A few days after we renewed our membership to the Musee d’Orsay, I got an email advertising a Second Empire Ball in the Salon des Fetes at the museum. The accompanying picture showed dancers twirling around a big gilded hall. Lessons in dancing the quadrille were optional, but seemed a wise idea if one were to attend.
That same week, I’d just finished another historical novel, this one set in England about Henry VIII and his ministers, Wolsey & Cromwell, who, judging from most accounts, were not out for the common good, but were only interested in stuffing their own pockets and egos, as the saying goes.
Re-creation can be fun, especially if you live in a city oozing history on every corner, so why not go to a costume ball! Plus, the Second Empire was cool! So, I signed us all up and was determined that we’d have fun! Even if a few of us don’t dance…
Paris became the city that it is today under the Second Empire. In an astonishingly short time, Paris was completely re-ordered. It was central planning at its niftiest. Train stations were built. City parks were created. Beginning in 1853, over the course of 17 years – Napoleon III and Georges-Eugene Haussmann completely rebuilt the city.
New boulevards, now famous parks, museums, opera houses, art galleries, on and on. Tens of thousands of workers were employed to bring water, air and light to the city center, widening the streets and making it the most beautiful city in Europe!
Much of it was practical too. They rebuilt the sewers of Paris so they no longer emptied into the Seine, and built a new aqueduct and reservoir to bring in more fresh water. And zoning and regulations allowed Haussmann to impose architectural standards for the buildings along the new boulevards – they had to be the same height, follow similar design, and be faced with the same cream-hued stone – thus stiff regulations gave flower to beautiful symmetry.
So, on a sunny Sunday in October, we dress in our merchant costumes, and stroll over to the cab stand and hitch a ride to the ball in a Toyota Prius.
At the entrance where they take your tickets, we can hear the ball music. We take the escalator up one level. The girls are embarrassed to be in costume. But when we walk into the room and are surrounded by everyone costume, they smile. The golden lights, the warmth of the room, the music is loud and energising and there is the magical movement of dancers keeping time.
The dances are of the time – the quadrille, the polka. The caller leads the crowd along with help from professionals. Whirls twirls take the men and women in large gowns great distances in a few steps. Taffeta, ribbons swish by. Faces light with exertion and fun. The room becomes hot, but the ladies have fans. We are in 19th century Paris, lo and behold.