A Regency ball could take more than one form. There were balls in assembly rooms that could be attended by anyone able to afford the entry fee, private balls to which one needed an invitation and court balls which met various political and social needs.
Balls could be lively affairs. They allowed young men and young women the opportunity to get to know one another and for each to appraise the other as a possible marriage partner. It was a chance to show off one’s skill, stamina and body in dancing and it also permitted moments of intense conversation. A single dance could go on for twenty minutes or more and couples could take advantage of being unchaperoned to discuss things that they needed to know about one another, but might not be able to discover under other circumstances.
Learning to dance was part of the education of a gentleman or gentlewoman. For centuries men and women had been showing off their bodies to one another at dances of some kind, demonstrating their good health and stamina. A woman who could dance her way through a ball was more likely to survive the rigours of childbirth than one who could not and a man who could do the same was likely to live long enough to provide for a wife and children.
The rooms in which balls were held would usually be fairly small for the number of people attending. The physical effort involved in dancing and the heat generated by the many candles meant that everyone involved would become unbearably hot fairly quickly, even in winter. Although the woman might be wearing light gowns, the men would be wearing woollen jackets, which were unsuitable for an evening’s dancing.
Clever hosts used mirrors to make the room in which the ball was held appear larger and brighter. Candles were expensive and mirrors would reflect their light. The length of the candles would also tell the guests how long the ball would last. Once the candles had been lit it would have been difficult (impossible in the case of the chandelier) to replace any that burned out, so they had to be long enough to last the whole evening without waste. Everyone would know at a glance how much longer the ball would continue.
At private balls, at least, a fair amount of alcohol would be imbibed and this could lead to incautious behaviour, making balls even more interesting for those in attendance. They would also be a rich source for gossip afterwards.
There was very little physical contact during the dances, at least until the waltz became popular and respectable. Gloved hands would touch as a couple made an arch for the other couples or as the gentleman led the lady through the steps. A gloved hand might touch an arm as the gentleman accompanied his partner to and from the dance floor.
Married people tended not to dance, making it even clearer that the purpose of a ball was to allow young people to get to know one another. The married men (and some of the unmarried ones) often sat in another room playing cards while their wives chaperoned the young women who were sitting out or gossiping about the dancing couples.
The ball would be broken by supper. In a private house this would usually be a lavish affair with many elaborate dishes. The supper dance, the one that preceded supper, was the most important dance of the evening, for the gentleman was expected to lead his partner into supper and to sit with her during the meal and to attend to her. It was an opportunity to get to know her better so the gentleman had to ensure that the woman he chose for the supper dance was someone with whom he wanted to spend the meal. Supper would not normally begin until after midnight, by which time the dancing would have been going on for three or four hours.
One of the most famous balls of the Regency period was one that came to a premature end. The Duchess of Richmond’s ball was in progress in Brussels when the officers in attendance were called away after supper to fight Napoleon at Waterloo. Wellington briefed most of his senior officers there and they left Brussels in the early hours of the morning.
This is a photograph of the Dolphin Inn in Southampton taken during the recent solar eclipse, which was pretty much like any other cloudy day on the south coast. It’s a coaching inn where assemblies were held in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Jane Austen attended some of them when she lived in the town. Later in the year I’ll be doing a series on places Austen knew in Southampton which will include photographs of buildings and places she would have known.