The daily papers that circulated in the coffee-shops of 18th century London were a new way for people to find out about the latest trends and forms of entertainment. One of the crazes in 1713 London was for masquerade balls, where guests partied in elaborate masked costumes. The trend had come over from France and was causing quite a stir in London, and the September 7th edition of The Guardian featured a detailed account of a masquerade delivered Per Via Leonis – By Way of the Lion – at Button's Coffee House. We tracked down an original copy of this edition of The Guardian to a rare bookseller in California (see photo below).
The letter was written under the pseudonym Lucifer, as if from someone who had gone to a masquerade dressed as the devil. It bears all the hallmarks of having been written by Joseph Addison, featuring his light conversational style and good humour.
The masquerade in question was hosted by the French Ambassador Louis Duc D’Aumont at his apartment in Somerset House.
The writer said he'd heard so much about the gaiety of the ambassador's masked balls he resolved to go along and find out what all the fuss was about.
He described getting his devil's costume ready a week before the event: "Every morning I drest myself in it and acted before the looking-glass, so that I am vain enough to think I was as perfect in my part as most who had oftener frequented these diversions.”
Once there, 'Lucifer' expressed his amazement at what he saw:
“I repaired to the place appointed about ten at night, where I found nature turned top-side turvy, women changed into men, and men into women, children in leading strings seven foot high, courtiers transformed into clowns, ladies of the night into saints, people of the first quality into beasts or birds, gods or goddesses; I fancied I had all of Ovid's Matamorphoses before me."
He bumped into other guests and was surprised to find they were not quite what they seemed:
“I chanced to tread upon the foot of a female Quaker, to all outward appearance; but was surprised to hear her cry out D------- you, you son of a ------- upon which I immediately rebuked her, when all of a sudden resuming her character, Verily, says she, I was to blame; but thou hast bruised me sorely.
"A few moment after this adventure, I had like to have been knocked down by a Shepherdess, for having run my elbow a little inadvertently into one of her sides. She swore like a trooper, and threatened me with a very masculine voice; but I was timely taken off by a Presbyterian Parson who told me in a very soft tone that he believed I was a pretty fellow, and that he would meet me in Spring Garden tomorrow night.”
"The next object I saw was a chimney sweeper made up of black crape and velvet making love to a butterfly.
"The next I observed was a nun making an assignation with a heathen god, for I heard them mention the Little Piazza in Covent Garden."
Just after midnight, he found the lady he was wooing – his beloved Leonora – dressed as an Indian king.
“Her awkward manliness made me guess at her sex and her own confession quickly let me know the rest. This masquerade did more for me than a twelve months courtship: for it inspired her with such tender sentiments that I married her the next morning.”
'Lucifer' finished his letter with a request to The Guardian's editor, the fictional Mr Nestor Ironside:
"And now, sir, having given you the history of this strange evening, which looks rather like a dream than reality, it is my request to you that you will oblige the world with a dissertation on Masquerades in general, that we may know how far they are useful to the public, and consequently, how far they ought to be encouraged.”
Lucifer wasn't the only correspondent to use the Lion's Head letter-box to express concern about the new French craze.
Another letter, “given in at the Lion’s Mouth at 6 a-clock in the morning”, urgently requested advice for the guardian of a teenage girl who was desperate to go to the ball. The contributor, Old Rustisides, said the girl was an heiress “perfectly giddy” at the thought of going to a masquerade.
“Here of late Tom Whirligigg has so turned her head with the gallantries of a late masquerade (which no doubt Tom according to his usual vivacity set forth in all its gayest colours) that the young creature has been perfectly giddy ever since and so set agog by the thoughts of it that I am teased to death by her importuning me to let her go to the next.”
Old Rustisides said he'd had to stop her cutting up her clothes to make a costume.
"For the being in disguise takes away the usual checks and restraints of modesty; and consequently the beaux don't blush to talk wantonly, nor the belles to listen; the one as greedily sucks in the poison, as the other industriously infuses it; and I am apt to think too that the ladies may possibly forget their own selves in such strange dresses, and do that in a personated character which may stain their real ones."
He warns: “Do but consider dear Nestor, when a young lady’s spirits are fermented with sparkling Champaign, her heart opened and dilated by the attractive gayety of every thing about her, her soul melted away by the soft airs of musick, and the gentle powers of motion, in a word the whole woman dissolved in a luxury of pleasure; I say in such critical circumstances, in such unguarded moments, how easie is it for a young thing to be led aside by her stars. Therefore good Mr Ironside set your lion roaring against these dangerous assemblies”.