After the trauma of the series of posts on the Black Death, I thought we might turn to something a bit lighter this week. Susannah Fullerton’s slim volume (published 2012) is a good introduction to dancing and balls at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In each chapter she provides some general background to the subject, then relates it to events in Jane Austen’s novels and to Austen’s own life.
The book’s chapter headings include Learning to Dance, Getting to and from a Ball, Assembly Balls, Private Balls, Etiquette of the Ballroom and Dance in Jane Austen Films. It’s quite wide-ranging, despite being only 160 pages long. The balls and dances in each of Austen’s books are examined with comments about what the characters’ behaviour at these social events reveals about them and how the events at the ball move the plot on. Then there’s a chapter at the end reflecting on how the balls and dances have been realised in TV and film adaptations of Austen’s novels.
For the reader who wants to know what their behaviour at balls tells us about Austen’s characters, there is much to enjoy. Compare and contrast, for example, the very different behaviours of Mr Darcy and Mr Knightley at the Meryton and Crown Inn balls. The social rules of the time demanded that unmarried men should dance if there was an unmarried woman without a partner. Mr Knightley acknowledges his duty and dances with Harriet Smith, which causes the woman he loves to understand her own heart. Mr Darcy does not dance with Elizabeth Bennet, initiating the prejudice that is to blind her to his love for her for most of the novel.
Austen enjoyed going to balls and was known for being rather silly at them. Her letters are full of biting comments about the way in which the other attendees dressed and behaved and she occasionally mentioned her own distress at having nothing suitable to wear at such gatherings. Fullerton quotes from Austen’s letters, showing some of the experience from which she drew in her writing.
One of the more interesting facts in the books is just how long a single dance could be. Half an hour was not unusual, but sometimes a dance could last an hour. As Fullerton says, imagine having to spend an hour dancing with Mr Collins. Instead, I prefer to imagine spending an hour dancing with Mr Knightley. No wonder it was shocking to dance with one man more than twice in an evening. With dances of that length it could mean spending most of the evening with him, a very definite declaration of preference on both sides.
This is not an academic book. It is easy to read and the plentiful illustrations are lovely. Although there is a bibliography, there are no footnotes and the illustrations lack captions, which renders them almost useless for anything other than providing something pretty for the reader to look at. It is a very well-produced book. If you want to understand more about how Austen uses balls to advance the plots of her novels and to tell her readers more about her characters, this is a very good book. If you want to know more about Regency balls and dances and the customs around them, the bibliography will be of more use.
Susanna Fullerton is President of the Jane Austen Society in Australia. She leads literary tours and gives lectures on literature. Her website is here. If you don’t like muzak, turn your speakers off when you visit.
The book can be purchased from Amazon.