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The Journal of Eveline Helm, Part Five – At the Assembly Rooms, at last!

Dear Reader,

I hope that this journal of my time in Bath should prove to be helpful to you. In reading it may you be spared the numerous faux pas and embarrassments that I was not. I truly feel that if this work should prevent even one other young lady from public ridicule in the Assembly Rooms of Bath then it will have been wholly worthwhile. 

Humbly yours, 

Eveline Helm.

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June 1797 

I am incredibly pleased to report that the sedan chair bearers did not drop me on the way to the Assembly Rooms as I had feared they might. As it turned out, I rather enjoyed my short ride; it was a smoother journey than I had thought, and certainly a very grand journey. My Uncle went ahead of us on foot, as gentlemen in Bath are wont to do, and was there to greet us as the doors of my Aunt’s and my own respective boxes were held open for us. I succeeded in stepping out from the small compartment with what I hope was some degree of grace, and found myself in front of the entrance, which consists of a grand pediment held up by four pale stone columns. There was little time to take in the grandeur of the outside, however, as my Aunt linked her arm through mine and guided me inside. Once admitted, we proceeded to tour the Rooms.

The assembly rooms near home, to which I have been to dance before, are nothing compared to the Bath Assembly Rooms.  After we had deposited our cloaks in the cloakroom to the right on leaving the entrance vestibule, we turned and entered the ball room through the opposite doors on the left. The room was vast; it was at least one hundred feet in length and forty wide, and its ceiling was of triple height. Halfway up the duck-egg wall was a series of tall windows, flanked on either side by a painted Roman column set into the wall which were letting in the last light of the day. Around the room, below and above these windows, were intricate moulded plasterwork borders. And, in the centre of the room, there hung five great chandeliers which, as my Aunt whispered in my ear (though loudly enough to be heard above the noise) each held forty candles! Just think! What with this and the windows, the room was all light and beauty. Thankfully the four grand fireplaces, two set into each of the longer walls, which would also have raised the light levels in the room, were empty, but even so, given the sheer number of people in residence and coupled with the balmy June night, the heat in the room was a very great one indeed.

The number of people I have just mentioned fell into two categories; those seated on and standing by the three tiers of seats placed around the edge of the ballroom, and those who were up and dancing a country dance which I did not immediately recognize, but which might have been Lady Moncrieff’s Reel. The minuets had taken place already, beginning at six, and had then given way to the country dances at eight. Later the music would stop so that the tea, coffee and light refreshments might be served at nine in the large tea room on the other side of the Assembly Rooms. After that, the country dances would resume. By nine o’clock I was certain that the dancers who had arrived at six would be most glad of some refreshment, however light, not to mention the musicians who had been playing all evening.

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But then I must mention the musicians! In the balls which I have attended before (the larger ones are those I am referring to rather than the dances among friends which are struck up in the joy of the moment after a dinner) only four musicians have been engaged, as is the custom, and they have played the usual piano, cornet, violin, and violoncello. However, the number of dancers in attendance here is of such a great number; my aunt tells me that there are upwards of five hundred people here on a regular basis, and that there are a dozen musicians playing from the minstrel’s gallery.

“I do not envy them their role,” said my Aunt, turning to me as we watched the couples dance. “Not only do they play here but they are also employed each morning in playing at the Pump Rooms, and then in the evenings they take their turn playing here or at private concerts. Even their afternoons are not their own, for they might then be occupied in playing for a private party at a gentleman’s lodgings, or at one of the large inns. Imagine! I am sure I do not know how they do it!”

“Surely, there are other bands in Bath who might take some of their custom from them and therefore allow them a respite from constant playing?” I said.

“None such as they. They were fully employed to act exclusively as the Bath Orchestra. For that reason, despite their heavy workload, they are not so badly done by; at least they can live safe in the knowledge that they shall be paid and able to pay their rent.”

“I suppose you are right,” I said, and let my attention stray once more to the dancers.

It was as in London, and as my Aunt had said, that the most fashionable dress material was white muslin, and derivations thereof. Lady upon lady clad in white, cream, and ivory whirled about the room, escorted by gentleman in fine silk waistcoats and jet-black tailcoats. White was not the only colour worn by the ladies (there was one peacock blue dress in particular that I had trouble drawing my eyes away from), but it was by far the most popular.

As for the gentlemen, some of the gentlemen I saw had adopted another of the London fashions and sported finely starched cravats that were tied in such complicated styles which travelled so far up their necks that I was surprised that they were able to move their heads. Beau Brummel may be considered the arbiter of men’s fashion, but in my most-humble opinion I do think that he might also be the arbiter of much of their discomfort.

My Aunt and I left the ballroom, vowing to return by and by once we had seen the remainder of the Rooms. Not that they were a revelation to my Aunt, but she is such a kind and considerate woman that she said she could not dream of settling herself until I had been acquainted with the Rooms in their entirety.

The next chamber we entered upon leaving the ballroom was the octagonal card room. Decorated in a deep rich yellow, its centre was taken up with table upon table of gentlemen and ladies, but mainly gentlemen, all playing various card games. I spotted Speculation, Brag and Whist among the games in progress, and also after a short time I spotted my Uncle, happily ensconced at a table in the far right, next to another unlit fireplace (the card room, like the ball room, also had four). He was laughing and talking with many other fine gentlemen, for, prejudiced as I am, there really is no other way to describe my Uncle, whom I did not first recognise.

“I knew we should find him here,” my Aunt said to me with a fond smile in her voice. “It never takes him long to find himself a table. I fear we may have now lost him for the evening. Now my dear, where should you like to see next? I am afraid that we cannot enter the tea room at present, but we might peruse the octagon ante-chamber if you should wish?”

“Is there much to see in the ante-chamber?”

“As much as you might see in any other ante-chamber.”

“In which case,” I said. “If you don’t mind, I should very much like to go and watch some more of the dancing.”

“But of course.”

We wove our way back through the know of people surrounding the card room doors and into the ball room. The reel was still in progress so my Aunt and I scanned the tiers of seats and spotted two seats together in the second row; the front row being already full near to where we were, and navigating to another part of the room while the dance was in motion was not a wise idea. However, before we had moved more than two steps towards our intended destination, we found our way barred by Mr Dawson, the Master of Ceremonies.

“Mrs Denison, Miss Helm, allow me to introduce Mr Thomas Palmer…”

webJenni Waugh Headshot The journal of Eveline Helm’s time in Bath has made its way online thanks to Jenni Waugh, one of our tour guides at the Jane Austen Centre.

She writes: “I couldn’t resist sharing Eveline’s exploits. I hope everyone else finds them as interesting and entertaining as I did!”

 

 

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