Charades with the Duke of Wellington

A game of charades in Vanity Fair

A game of charades in Vanity Fair

Have you ever played charades? Charades began in France in the late 18th century as a type of riddle. In a charade, each syllable of the answer (a word or short phrase) was described enigmatically as a separate word, then the answer as a whole was described in similar cryptic fashion. A charade could be given in prose or in verse. Here are some examples.

My first I hope you are; my second I see you are; and my whole I know you are. (Welcome)

My first is equally friendly to the thief and the lover: my second is light’s opposite; yet they are frequently seen hand in hand, and their union, if judicious, gives much pleasure. My whole is tempting to the touch, grateful to the sight, but fatal to the taste. (Nightshade)

My first is something rather lean;
My second is your wife:
My whole is on your table seen,
Beneath the carving-knife. (Spare-rib)

My first is the lot that is destin’d by fate
For my second to meet with in every state;
My whole is by many philosophers reckon’d
To bring very often my first to my second. (Woman)

My first brave Nelson yielded, midst the jar
Of angry battle, and the din of war;
My second, when from labour we retreat,
Far from polite, yet offers us a seat:
My whole is but my second more complete. (Armchair) (1)

Acting charades

In the early 19th century, people began to act out charades as a parlour game.

The players divide themselves into two parties, who take it in turn to act and to guess the word…. The actors go out of the room and choose a word of two or more syllables, each syllable or division of the word having a separate meaning. For instance: Improbability, Imp-Rob-Ability, Rail-Way, Ram-pant, Miss-Fortune. After having arranged the part that every person is to take, they return to the company, and represent each syllable in its turn, and lastly the entire word. (2)

Props and costumes were common, actors were allowed to speak (as long they didn’t mention the answer), and the scenes could be quite elaborate. Becky Sharp acted out this type of charade for the Prince Regent in Chapter 51 of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848).

The Duke of Wellington plays charades

Napoleon reportedly played charades with his wife Josephine and others at her home of Malmaison. While we have no specific account of such a game, we do have a description of a game of charades played by the Duke of Wellington in January 1821. The players included fellow Napoleon in America character Dorothea Lieven, as well as Harriet Leveson-Gower (Countess Granville), Granville Leveson-GowerCharles Greville, George Agar-Ellis, Edward Montagu (later Baron Rokeby), Philipp von Neumann, the Marquess of Worcester, and Georgiana, Lady Worcester (Wellington’s favourite niece, who died a few months later). The description appears in a letter written by Countess Granville.

Yesterday we acted charades and you have no idea how amusing it is. I will give you an idea of it. The society divides itself into two parts. Granville, Agar, myself and Mr. Montagu, as audience, had to guess the following which we did. First they put a row of cushions to represent a river, over which Charles Greville handed Madame de Lieven, in a hat and pelisse, with great difficult. Next came the Duke, happier than when he won his battles, with Lady Worcester equipped like Madame de Lieven, in his arms to carry her across. Next hobbled Neumann and fell, Worcester then, rubbing him dry and wringing his clothes.

This was gué [ford].

Next they came in dressed like Turks with turbans, and Neumann with a muff on his head, and they sit in a circle cross-legged.

This is riz [rice].

Then Madame de Lieven, sick, in a bedgown, is led to one couch, Worcester with a swelled face in agonies with the toothache to another. Charles comes in, feels her pulse and gives her pills and a draught. He then goes to Worcester and in the most masterly manner draws his tooth. They both jump up from the immediate effect of his remedies and dance about.

Guéris [cured]. (3)

You  might also enjoy:

Napoleon’s Nemesis: The Duke of Wellington

When the Duke of Wellington met Napoleon’s wife

Dorothea Lieven, a diplomat in skirts

How the 20 Questions game came to America

Able was I ere I met Elba: 19th century palindromes & anagrams

  1. W. Jones, Riddles, Charades, and Conundrums (London, 1822), pp. 117, 133, 139, 142.
  2. Julia Charlotte Maitland, Historical Charades (London, 1847), p. 2.
  3. Edward Frederick Leveson-Gower (ed.), Letters of Harriet Countess Granville, 1810-1845, Vol. I (London, 1894), pp. 202-203.

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Next came the Duke, happier than when he won his battles, with Lady Worcester equipped like Madame de Lieven, in his arms to carry her across.

Harriett, Lady Granville