Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet met at the Netherton ball. The preparations and the ball itself are recreated at Chawton House for this DVD.
Chawton house, now home to The Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing, 1600-1830, was one of the houses of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight. When he inherited it he was able to provide a home for his mother and sisters in the nearby village of Chawton.
The DVD is a wealth of information about how people of different ages, classes and gender dressed for a ball and what their expectations were. Some of the many things I learned from the DVD are that the dances were long, usually about twenty minutes; the length of the candles in the chandeliers told the guests how long the ball was going to be; ballrooms were very hot places; and being able to dance well was one of the necessities for finding a marriage partner if you were a member of certain social classes.
The DVD is ably presented by Amanda Vickery, professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary College London and author of Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England and The Gentleman’s Daughter, and Alastair Sooke, art critic and broadcaster. They are assisted by specialists: John Mullan, professor of English at University College London and author of What Matters in Jane Austen, expert in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century novel; Ivan Day, an expert in historic food; and Stuart Marsden, an expert in historical dance.
The DVD is hugely informative. If you want to know what it took to put on a Regency ball, this is the place to go. It’s also entertaining and the clothes, when we eventually get to the ball, are lovely to look at.
The first half of the DVD shows the preparations for the ball: the dancing lessons; the fittings for clothes; the planning of the menu. Then we’re into the ball itself, watching the invited guests turn up on foot and in carriages on a snowy evening. They dance in a small room and people are pressed together far more than you would imagine. There’s plenty of opportunity to flirt in a twenty minute dance. There’s also a lot more touching than I was expecting.
Interestingly there’s a look at one of the Austen family’s music books, kept in the archives at the University of Southampton. The music was copied out by hand, to be played on a piano. Some of it was copied by Austen herself, in very neat handwriting. A piece from this book is arranged for musicians to play at the ball.
Watching this DVD you begin to understand why it would be noticed if a man danced with the same woman twice, something Mrs Bennet makes a great deal of when Mr Bingley dances with Jane. At twenty minutes each, there weren’t many dances in an evening and two would show a marked preference for a woman.
Supper also took up a lot of time. Here the guests sit down to sixty-three dishes, providing plenty of opportunities for more flirting, as the men helped their neighbours to food.
In my imagination, and probably in that of other readers of Jane Austen and historical romances, ballrooms were huge and those sitting out were a long way from the dancers, but here we can see how close they were to one another, with those watching paying close attention to who was dancing with whom and how well.
This is a very interesting DVD. The experts are articulate and have plenty to say and suggest. The dancers and other guests put the theory into practice. Watching the DVD has transformed the way I read and think about balls.