Tyne O’Connell read from her upcoming book Mayfair Eccentrics which uncovers the secret history behind The Coterie of Eccentric Women who created this international homeland of eccentrics in the heart of London.
Hark the sartorial splendour of the Dandizette as she darts from salon to salon, sipping tea on Mount Street and quaffing champagne on Grosvenor Square as she has done since the 1660’s when London was really swinging.
As King Charles II and his retinue of cavaliers rode through the streets of London on the 29th May 1660 the fountains literally flowed with champagne and the crowds danced and sang in the streets for a full fortnight.
According to the diarists Pepys & Evelyn the crowds threw rose petals to celebrate their liberation from twenty years under the yoke of Cromwell’s puritan tyranny & celebrated the erstwhile forbidden fun of drinking, dancing, theatre, poetry, singing and the wearing of fine clothes as art. No one embraced these freedoms more than the women of London who outnumbered men in the Capital two to one in the 1660’s & were, for the first time in history, able to act on stage & take up professions such as architecture, literature and even spy for the king.
I urge you to join me on this festive night in making four toasts to the Four Dandizettes who created not just Mayfair & St James – an area created & built by eccentric women for eccentric women & forward-thinking gentlemen but these four dandizettes gave us the qualities we now embrace as Englishness: Tea, Eccentrics, Literature, clothing as art, tolerance and indeed the very bubbles in our champagne.
I begin with a toast to Queen Catherine of Braganza who gave us tea and tolerance & our stiff upper lips with her philosophy of bear and forebear. Though a serious and devout Catholic herself she loved nothing more than throwing decadent parties and masque balls especially on Sundays which shocked the sensibilities of protestants but thrilled the saloniers & eccentrics of King Charles II’s Court of cavaliers. For in giving us tea & the ports of Tangiers and Bombay, Catherine opened up society to women & extravagantly dressed dandies and dandizettes who had been excluded from Coffee houses where religion and politics ruled and gave us after afternoon tea salons where chat of fashion, philosophy and larks held sway!
Our next toast is that to magnificent doyenne of the 1660’s Mad Madge!
Margaret Cavendish, The Duchess of Newcastle who gave us our English Enlightenment with her nutty penchant for hosting blue-stocking salons in her Mayfair home where she gathered the eccentrics of the world, seating poet beside king and cobbler beside duchess.
As philosopher, author and proto-feminist she attended the first scientific experiment at the Royal Society in1667 – rolling up with a ribald retinue of extravagant eccentrics in extraordinary costumes – creating such a sensation it was 1947 before the society allowed another women across its threshold.
To Mad Madge we raise our glasses for when it comes to kicking the traces in richly embroidered silk slippers, The Duchess of Newcastle is Queen.
My next toast is to Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham the architect who designed Mayfair and St James’s and created this residential & retail paradise of glass-fronted arcades and garden squares – The first woman architect in the world she also gave us St Paul’s Cathedral & though at the time she posthumously attributed her work to her young pupil Sir Christopher Wren, The Royal Society of Architects has now correctly attributed them to Lady Wilbraham – A toast please to the uniquely feminine skyline of London’s Magical Domes and Spires – for there could be no better backdrop for poets and artists to draw their inspirations. Brava! Chin-Chin & Cheers!
Finally, blazing a trail of theatrical genius & WIT across Lady Wilbraham’s skyline we raise our glasses to Agent 160 – Aphra Behn, Spy, Poet, court-wit & playwright extraordinaire. Her wit was so popular that the newly reopened theatres of Covent Garden saw more plays produced by Aphra Behn than her admirer Dryden. It was she that a coined the term “She stoops to conquer” in her 1667 production of The Rover.
Though Aphra Behn started her career as a spy for King Charles in Antwerp and succeeded in rescuing the British Fleet from the Dutch using her lemon juice-coded messages scrawled over her witty verses, the king never paid her so upon her return to London she was banged up in debtors prison where she was soon rescued by a fellow dandy who had heard of her famous wit. Forthwith, Aphra Behn became the world’s first woman to make a living through her writing.
So Charge your glasses Chaps & Chappesses Dandies & Dandizettes can we all stand now and salute the FOUR dandizettes.
Mad Madge, Lady Wilbraham, Queen Catherine of Braganza & Aphra Behn whose tomb in Westminster Abbey is inscribed with the inspirational words….
“Alas here lies proof that wit itself is no protection against mortality”