On this day, exactly 193 years ago, a dapper 46-year-old Frenchman attended an elegant ball in the Assembly Rooms of the Old Ship Hotel, Brighton. What a splendid affair. The rooms had recently been redecorated by Frederick Crace following his successful work at the Royal Pavilion. The officers of the 52nd Infantry and the 7th Hussars were in their dress uniform (although the latter disgraced themselves by dancing while wearing their swords). The ladies were magnificent in their ballgowns and jewels. Even elderly Mrs Fitzherbert graced the event with her presence.
The Frenchman, Auguste-Louis-Charles Chambonas de Messence, Comte de la Garde, was a minor nobleman despite the grand titles. How truthful was he in his account of his three-week visit to Brighton? Hard to say. Mrs. Fitzherbert is listed as attending the Ball on 14 November. Auguste de la Garde is not listed on 14 November but is reported as attending the subsequent ball on 21 November.
Is Auguste’s account (below) of his conversation with King George IV’s secret wife convincing? … or was he merely describing his own perceptions of English Society, put into the lady’s mouth in order to give him a little more esteem? Perhaps he was even more cynical than that? Name-dropping on such a monumental scale could well boost sales of his book of his stay in Brighton and which he published a few years later, in 1834.
This is how Auguste describes that ball on 4 November 1827:
Groups of like-minded guests soon clustered around the elegant tables. I noticed that, taking little account of their elders, the young people rapidly, almost instinctively, broke into sociable pairs which parted only when the strains of the next dance were heard.
I had already observed that the young men, at the end of a quadrille or a waltz, instead of escorting their charming partners to their mothers or their chaperones, protracted such a delightful intimacy by strolling about with the young lady, not merely in the ballroom, but through the neighbouring rooms and often even into the garden, thus sampling that most pleasant harmony which has so accurately been called ‘the couple’; and yet to me this way of going on seemed so different from our own, that I took the liberty of expressing my surprise to Mrs. Fitzherbert.
“Many other customs which are peculiar to us will perhaps surprise you more,” she replied, “especially if you wish to compare them to those in your own country: although we have been close neighbours and good neighbours for many years, we differ fundamentally in our habits and even in our manners; I do not doubt that you find the contrast striking. Our young girls, it is true, have far more freedom than in France, and that might seem all the more surprising to you, given that they come into society at a much later age and that, until such time as they do, they leave the schoolroom but rarely and are never seen in our drawing rooms until the day they are presented at court. You will perhaps think, for that very reason, that the danger to them is all the greater, placed as they are between the pitfall of their inexperience and the intoxication of freedom; and yet it is far from being the case; in England their salvation rests with two authorities against which one appeals in vain: public opinion and the law.
A young girl has nothing to fear from seduction; her naïve confidence is never abused by those impertinences, couched in honeyed phrases, which you call ‘declarations’: the man who talks to her of love, marries her, a fact which is confirmed by everyday events.
Public opinion will exclude from polite society any man who tries to seduce a young girl; if, in addition, the merest billet doux, written in his hand, is produced whilst he still refuses to marry the girl, this exhibit, construed as breach of promise, is enough to render him liable to pay damages: if he persists in his crime, an occurrence which is, fortunately, rare, he is taken to court, disgraced and ruined by the heavy fines imposed upon him. You will agree, sir, that such curbs are of great assistance to morality.”
I listened with delight to these invaluable details, for the age of the speaker guaranteed their accuracy; but every pleasure must come to an end; Mrs. Fitzherbert’s departure with her charming niece brought about that of my enjoyment in listening to her. I escorted the ladies to their carriage, and, having asked for and received permission to call on them at home, I returned to indulge in all the varied entertainments that the evening had to offer.
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The Count de la Garde’s memoir was published as « Brighton, scènes détachées d’un voyage en Angleterre ». The English translation, “Sketches of Brighton 1827 by a French Nobleman” is available to borrow from the Jubilee Library, Brighton and can be read at The Keep, Falmer, Brighton. It can also be purchased via various shops and websites.