Many years ago – apparently 'a few' has been forever replaced by the 'many' – I bought a book on a whim. Whim purchasing is not a thing I indulge in often, but this was such a charming thing, I couldn't pass it by, leaving it open to the desires of another, lesser buyer.
This book made no attempt to save space or material – the margins are wide, woodsy spaces. The print is deep and black, the tiny indentation of words creating dimensions of thought beneath my fingers. The edges of the pages are thick and rough, presenting a gentle confrontation as I turn each page. It has been said that the essence of the aristocracy was waste and languor. If that is so, than my little book is an aristocrat.
It is titled, 'The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-1765'. The writer's name is Cleone Knox, a 19 year-old Irish girl: romantic, flippant, shallow, delightful. Fortunately there is no portrait of her, leaving me free to imagine a dimpled, rounded girl with pink cheeks and a snowy skin. Her hair is piled high with a white frosting, contrasting prettily with her dark eyebrows. She wears lace at her elbows. Her dainty hands are endearing and expressive. She is like scented power, ready to be blown away by the next ill-advised breath.
Cleone, not surprisingly, is in love - with Mr. Ancaster, bold and irresponsible, "the indiscreetest young man alive". Her father disapproves of the affair, and she argues with lively, teen-aged dramatics. She is spirited away from Mr. Ancaster's dark temptations, and taken on a 'tour' of England and Europe. And there commence her adventures – flirtations with young men who gaze at her with superficial admiration. She receives lively compliments ("Pert little Miss", "Sly little Cat", "Dear sweet adorable little monster!"), and is pulled onto more than one knee, but this is an amorous age ("he touched my shoe softly under the table with his foot"), and Miss Cleone is very patient with these foolish men.
This book is full of secret languages, fluttering fans, raised eyebrows, scandal, gossip, parties and fashion ("Tried on my new striped silk gown which becomes me excessively well"). Cleone misses her Mr. Ancaster, but she still can't resist a comely young man who takes her hand – lightly, significantly – this little girl is a light-hearted coquette.
I really did want to believe this story. But unfortunately Miss Cleone Knox was the creation of another 19 year-old. Magdalen King-Hall, no doubt possessing an imagination that strayed great distances and many decades, was bored one summer in 1925, "living at a select seaside resort, the inhabitants of which seemed…to consist mainly of formidable old ladies being dragged along the 'front' in bath chairs by ancient men…". She sought to rectify this problem with this vicarious 18th century romp.
Very often one is displeased with the century in which one was born. But while there is fantasy, there is never a need to despair.