond’s study where Wellington examined the map and famously remarked, “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours' march on me.” It's said he tapped a finger to a ridge near a little town named Waterloo and said, that was where he would deploy his army, as the hill have him a slight advantage. He then took his leave . . . and the rest is history.

So, it sounds like was a splendid party for a while, but the mood certainly lost its frivolity as the evening wore on. What other famous parties in history capture your fancy? (I’m thinking of Truman Capote’s famous Black and White party.) Are there any you wish you could have attended? And do you like reading about a real event, like the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, in a fictional story?

50 thoughts on “Let’s Party!”

  1. I found the information about the Duchess of Richmond very interesting. I really didn’t know much about her although this ball as been featured in many works of fiction (movies, TV programs and books). For high drama, it can’t be beat.
    Looking forward to reading A QUESTION OF NUMBERS.

    Reply
  2. I found the information about the Duchess of Richmond very interesting. I really didn’t know much about her although this ball as been featured in many works of fiction (movies, TV programs and books). For high drama, it can’t be beat.
    Looking forward to reading A QUESTION OF NUMBERS.

    Reply
  3. I found the information about the Duchess of Richmond very interesting. I really didn’t know much about her although this ball as been featured in many works of fiction (movies, TV programs and books). For high drama, it can’t be beat.
    Looking forward to reading A QUESTION OF NUMBERS.

    Reply
  4. I found the information about the Duchess of Richmond very interesting. I really didn’t know much about her although this ball as been featured in many works of fiction (movies, TV programs and books). For high drama, it can’t be beat.
    Looking forward to reading A QUESTION OF NUMBERS.

    Reply
  5. I found the information about the Duchess of Richmond very interesting. I really didn’t know much about her although this ball as been featured in many works of fiction (movies, TV programs and books). For high drama, it can’t be beat.
    Looking forward to reading A QUESTION OF NUMBERS.

    Reply
  6. The Duchess’s ball has everything—wild frivolity, gorgeous gowns and splendid uniforms, and hanging over everything sense of impending doom. The only thing I can think of that has that kind of impact is Nero fiddling while Rome burns. But the ball has the advantage of being real and not apocryphal .
    I’m looking forward to reading about it in your new book.

    Reply
  7. The Duchess’s ball has everything—wild frivolity, gorgeous gowns and splendid uniforms, and hanging over everything sense of impending doom. The only thing I can think of that has that kind of impact is Nero fiddling while Rome burns. But the ball has the advantage of being real and not apocryphal .
    I’m looking forward to reading about it in your new book.

    Reply
  8. The Duchess’s ball has everything—wild frivolity, gorgeous gowns and splendid uniforms, and hanging over everything sense of impending doom. The only thing I can think of that has that kind of impact is Nero fiddling while Rome burns. But the ball has the advantage of being real and not apocryphal .
    I’m looking forward to reading about it in your new book.

    Reply
  9. The Duchess’s ball has everything—wild frivolity, gorgeous gowns and splendid uniforms, and hanging over everything sense of impending doom. The only thing I can think of that has that kind of impact is Nero fiddling while Rome burns. But the ball has the advantage of being real and not apocryphal .
    I’m looking forward to reading about it in your new book.

    Reply
  10. The Duchess’s ball has everything—wild frivolity, gorgeous gowns and splendid uniforms, and hanging over everything sense of impending doom. The only thing I can think of that has that kind of impact is Nero fiddling while Rome burns. But the ball has the advantage of being real and not apocryphal .
    I’m looking forward to reading about it in your new book.

    Reply
  11. I’m thinking that a month of dreary weather would almost certainly beat marching off to battle even if I miss out on a spectacular ball. Thanks for a fascinating post, Andrea, and best wishes for the success of your new book.

    Reply
  12. I’m thinking that a month of dreary weather would almost certainly beat marching off to battle even if I miss out on a spectacular ball. Thanks for a fascinating post, Andrea, and best wishes for the success of your new book.

    Reply
  13. I’m thinking that a month of dreary weather would almost certainly beat marching off to battle even if I miss out on a spectacular ball. Thanks for a fascinating post, Andrea, and best wishes for the success of your new book.

    Reply
  14. I’m thinking that a month of dreary weather would almost certainly beat marching off to battle even if I miss out on a spectacular ball. Thanks for a fascinating post, Andrea, and best wishes for the success of your new book.

    Reply
  15. I’m thinking that a month of dreary weather would almost certainly beat marching off to battle even if I miss out on a spectacular ball. Thanks for a fascinating post, Andrea, and best wishes for the success of your new book.

    Reply
  16. It’s such a dramatic occasion, it’s no wonder that ball is featured in so many books. And I never get sick of reading about it.

    Reply
  17. It’s such a dramatic occasion, it’s no wonder that ball is featured in so many books. And I never get sick of reading about it.

    Reply
  18. It’s such a dramatic occasion, it’s no wonder that ball is featured in so many books. And I never get sick of reading about it.

    Reply
  19. It’s such a dramatic occasion, it’s no wonder that ball is featured in so many books. And I never get sick of reading about it.

    Reply
  20. It’s such a dramatic occasion, it’s no wonder that ball is featured in so many books. And I never get sick of reading about it.

    Reply
  21. I always doubt that anyone COULD dance. There are so many fictional characters attending that ball, I don’t see how the real-life ones can move.

    Reply
  22. I always doubt that anyone COULD dance. There are so many fictional characters attending that ball, I don’t see how the real-life ones can move.

    Reply
  23. I always doubt that anyone COULD dance. There are so many fictional characters attending that ball, I don’t see how the real-life ones can move.

    Reply
  24. I always doubt that anyone COULD dance. There are so many fictional characters attending that ball, I don’t see how the real-life ones can move.

    Reply
  25. I always doubt that anyone COULD dance. There are so many fictional characters attending that ball, I don’t see how the real-life ones can move.

    Reply

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