Last summer after yet another wave of bad news, I found myself longing for escapist feel-good wish-fulfilment, and what is more indicative of escapist wish fulfilment than a ballroom filled with grand costumes, beguiling music, intrigue and romance?
I asked around, does anybody else feel the same? It seems I was not alone. While the following authors followed their inspiration, I did some delving, to make sure that my idea hadn’t been thought of by a host of others already. There was one delightful anthology with a similar idea, featuring stories set in underwater ballrooms, Stephanie Burgis’s and Tiffany Trent’s Underwater Ballroom Society, which came out last spring.
Other than that, there were surprisingly few, considering how long this sort of idea has been around, beginning with the silver fork novels of the early nineteenth century. That subgenre was kicked off with Bulwer-Lytton’s insouciant Pelham (which put men in black suits for the next couple of centuries), culminating in Catherine Grace Gore’s witty Pin Money. This subgenre became so popular that William Thackeray felt obliged to skewer it with Vanity Fair. But he didn’t kill it. The silver fork novel took a turn during the middle of the twentieth century with Georgette Heyer’s Regency and Georgian romances.
Silver fork novels included balls. Otherwise, stories about balls were few, outside of variations on “Cinderella.” There was one exception. Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose brilliant memoir The Time of Gifts is one of my favorite pieces of writing of all time, penned a single novel, inspired by a true story of the night of a splendid ball held in Martinique 1902. Midway through the night the volcano behind the city erupted, wiping everybody out but two witnesses. He fictionalized this story in a baroque, even mannerist short novel called The Violins of Saint-Jacques, after being invited by James Laver, a fashion historian and archivist, to contribute to an anthology called Memorable Balls. It’s a vivid, gripping story, but escapist wish-fulfillment? Not so much.
Fermor’s piece was not included in that anthology, probably because his story was novel length. I can’t tell if the rest of this anthology was based on real balls or fictional ones—it’s too costly for my mingy book buying budget—but I suspect it has to be a stinker as it sank without a trace. I wonder if the balls he wrote about were all disasters. History is full of plenty of those, from the infamous ball given by the Duchess of Richmond, hastily thrown together and then interrupted by the call to arms as Napoleon advanced on Waterloo. There are plenty of Renaissance balls at which stabbings and poisonings abounded, and of course there’s the Duc d’Argent’s ball in Paris, at which a bunch of rich young nothing-will-happen-to-me-because-I’m-a-duc’s-son nitwits got the, ah, bright idea of wearing costumes with real fire, and nearly burned the palace down.
I did not want disasters, dystopia, or downers. The news, I thought, provides plenty of all three. I wanted stories that readers could enjoy right before turning out the light, or on the commute, or as a substitute for the endless yammer of the news.
Not all the following stories are romantic, though I think it’s safe to say that they are romances in the sense that the OED defines:since vernacular texts were usually narratives and often featured the adventures of heroes of chivalry, the terms romanz, romans,etc. came to denote such works in particular.” As the modern novel blossomed, “romance” came to be connected with fantasy, wonder, and the imagination, until the nineteenth century when “romance” earned its now-familiar association with love and passion.
Not surprisingly, given that the authors read and write in English, in this anthology you’ll find three London balls set during periods when palaces were fabulous and so were the clothes. Almack’s makes an appearance, a salute to the long shadow cast by Georgette Heyer—a subject that gets dealt with in another story, along with the liminality of fan fiction.
But not everything here is homage to the venerable Regency romance. You’ll read about a masquerade that changed three governments, another that changed two lives; fae and fashion find a diplomatic solution at a dazzling ball, and a heist at another.
One story’s ball is implied, another story, taking place in medieval times, is not a ball, but illustrates the importance of dance. One story takes place in a science fictional setting, and another historical that is not English but American—taking place in Galveston on the eve of the Civil War, demonstrating that even under the shadow of social and military strife, there are good people trying to do good things.
It Happened at the Ball contains thirteen stories:
Marie Brennan “The Siret Mask”
Marissa Doyle “Just Another Quiet Evening at Almack’s”
Sara Stamey “Homeworld Stranger”
Charlotte “Kerygma in Waltz Time”
Irene Radford “Dancing Bangles”
Gillian Polack “A Plague of Dancers”
Deborah J. Ross “A Borrowed Heart”
Francesca Forrest “Gown of Harmonies”
Lynne April Brown “The Dress”
P.G. Nagle “A Waltz for May”
Brenda Clough “Sherbet on Silver”
Layla Lawlor “Gilt and Glamour”
Sherwood Smith “Lily and Crown”