The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton, by Isabel Burton

Chapter III

My First Season

(1849-1850)

Society itself, which should create

Kindness, destroys what little we have got.

To feel for none is the true social art

Of the world’s lovers.

Byron.

I was soon going through a London drilling. I was very much pleased with town, and the novelty of my life amused me and softened my grief at leaving my country home. I greatly disliked being primmed and scolded, and I thought dressing up an awful bore, and never going out without a chaperone a greater one. Some things amused me very much. One thing was, that all the footmen with powdered wigs who opened the door when one paid a visit were obsequious if one came in a carriage, but looked as if they would like to shut the door in one’s face if one came on foot. Another was the way people stared at me; it used to make me laugh, but I soon found I must not laugh in their faces.

We put our house in order; we got pretty dresses, and we left our cards; we were all ready for the season’s campaign. I made my début at a fancy ball at Almack’s, which was then very exclusive. We went under the wing of the Duchess of Norfolk.

I shall never forget that first ball. To begin at the beginning, there was my dress. How a girl of the present day would despise it! I wore white tarlatan over white silk, and the first skirt was looped up to my knee with a blush rose. My hair, which was very abundant, was tressed in an indescribable fashion by Alexandre, and decked with blush roses. I had no ornaments; but I really looked very well, and was proud of myself. We arrived at Almack’s about eleven. The scene was dazzlingly brilliant to me as I entered. The grand staircase and ante-chamber were decked with garlands, and festoons of white and gold muslin and ribbons. The blaze of lights, the odour of flowers, the perfumes, the diamonds and the magnificent dresses of the cream of the British aristocracy smote upon my senses; all was new to me, and all was sweet. Julian’s band played divinely. My people had been absent from London many seasons, so at first it seemed strange. But at Almack’s every one knew every one else; for society in those days was not a mob, but small and select. People did not struggle to get on as people do now, and we were there by right, and to resume our position in our circle. There is much more heart in the world than many people give it credit for — at any rate in the world of the gentle by birth and breeding. Every one had a hearty welcome for my people, and some good-natured chaff about their having “buried themselves” so long. I was at once taken by the hand, and kindly greeted by many. Some great personage, whose name I forget, gave a private supper, besides the usual one, to which we were invited; and in those days there were polkas, valses, quadrilles, and galops. Old stagers (mammas) had told me to consider myself very lucky if I got four dances, but I was engaged seven or eight deep soon after I entered the ballroom, and had more partners than I could dance with in one night. Of course mother was delighted with me, and I was equally pleased with her: she looked so young and fashionable; and instead of frightening young men away, as she had always done in the country, she appeared to attract them, engage them in conversation, and seemed to enjoy everything; she was such a nice chaperone. I was very much confused at the amount of staring (I did not know that every new girl was stared at on her first appearance); and one may think how vain and incredulous I was, when I overheard some one telling my mother that I had been quoted as the new beauty at his club. Fancy, poor ugly me!

I shall not forget my enjoyment of that first ball. I had always been taught to look upon it as the opening of Fashion’s fairy gates to a paradise; nor was I disappointed, for, to a young girl who has never seen anything, her first entrance into a brilliant ballroom is very intoxicating. The blaze of light and colour, the perfume of scent and bouquet, the beautiful dresses, the spirited music, the seemingly joyous multitude of happy faces, laughing and talking as if care were a myth, the partners flocking round the door to see the new arrivals — all was delightful to me. But then of course in those days we were not born blasé, as the young people are to-day.

And I shall never forget my first opera. I shall always remember the delights of that night. I thought even the crush-room lovely, and the brilliant gaslight, the mysterious little boxes, with their red-velvet curtains, filled with handsome men and pretty women, which I think Lady Blessington describes as “rags of roues, memoranda books of other women’s follies, like the last scene of the theatre; they come out in gas and red flame, but do not stand daylight.” I do not say that, but some of them certainly looked so. The opera was La Sonambula, with Jenny Lind and Gardoni. When the music commenced, I forgot I was on earth; and, so passionately fond of singing and acting as I was, it was not wonderful that I was quite absorbed by this earth’s greatest delight. Jenny’s girlish figure, simple manner, birdlike voice, so thrilling and so full of passion, her perfect acting and irresistible lovemaking, were matchless. Gardoni was very handsome and very stiff. The scene where Gardoni takes her ring from her, and the last scene when he discovers his mistake, and her final song, will ever be engraven on my memory; and if I see the opera a thousand times, I shall never like it as well as I did that night, for all was new to me. And after — only think, what pleasure for me! — there came the ballet with the three great stars Amalia Ferraris, Cerito, and Fanny Essler, whom so few are old enough to remember now. There are no ballets nowadays like those.

This London life of society and amusement was delightful to me after the solitary one I had been leading in the country. I was ready for anything, and the world and its excitement gave me no time to hanker after my Essex home. The rust was soon rubbed off; I forgot the clouds; my spirit was unbroken, and I lived in the present scrap of rose-colour. They were joyous and brilliant days, for I was exploring novelties I had only read or heard of. I went through all the sight-seeing of London, and the (to me) fresh amusement of shopping, visiting, operas, balls, and of driving in Rotten Row. The days were very different then to what they are now: one rose late, and, except a cup of tea, breakfast and luncheon were one meal; then came shopping, visiting, or receiving. One went to the Park or Row at 5.30, home to dress, and then off to dinner or the opera, and out for the night, unless there was a party at home. This lasted every day and night from March till the end of July, and often there were two or three things of a night. I was tired at first; but at the end of a fortnight I was tired-proof, and of course I was dancing mad. The Sundays were diversified by High Mass at Farm Street, and perhaps a Greenwich dinner in the afternoon.

I enjoyed that season immensely, for it was all new, and the life-zest was strong within me. But I could not help pitying poor wall-flowers — a certain set of girls who come out every night, who have been out season after season, and who stand or sit out all night. I often used to say to my partners, “Do go and dance with So-and-so"; and the usual rejoiner was, “I really would do anything to oblige you, but I am sick of seeing those girls.” In fact, we girls must not appear on the London boards too often lest we fatigue these young coxcombs. London, like the smallest watering-place, is full of cliques and sets on a large scale, from Billingsgate up to the throne. The great world then comprised the Court and its entourage, the Ministers, and the Corps Diplomatique, the military, naval, and literary stars, the leaders of the fashionable and political world, the cream of the aristocracy of England; and — at the time of which I write — the old Catholic cousinhood clan used to hold its own. You must either have been born in this great world, or you must have arrived in it through aristocratic patronage, or through your talents, fame, or beauty. Nowadays you only want wealth! There were some sets even then which were rather rapid, which abolished a good deal of the tightness of convenance, whose motto seemed to be savoir vivre, to be easy, fascinating, fashionable, and dainty as well as social.

I found a ballroom the very place for reflection; and with the sentiment that I should use society for my pleasure instead of being its slave, I sometimes obstinately would refuse a dance or two, or sitting-out and talking, in order to lean against some pillar and contemplate human nature, in defiance of my admirers, who thought me very eccentric. I loved to watch the intriguing mother catching a coronet for her daughter, and the father absorbed in politics with some contemporary fogey; the old dandy with his frilled shirt capering in a quadrille the steps that were danced in Noah’s ark; the rouged old peeress, whom you would not have taken to be respectable if you did not happen to know her, flirting with boys. I saw other old ones, with one foot in the grave, almost mad with excitement over cards and dice, and every passion, except love, gleaming from their horrid eyes. I saw the rivalry amongst the beauties. I noted the brainless coxcomb, who comes in for an hour, leans against the door, twirls his moustache, and goes out again — a sort of “Aw! the Tenth-don’t-dance-young-man!”; the boy who asks all the prettiest girls to dance, steps on their toes, tears their dresses, and throws them down; the confirmed, bad, intriguing London girl, who will play any game for her end; and the timid, delighted young girl, who finds herself of consequence for the first time. I have watched the victim of the heartless coquette — the young girl gazing with tearful, longing eyes for the man to ask her to dance to whom she has perhaps unconsciously betrayed her affection; she in her innocence like a pane of glass, the other glorying in her torture, dancing or flirting with the man in her sight, only to glut her vanity with another’s disappointment. I have watched the jealousy of men to each other, vying for a woman’s favour and cutting each other out. I have heard mothers running down each other’s daughters, dowagers and prudent spinsters casting their eyes to heaven for vengeance on the change of manners — even in the Forties! — on the licence of the day, and the liberty of the age! I have heard them sighing for minuets and pigtails, for I came between two generations — the minuet was old and the polka was new; all alike were polka mad, all crazed with the idea of getting up a new fast style, but oh! lamblike to what it is now! I watched the last century trying to accommodate itself to the present.

One common smile graced the lips of all — the innocent, the guilty, the happy, and the wretched; the same colour on bright cheeks, some of it real, some bought at Atkinson’s; and, more wonderful still, the same general outward decorum, placidity, innocence, and good humour, as if prearranged by general consent. I pitied the vanity, jealousy, and gossip of many women. I classed the men too: there were many good; but amongst some there were dishonour and meanness to each other, in some there were coarseness and brutality, and in some there was deception to women; some were so narrow-minded, so wanting in intellect, that I believed a horse or a dog to be far superior. But my ideal was too high, and I had not in those days found my superior being.

I met some very odd characters, which made one form some rather useful rules to go by. One man I met had every girl’s name down on paper, if she belonged to the haute volée, her age, her fortune, and her personal merits; for he said, “One woman, unless one happens to be in love with her, is much the same as another.” He showed me my name down thus: “Isabel Arundell, eighteen, beauty, talent and goodness, original — chief fault £0 0s. 0d.!” Then he showed me the name of one of my friends: “Handsome, age seventeen, rather missish, £50,000; she cannot afford to flirt except pour le bon motif, and I cannot afford, as a younger brother, to marry a girl with £50,000. She is sure to have been brought up like a duchess, and want the whole of her money for pin-money — a deuced expensive thing is a girl with £50,000!” Then he rattled on to others. I told him I did not think much of the young men of the day. “There now,” he answered, “drink of the spring nearest to you, and be thankful; by being too fastidious you will get nothing.”

I took a great dislike to the regular Blue Stocking; I can remember reading somewhere such a good description of her: “One who possesses every qualification to distinguish herself in conversation, well read and intelligent, her manner cold, her head cooler, her heart the coldest of all, never the dupe of her own sentiments; she examined her people before she adopted them, a necessary precaution where light is borrowed.”

A great curiosity to me were certain married people, who were known never to speak to each other at home, but who respected the convenances of society so much that even if they never met in private they took care to be seen together in public, and to enter evening parties together with smiling countenances. Somebody writes:

Have they not got polemics and reform,

Peace, war, the taxes, and what is called the Nation,

The struggle to be pilots in the storm,

The landed and the moneyed speculation,

The joys of mutual hate to keep them warm

Instead of love, that mere hallucination?

What a contrast women are! One woman is “fine enough to cut her own relations, too fine to be seen in the usual places of public resort, and therefore of course passes with the vulgar for something exquisitely refined.” Another I have seen who would have sacrificed all London and its “gorgeous mantle of purple and gold” to have wedded some pale shadow of friendship, which had wandered by her side amid her childhood’s dreary waste. And oh! how I pity the many stars who fall out of the too dangerously attractive circle of society! The fault there seems not to be the sin, but the stupidity of being found out. I say one little prayer every day: “Lord, keep me from contamination.” I never saw a woman who renounced her place in society who did not prove herself capable of understanding its value by falling fifty fathoms lower than her original fall. The fact is, very few people of the world, especially those who have not arrived at the age of discretion, are apt to stop short in their career of pleasure for the purpose of weighing in the balance their own conduct, enjoyments, or prospects; in short, it would be very difficult for any worldly woman to be always stopping to examine whether she is enjoying the right kind of happiness in the right kind of way, and, once fallen, a woman seems to depend on her beauty to create any interest in her favour. I knew nothing of these things then; and though I think it quite right that women should be kept in awe of certain misdemeanours, I cannot understand why, when one, who is not bad, has a misfortune, other women should join in hounding her down, and at the same time giving such licence to really bad women, whom society cannot apparently do without. ’Tis “one man may steal a horse, and another may not look over the hedge.” If a woman fell down in the mud with her nice white clothes on, and had a journey to go, she would not lie down and wallow in the mud; she would jump up, and wash herself clean at the nearest spring, and be very careful not to fall again, and reach her journey’s end safely. But other women do not allow that; they must haul out buckets of the mud, and pour it over the fallen one, that there may be no mistake about it at all. Then men seem to find a wondrous charm in poaching on other men’s preserves (though a poacher of birds gets terrible punishments, once upon a time hanging), as if their neighbours’ coverts afforded better shooting than their own manors.

When I went to London, I had no idea of the matrimonial market; I should have laughed at it just as much as an unmarrying man would. I was interested in the fast girls who amused themselves at most extraordinary lengths, not meaning to marry the man; and at the slower ones labouring day and night for a husband of some sort, without any success. I heard a lady one day say to her daughter, “My dear, if you do not get off during your first season, I shall break my heart.” Our favourite men joined us in walks and rides, came into our opera-box, and barred all the waltzes; but it would have been no fun to me to have gone on as some girls did, because I had no desire to reach the happy goal, either properly or improperly. Mothers considered me crazy, and almost insolent, because I was not ready to snap at any good parti; and I have seen dukes’ daughters gladly accept men that poor humble I would have turned up my nose at.

What think’st thou of the fair Sir Eglamour?

As of a knight well spoken, neat and fine,

But were I you he never should be mine.

Lots of such men, or mannikins, affected the season, then as now, and congregated around the rails of Rotten Row. I sometimes wonder if they are men at all, or merely sexless creatures — animated tailors’ dummies. Shame on them thus to disgrace their manhood! ’Tis man’s work to do great deeds! Well, the young men of the day passed before me without making the slightest impression. My ideal was not among them. My ideal, as I wrote it down in my diary at that time, was this:

“As God took a rib out of Adam and made a woman of it, so do I, out of a wild chaos of thought, form a man unto myself. In outward form and inmost soul his life and deeds an ideal This species of fastidiousness has protected me and kept me from fulfilling the vocation of my sex — breeding fools and chronicling small beer. My ideal is about six feet in height; he has not an ounce of fat on him; he has broad and muscular shoulders, a powerful, deep chest; he is a Hercules of manly strength. He has black hair, a brown complexion, a clever forehead, sagacious eyebrows, large, black, wondrous eyes — those strange eyes you dare not take yours from off them — with long lashes. He is a soldier and a man; he is accustomed to command and to be obeyed. He frowns on the ordinary affairs of life, but his face always lights up warmly for me. In his dress he never adopts the fopperies of the day, but his clothes suit him — they are made for him, not he for them. He is a thorough man of the world; he is a few years older than myself. He is a gentleman in every sense of the word — not only in manners, dress, and appearance, but in birth and position, and, better still, in ideas and actions; and of course he is an Englishman. His religion is like my own, free, liberal, and generous-minded. He is by no means indifferent on the subject, as most men are; and even if he does not conform to any Church, he will serve God from his innate duty and sense of honour. The great principle is there. He is not only not a fidgety, strait-laced, or mistaken-conscienced man on any subject; he always gives the mind its head. His politics are conservative, yet progressive. His manners are simple and dignified, his mind refined and sensitive, his temper under control; he has a good heart, with common sense, and more than one man’s share of brains. He is a man who owns something more than a body; he has a head and heart, a mind and soul. He is one of those strong men who lead, the mastermind who governs, and he has perfect control over himself.

“This is the creation of my fancy, and my ideal of happiness is to be to such a man wife, comrade, friend — everything to him, to sacrifice all for him, to follow his fortunes through his campaigns, through his travels, to any part of the world, and endure any amount of roughing. I speak of the ideal man ’tis true, and some may mock and say, ‘Where is the mate for such a man to be found?’ But there are ideal women too. Such a man only will I wed. I love this myth of my girlhood — for myth it is — next to God; and I look to the star that Hagar the gypsy said was the star of my destiny, the morning star, which is the place I allot to my earthly god, because the ideal seems too high for this planet, and, like the philosopher’s stone, may never be found here. But if I find such a man, and afterwards discover he is not for me, then I will never marry. I will try to be near him, only to see him, and hear him speak; and if he marries somebody else, I will become a sister of charity of St. Vincent de Paul.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:33