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The Cyprian’s Ball

I don't know how "Cyprian" traveled from a reference to a 4th century Bishop of Carthage to a term for a high-water courtesan, but what a long strange trip it must have been.

In the early 19th century, these ladies were named Cypria, Dulcinea, Cytherea and Paphian goddesses by the moneyed noblemen and dissolute second sons who pursued them.  Perhaps they did so sincerely – some men can't see beyond the dark eyes nd pale silks which are actually their deadliest enemies – perhaps not:  a woman living on her looks, on her body, on her own, always seemed a fit subject for mockery.

The members of this 'sisterhood' could be invited to public events, to the opera (many of them had their own boxes), to maqueredes, to the theater – where everyone went to be seen, where every respectable rogue would want a stylish, immoral decoration on his arm.  But society's doors – and entertainments – were closed to them.  Although they were probably draining the heirs of their inheritence, courtesans were not allowed into society's great houses.

These circumstances led to an event in 1818 that has been called 'The Cyprian's Ball', held in London's Argyll Rooms.  Hosted by the most daring and celebrated members of the demi-monde, they invited their hot-house collections of admirers and protectors – old and new – to an evening of unrestrained entertainment in an aristocratic setting.

Members of the peerage, the court and the military attended, and were able to do so without embarrassment.  Besides, there would be past amours to greet, current ones to keep in line and future ones to inspect and duly note.  Rather like  fact-finding tour.

The rooms were decorated with taste and expense, for a courtesan had a sharp and cynical appreciation of what the visible expression of style and the obvious use of money could attain.  That evening the Rooms featured statuary, blushing pastel walls, trompe l'oeil pilasters, and a ceiling with elaborate plaster carvings, which caught the candlelight and cast shadows which grew longer as the hours grew shorter.

Ladies dresses were made of the sheerest and most expensive silks, gauzes and muslins.  Gold thread and glass beads reflected light and made a delicate creation even more ethereal:  a chance product of reflection and movement.  Empire waists, tiny puffed sleeves which had no intention of keeping their hold on shoulders and decollete necklines – saying and displaying much – were all in evidence.  As was the descreet dampening of the fabric to make sure it would accentuate every expensive curve.

There was of course, waltzing (it had only a few years since it was stolen from the peasants' fields and festivals):

The brightest lights of the underworld – the demi-monde, where rogues and royalty attended by dusk, vanishing by dawn – lent their fire to the Ball:

The five Montague sisters, known as the 'Stars of Erin'; a girl known only as Josephine – still a child, yet already having gone through four lovers whose names were only known by a tantalizing row of asterisks; the 'Queen of the Amazons' – dark and dashing; the experienced Nelly Mansell, called 'Old Pomona'  (Goddess of Fruit Trees) becausse of the 'richness of her first fruits'; Ellen Richardson:  "Venus Callipyga" (in Greek:  Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks); Dolly Drinkwater, who would drink nothing stronger than French Brandy; The Tartar Sultana; The Mocking Bird; The Red and Black Swans; The Blue Eyed Lima; and the notorious Harriette Wilson (in the picture above, shown at the right, wearing a pink dress):  sharp-tempered, sharp-witted and with, as she boasted, 'a devil in my body', along with her sisters Fanny, Amy and Sophia.

These and many others danced, gossiped (a favorite Regency pasttime), preened, posed, were intoxicating and perhaps became a little intoxicated as well. A light supper and champagne was served at dawn, as the cold sunlight was reaching into the corners where the candles had begun to smoke and waver.

By the time the day had boldly broken, these 'Fair Impures', galaxies of fascination visible only by night, had departed – their newly acquired planets in possession, rotating obediently around them.

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