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.
June 1797The time is nearly upon us when my Aunt, my Uncle and myself will be making our first appearance at a ball at the Upper Rooms! I am at present experiencing such a mixture of emotions at this thought. Part of me is wild excitement at the prospect of at last being able to attend the grand frivolities I have so long dreamt of, ever since Miss Lucy Stevens mentioned them so many years ago when she had just lately returned from her first visit to the city. Another part of me is intense nerves – what if I should embarrass myself, as I did so thoroughly at the Pump Rooms this morning? What if everyone sees the new velvet ribbons which I have spent all afternoon sewing onto my best gown and, rather than focusing on what a fine rich emerald colour they are, look beyond them and instantly recognize that my best white muslin dress is not of this season? That it is in fact of the beginning of last season; with it’s more modest bust line and it’s lack of fullness at the sleeve shoulder! Who would ask a girl to dance who is so utterly behind the times in such a fashion conscious city? My Aunt and I did visit the haberdashers this morning following our visit to the Pump Rooms, and we did order new dresses, but sadly, even with a premium paid so that they may be completed as a rush job, they would not be ready for two more days (an extravagance which I begged my Aunt not to undertake on my behalf, but she would not hear of my saying that she need not go to such an expense on my account). “There is no need to worry my dear,” my Aunt said to me once this news was given us. “We can adapt what you have with new ribbons, and we may purchase some new gloves. Yes, I really am sure that we can make everything look most satisfactory! After all, tonight is only the dress ball and there shall be no one there in anything so very fine. That will be saved for the fancy ball on Thursday.” Bath, I have learnt, has rather more balls than in the country – as is only to be expected. At home we have a public ball at the local assembly rooms every Tuesday evening. In Bath however there is a dress ball every Monday night and a fancy ball every Thursday, for which everyone reserves their best gowns and most complex hair stylings, and for which I am hoping that we shall this week have our new gowns ready. Normally it would cost five shillings to go to a ball, but happily our subscription to them, which was purchased earlier at the Pump Rooms, allows us to attend for free. Although having said that, the subscription to each did cost fourteen shillings, which if you were not going to be staying in Bath for very long wouldn’t be worthwhile purchasing, but as it is we are planning to stay for a few weeks so as long as we go to every ball on offer we shall make our subscribing well worthwhile. This should not be a problem as my Aunt is just as keen to go to each and every ball there is as I myself am. Though I am relieved that we shall be starting with a dress ball as it is rather less stately affair than the fancy ball. At the dress ball there are only country dances, and the complex cotillions are reserved for the fancy ball. I do hope when the time comes that my dance skills do not let me down and I am starting to regret not practicing more as my dancing master urged me to do. How was I to know then that I would be so tested! Though there is of course no guarantee that I shall be asked to dance a cotillion on Thursday if I do decide I am ready – I know no one in Bath besides my Aunt and Uncle, and who would chance making a fool of themselves by asking an unknown partner who may not know the steps to dance. I might well keep my bright white gloves in my reticule as a sign that I am not prepared to dance the cotillion this week; Aunt Charlotte has told me that that is the unspoken code in Bath - ladies who wish to dance a cotillion take the whitest of white gloves to wear to show that they are available, and then change them to a cream or ivory afterwards as not every lady feels comfortable dancing such a complex dance. My Uncle only increased my doubts about these dances earlier as we were making our way back from Milsom Street having made our purchases. “I do remember there was an occasion last year when your Aunt and I were in town, and she had persuaded me to attend a ball.” “No that he needed much persuading despite what he may say,” Aunt Charlotte interjected. My Uncle carried on: “When a gentleman turned the wrong way in his set and stepped so hard on his partner’s foot that she was unable to continue the dance and a sedan chair had to be engaged to take her home early. The gentleman was unable to show his face in the Assembly Rooms for almost two weeks and felt obliged to call on her on a regular basis to enquire after her health. Thanks to this he very nearly found himself obligated to propose to her. Beware Eveline,” he had said stopping so that my Aunt and I who were one on each of his arms also had to stop. “If you dance a cotillion who knows what might befall you! You might muddle our footwork, trip, stumble into the arms of a gentleman as you fall and find you have to marry him for the sake of decency! You have been warned!” “Well really, Mr Denison,” my Aunt admonished. “Don’t be so ridiculous.” I felt relieved that my Aunt thought that this was too extreme an outcome of a dancing mistake, until she continued: “As if Eveline would muddle her footwork!” My Uncle laughed lightheartedly. “Of course! My mistake. You are right, my dear. Our Eveline is safe.” I am certain that they were largely only teasing me, but nevertheless it hasn’t helped to settle my nerves for tonight. I have just checked the clock on the fireplace mantle. It is half past seven o’clock and as the balls start as soon after seven o’clock as is possible I believe we shall be leaving soon to arrive at a fashionable hour, and as such I ought to cease writing my journal and make my way downstairs. Especially as I do not know how long I can successfully avoid covering my fingers in ink while writing, since my current quill is not the newest or most clean writing implement. However, I am unsure if James has managed to secure sedan chairs for us yet, but if he has not I am positive that he will be back shortly with some, as despite the fact that being situated so pleasantly as we are on The Paragon, barely five minutes' walk from the Upper Rooms, it is nevertheless for the sake of appearances that we are to arrive in sedan chairs as most people who can afford to do so choose to. Riding in a sedan chair, by the by, is another thing which I have never done before, so this evening continues my day that is very much full with first experiences; which does rather explain why I am so nervous, and I feel a little more justified in being so given this fact. Nevertheless, I shall take my courage in both gloved hands, focus on my rising excitement, put my fears to the back of my mind, and make my way downstairs at this moment. (One final thought however; I do hope that the carriers of the chair don’t slip and drop me as I fear they might...)
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!"
I find Eveline Helm’s thoughts and worries quite fascinating.
Helena Korin July 26, 2020