Tag Archives: Regency

A Dance with Jane Austen by Susannah Fullerton – A Review

A dance with Jane Austen

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.

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First Catch Your Husband

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.

The Dolphin

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.

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Why the Regency?

Just over two years I started writing a trilogy of novels set in the Regency period. This was partly because I had been reading some books set at that time and found myself enjoying the setting and partly because I read a review of a historical romance about Regency spies that suggested that something was impossible since it had never been accomplished in any book that the reviewer had read. I thought about it for a while and realised that it wasn’t impossible and it wasn’t even that difficult, so I started The Heart that Lies to demonstrate to myself that it was easy. Even before I finished it I knew that there would have to be a second book to tell the story of the earl’s friend and then it occurred to me that a trilogy would make more sense, because the story had to continue past the Battle of Waterloo.

Then I had to do the research; it turns out it’s not enough to have read the complete works of Jane Austen a couple (or more) times. It was the research that showed me that the Regency was a much more interesting time than all those TV adaptations of Austen’s works had led me to believe. It wasn’t just about girls in pretty gowns meeting young men with impeccable manners in elegant rooms. It was also about a constant fear of invasion or revolution, whichever came first; it was the beginning of the last hurrah of the landed aristocracy whose place was rapidly being taken by industrialists and capitalists; it was a very violent society where life was cheap; and it was a time when wealthy Britons, no longer able to travel on the continent, came to appreciate the beauty of their own countries.

Like the fourteenth century it was a time of uncertainty. No one knew how the seemingly never-ending war against Napoleon’s France was going to end and it often looked as if there was going to be a violent revolution in Britain before either side could declare victory anyway. There were frequent riots and the Luddites took actions against factories in the Midlands and the North that were, if not taking their jobs, changing the nature of them.

It was a time of change with the industrial revolution taking manufacturing out of the home and into the factory. On the one hand the variety of goods available for purchase increased and the cost of buying them decreased, so people started to own more things, many of which made their lives easier. On the other hand, labour moved from the home into factories and people who had been able to work at their own pace had to work at the pace of a machine.

As in our own time a much-loved monarch was ending a lengthy reign. The Prince of Wales was much less respected and the butt of salacious jokes and cartoons. Although many benefited from his society during his regency, few looked forward to his succession.

The Regency was a very short period of time from 1811 to 1820 and, until I started doing the research, it had always felt like an anomaly between the Georgian and Victorian eras. The people of the Georgian era have always seemed to me, wrongly, as very lumpen, bawdy, without a shred of sympathy for their fellow man and either drunk or recovering from being drunk. The Regency seemed like a sudden burst of elegance that was swept away by what seemed to be a century of mourning and quiet hysteria (if you were a woman) under Victoria.

It is the constant sense that anything might have happened that makes it such a good setting for romances. And the frocks are lovely.

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