Friday, 10 July 2015

A tale of minuets and social climbing

On his arrival in Bath in October 1731 The Earl of Orrery's first port of call was naturally the Pump Room but as soon as possible after he took himself off to the Terrace Walk and the shop of James Leake, the bookseller, who ran Bath's first circulating library and indeed one of the first circulating libraries in the country.

This is surprising as he had a very low opinion of Leake.
John Boyle, 5th Earl of Cork and Orrery
 by Isaac Seeman

"This Leake is a most extraordinary Person. He is the Prince of all the coxcomical Fraternity of Booksellers: and, not having any Learning himself, He seems resolved to sell it as dear as possible to Others."

His reason for visiting Leakes shop is interesting as it sheds light on the operation of Bath societies and assemblies at this time.

Leake was a snob. As the Earl relates:

“He looks upon every Man, distinguished by any Title, not only as his Friend, but his companion, and he treats him accordingly: but he disposes of his Favours and Regards as methodically as Nash takes out the Ladies to dance, and therefore speaks not to a Marquiss whilst a Duke is in the Room.”

The reference to Nash is a reference to the way in which the minuets were managed at balls. The Minuet was a couple’s dance where one couple danced at a time before an admiring or more often critical company. After the first couple had danced the man retired and Richard Nash, as the then Master of the Ceremonies, would bring the woman a second partner. The minuets continued until all the ladies who had stood up for them had danced with two men. The succession of dancers was governed by strict rules of precedence arbitrated by the Master of the Ceremonies.

It is this preoccupation with precedence and class which motivated the Earl’s visit to Leake. Orrey’s Earldom was of the Irish nobility. Irish titles were considered inferior to their English counterparts.

He was anxious to discover if his secret was known in Bath and was relieved to discover:

“As yet he is ignorant that my Earldom lies in Ireland,”

This allowed him to implement a plan he has hatched

“to keep him so, I have borrowed the only Book of Heraldry He had in his Shop : by this method I shall be served many degrees above my Place, and may have a Squeeze of his Hand in presence of an Earl of Great Britain.”

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