Monday, July 18, 2011

The Two Faces of Masquerade

Lately I've been working on a story that begins at a masquerade. The masquerade isn't important to the story except to facilitate a case of mistaken identity, but it occured to me (belatedly) that a masquerade is the perfect place for two strangers to meet and fall in love. There's something so thrilling about the costumes, the secrets, the flirtations... My interest in masquerade as a setting was triggered by Vic Gatrell's Love and Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London. Yes, I've mentioned it before. I adore this book. It's chock-full of fascinating stuff about what made people laugh a few centuries ago. (Among other things -- potty humor! The 18th Century was a very down-to-earth time. :))

Masquerades gave people an opportunity to play at being someone they weren't. To indulge in risky behavior without being frowned upon. To throw off the bonds of civilization and be just a little bit (or perhaps a lot) wild. Despite the illicit sexual behavior associated with masquerades, plenty of respectable people indulged in them, even though the costumes often weren't good enough to conceal the wearer's identity -- or even intended to.

For example, in 1749, Elizabeth Chudleigh, Maid of Honor to the Princess of Wales, attended a masquerade bare-breasted! Theoretically, she was disguised as Iphigenia, the Greek maiden who, in most versions of the myth, is saved at the last moment from being sacrificed. Obviously, though, Miss Chudleigh wasn't in disguise at all, but just out for some exhibitionistic fun! She offended many people, but doesn't seem to have cared. Here's a picture of her in costume, with a few very interested fellows:
That's the entertaining aspect of masquerade, but there were also the potential consequences, such as disease and unwanted pregnancies. By the early 1800s, values had changed and masquerades were more likely to be frowned upon. Here's an 1816 print by Rowlandson called Dance of Death: The Masquerade. Everyone shrinks away as Death stalks his latest victim at the masquerade -- a clear message about the consequences of self-indulgence.

Not much has changed, has it? People still long to be bad, to throw off the shackles of good manners, to indulge in risky sexual behavior regardless of the consequences, and often they regret it afterward. The sorts of scandals we see from time to time in the political arena are only a reflection of what goes on everywhere -- always has and maybe always will. My question is, why? What in the human psyche drives us toward this sort of release? Is it a useful aspect of human nature or only a perilous one? And since this is a blog about romance, is the hero as bad boy -- which we certainly find plenty of -- a safe way of satisfying the longing to throw off restraints and indulge in exciting and dangerous pleasures?

Barbara Monajem
My new Harlequin Undone, The Wanton Governess, will be out August 1st!

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