Queer moments in history: Of masks and masquerades

By Phil Hine (see more here)

Going to a masked ball to flounce, flaunt and flirt is a well-established feature of contemporary London life, and – whether a private or public event, does not occasion much comment. However, in the eighteenth century, when masquerades first became popular public events, it was a very different matter. Masquerades were scandalous events which, according to their detractors, threatened the very social fabric of the land.

Masquerades as commercial, public entertainments became popular in England in the 1720s. More English people were travelling abroad, and as a consequence, there was a rise in interest in the traditional carnivals and sophisticated masquerades of the Continent. One of the first promoters of masquerades in London was the  “Swiss Count” John Heidegger, who organised ‘Midnight Masquerades’ at the Haymarket Theatre, which attracted up to eight hundred people per week. By the 1770s, some masquerade events had as many as two thousand attendees.

Although masquerades were a public, ticketed event, they quickly gained a reputation for debauchery and licentious behaviour, and in eighteenth century novels, the masquerade is frequently used as a setting for scenes of adultery and seduction. Masks were commonly thought to heighten erotic attraction, and the wearing of masks was associated with prostitutes. Also, masks liberated their wearers from the strictures of decorum and moral restraint, and donning a mask was thought to make the wearer sexually uninhibited (particularly women). Costume too, could be scandalous. Whilst popular themes for costumes represented stock characters such as shepherdesses, perriots, hussars, punches, and harlequins; mythical figures such as the goddess Diana, the Queen of the Fairies, dragons, satyrs, pans and wood-woses were sometimes used. An account of a masquerade in 1773 reports the appearance of a Green Man ‘in a very fanciful dress, all covered with leaves of ivy’. In 1749, one Miss Chudleigh (later the Duchess of Kingston) shocked onlookers by appearing as a bare-breasted Iphigenia. Some costumes represented ‘wayward’ nuns and priests – a common theme in eighteenth century erotic literature. In Charles Johnson’s The Masquerade (1719) Lady Frances says “I will appear in all the gloomy inaccessible charms of a young devotee; there is something in this Character so sweet and forbidden.”

But it was cross-dressing – women dressed as beaux or hussars and men as witches, bawds and shepherdesses – which caused particular outrage. As a writer in the Universal Spectator (1728) put it: ‘In every country, Decency requires that the sexes should be differenc’d by Dress, in order to prevent multitudes of Irregularities which otherwise would continuously be occasion’d.’ The author of Short Remarks upon the Original and Pernicious Consequences of Masquerades averred that the appearance of cross-dressing men at masquerades was making England ‘a very Sodom for Lewdness’ – and – naming infamous cross-dressers from antiquity such as Caligula or Heliogabalus which were ‘the Scum, the Scandal and the Shame of Mankind’ warned that masquerades were modern imitations of ancient pagan perversity. Terry Castle (1986) argues that the masquerade – particularly in literature – allowed forbidden or transgressive forms of behaviour such as homosexuality or incest to appear – as long as they are unintentional or accidental consequences of the confusion and chaos engendered by the disguise and anonymity offered by the masquerade. In John Cleland’s 1749 Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (aka Fanny Hill) a prostitute named Emily, attending a masquerade disguised as a boy, is approached by a “handsome domino” who begins to pay her attention. At first she finds his courtship “dashed with a certain oddity” but it becomes clear that the man “took her really for what she appeared to be, a smock-faced boy” (i.e. a feminine-looking boy). The pair go off to a nearby bagnio (bath-house) where the man – although somewhat disappointed to find that Emily is not a boy – attempts to sodomise her, and she has to redirect him “down the right road.”

(For other reports  linking sodomy to masquerades see Blackmail, a Hanging and a Masquerade)

Masquerades were also associated with the emerging character of the ‘Sodomite’ – in one of the popular histories of the notorious criminal Jonathan Wild (hanged at Tyburn in 1725) there is an account of a masquerade attended by “He-whores” (see Jonathan Wild Exposes Charles Hitchin) at a ‘Sodomitish Academy’ which Gerald Howson (2006) identifies as Mother Clap’s Molly House in Holborn. The Haymarket Theatre, where many popular masquerades were organised, is closed to Covent Garden and Spring Gardens – both areas associated with both male and female prostitution. In 1781 the actress Elizabeth Inchabald attended a masquerade in male attire and subsequently was said to have ‘captivated the affections of sundry witless admirers of her own sex’.

It was often assumed that any woman who attended a masquerade was doing so in order to seek sexual liaisons, and female fondness for masquerades became a sign of moral degeneration. Terry Castle (1987) points out that masquerades afforded women a degree of relative freedom in that they were able to approach strangers, strike up conversations, and speak coarsely and generally assume familiarities which were taboo by social standards of correct female decorum. Harriet Wilson (an infamous Regency-period courtesan – at the end of her life, she wrote her memoirs, and sent each of her former lovers – including the Duke of Wellington – an unexpurgated version with a note demanding “£200 by return of post, to be left out”. Wellington replied with the memorable phrase “publish and be damned”) wrote: ‘I love a masquerade because a female can never enjoy the same liberty anywhere else.’ Although the masquerade was not without its dangers for women; in one masquerade-themed tale from 1754, the female protagonist is lured from a masquerade by a man who she believes to be her husband. He rapes her, and when her true husband discovers what has transpired, she is exiled from London to his gloomy country seat.

Anti-masquerade tracts often compared the saturnalian spirit of the events to pagan or bacchanalian orgies. Although masquerades frequently had an air of exclusivity about them (both King George II and the Prince of Wales were said to have attended public masquerades) the tickets were priced so that all but the poorest members of society could afford them. Again, the mixing of those of different social positions drew some criticism. One observer, writing in 1718 complained that ‘the common women of the town’ could gain entrance to masquerades and ‘impertinently’ mingle with their betters. The more disreputable elements of society – thieves, gamblers, pimps and prostitutes were known to frequent masquerades, and prostitutes could present themselves as ‘women of quality’. The inversion of otherwise carefully-segregated social roles occasioned by ‘dukes dressed as footmen’ and ‘footmen dressed as dukes’ meant that the masquerade offered a suspension, albeit, temporary, of the rules which governed eighteenth-century life.

Further Reading

Gerald Howson, Thief-Taker General: Jonathan Wild and the Emergence of Crime and Corruption as a Way of Life in Eighteenth-Century England (Transaction Publishers, 2006)

Terry Castle Masquerade and Civilisation: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (Stanford Unversity Press 1986)

Terry Castle The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny (Oxford University Press 1995)

GS Rousseau & Roy Porter (eds) Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment (Manchester University Press 1987)

Online sources


Fanny Hill online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25305/25305-h/25305-h.htm

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