Dickens In America: The Boz Ball

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The whole affair was brilliantly ordered and managed. Dickens was especially impressed by the police management of the carriage traffic, which extended at times over a quarter of a mile in length; in England, he remarked, the situation would have been completely chaotic. In a fetter to his friend and, later, biographer, John Forster, Dickens described the ball:

At a quarter past y exactly, we were waited upon by David Golden Esquire, and General George Morris; habited, the former in full ball costume, the latter in the full dress uniform of Heaven knows what regiment of militia. The general took Kate, Golden gave his arm to me, and we proceeded downstairs to a carriage at the door, which took us to the stage-door of the theatre, greatly to the disappointment of an enormous crowd who were besetting the main door and making a most tremendous hullaballoo. The scene on our entrance was very striking. There were three thousand people present in full dress; from the roof to the floor, the theatre was decorated magnificently; and the light, glitter, glare, show, noise, and cheering, badle my descriptive powers. We were walked in through the centre of the centre dress box, the front whereof was taken out for the occasion; so to the back of the stage, where the mayor and other dignitaries received us: and we were then paraded all round the enormous ball room twice, for the gratification of the many-headed. That done, we began to dance—Heaven knows how we did it, for there was no room. And we continued dancing until, being no longer able even to stand, we slipped away quietly, and came back to the hotel.

Another observer, reminiscing many years later, described the arrival of Dickens at the ball:

I remember the immense crowd of the “beauty and fashion” of New York that filled the theatre from its dancing floor, laid over stage and pit, to the gallery. … I think Irving and Cooper were there—I am sure of Halleck and Bryant. … There was a rush near the door, a flutter through the crowded theatre, a hush of expectation, a burst of “See the Conquering Hero Comes,” and the author of Pickwick and the Uncommercial Traveller, with all of the humor and pathos that lie between, burst upon our astonished and delighted vision. Then the cheers, then the waving of handkerchiefs from floor to boxes, and all the tiers—and tears, no doubt, of joy and happiness, and bouquets innumerable gave what was possible to the irrepressible enthusiasm of the hour.

Newspapers throughout the country, even to the Mississippi frontier, carried ecstatic descriptions of the Boz Ball, exhausting all the adjectives in circulation at the time. The gowns and appearance of the loveliest belles of New York were described in detail. Mrs. Dickens wore “a white, figured Irish tabinet trimmed with mazarine blue flowers; a wreath of the same colour round her head, and with pearl necklace and earrings,” while Dickens was described as “dressed in a suit of black, with a gay vest.” One reporter noted with satisfaction that “the gentlemen and ladies were, of course, the middle and the richer classes of society, the price of tickets being such as to prevent a promiscuous attendance.”

All in all, the Boz Ball was a great success, except in the opinion of a disgruntled few who were annoyed at being unable to obtain tickets and of a more numerous group who disapproved of what they considered wholly undignified, if not scandalous, proceedings. A minor fire had broken out during the ball but was quickly extinguished. A New York newspaper made the event an opportunity to sermonize on the evils of dancing and riotous behavior, asking, “What if the Theatre had been consumed with the three thousand dancers within its decorated walls? Were they not all prepared to die, and would it not have been a brilliant death-scene; a fitting close to the gay life they led?” The editorial concluded with the admonition: “Death is there. He haunts such places, and the steps of those who frequent them take hold on hell.”

The event, however, that was to dull the brilliance of the Boz Ball irrevocably in the memories of many Americans—and of Dickens himself—took place after the ball was over. The managers of the Park Theatre, quick to recognize the bonanza within their doors, decided to put on a repeat performance at half the original price. Everything was to be the same as on the original night, including the presence of the British lion and his lioness. When the night arrived, Dickens was ill with a sore throat and declined the invitation to be honored a second time at half price. Appalled at the prospect of irate cash customers, the managers sent round to Dickens for a certificate to be signed by his physician testifying that he was unable to appear at the ball. Dickens was outraged at the boorish request, and the event may have provoked his decision to refuse any more invitations to public receptions in his honor, a decision which caused much resentment in the American cities he later visited. The episode undoubtedly contributed to his lampoon of such receptions in the pages of Martin Chuzzlewit , the novel he wrote upon his return to England, in which he recorded the most unpleasant of his American experiences and impressions.