Dancing Through the Novels of Jane Austen

I usually receive a book or three each Christmas, as my family and friends are well aware they can hardly go wrong with such a gift to this devoted and steadfast bibliophile. I am always very pleased with these gifts, but one of the books which I received this past Christmas was such a delight that I felt I must share it with those who are interested in the life and works of Jane Austen and in the cultural and social history of Regency England in general.

Shall we dance our way through Jane Austen’s novels?

The title of this most enjoyable book is A Dance with Jane Austen:   How a Novelist and Her Characters Went to the Ball. The author is Susannah Fullerton, the President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia and a noted lecturer on all things Austen. She is also the author of the book Jane Austen and Crime, which has been well received by Jane Austen scholars and, more recently, Celebrating Pride and Prejudice:   200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece, which is a must-read in this bicentennial year of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel. The Forward of A Dance with Jane Austen is written by Deirdre Le Faye, the noted Jane Austen expert and author of a number of books on Jane Austen and her world.

Jane Austen loved to dance, and she shared that pleasure with many of the characters in her novels, but until I read A Dance with Jane Austen, I did not realize how very closely dancing and courtship were aligned in Jane Austen’s world. It seems that the behavior of a young lady or gentleman during the course of a ball or assembly signaled much about their potential as a marriage partner. Those who were not able to converse on topics of interest to their partners may be showing themselves to be thoughtless and selfish. Those who were clumsy or careless in their execution of the intricate dance steps might be perceived to be equally graceless in other aspects of their lives. Fullerton explains how the balls and assemblies in Jane Austen’s novels are often key scenes in the advancement of the plot and the romantic entanglements of her characters.

However, before she comes to discuss the close connections between dancing and courtship, Fullerton offers chapters on how those in the Regency learned to dance, why they invested such time, effort and expense in dressing for each dance, and even explains the ramifications regarding the options for transport to the location where the dance was to be held. Today, few of us attend any kind of dancing event on a regular basis and those of us who do consider such events little more than amusing recreational activities with our skills or dress having few, if any, social consequences. But during the Regency, as is reflected in Austen’s novels, each assembly or ball was an important social gathering for the community, not just for courting couples or those unattached young people just venturing into the marriage mart. One’s skill at executing the dances was very important, since it would be on display for the entire evening, and even for those who did not dance, their appearance was of great import in signaling their perceptions of themselves and their standing in the community. The availability of appropriate transport would not only determine the time at which those eager to dance might arrive or leave a ball, but might prohibit them from attending some dances altogether.

Fullerton has chapters explaining the differences between public assemblies and private balls. These were quite distinct functions, to which very different classes of people would be invited. Needless to say, private balls were considered more exclusive and therefore the most prestigious. Invitations to private balls were considered to confer much consequence on those who received them. Jane Austen attended both public and private dances during her lifetime and was very familiar with each. She incorporated dances of both types in her novels, depending upon which would best serve her story. Fullerton explained that many public assemblies were on offer during the last decades of the eighteenth century, right through the Regency. What was surprising to me was that towns and villages, no matter how small, considered it part of their civic duty, and a demonstration of their respectability, to hold assemblies for their residents.

However, I suspect that authors of Regency novels will find the chapter on the etiquette of the ballroom particularly informative. Fullerton provides the set of requisite rules for the ballroom with which Austen and her contemporaries would have been familiar. Along with each, she provides examples of how they were either observed or broken in the stories which Austen penned. There is also a section in this chapter on the correct way in which a ball should be opened and its significance for the couple, especially the high honor it conferred on the young lady who opened the ball. Though most people today would disregard the importance of these ballroom rules, Fullerton explains how critical the observance of them was to those who regularly attended balls during the Regency. Any author planning a ballroom scene in an upcoming novel will want to read the "Etiquette of the ballroom" chapter of A Dance with Jane Austen very closely.

The chapter on men in the ballroom was also most intriguing. Fullerton addresses the shortage of men, at least good looking young men, in the ballrooms of Regency England, due in large part to the Napoleonic wars. She also explains why the majority of men in uniform who appeared in these ballrooms were soldiers rather than sailors. She employs many of the dance scenes in Austen’s novels to illustrate both the proper and improper behavior of the male of the species in Regency ballrooms and assembly rooms.

In the "Dancing and music" chapter, Fullerton covers all the different types of dances which might have been performed in a Regency ballroom, along with the details of dancing each and when they were typically danced during the course of a ball. She also discusses the various musical pieces which were most often played to accompany these different dances. I was surprised to learn that many of these pieces were several decades old and, especially at rural public assemblies, these traditional tunes were still being played during the Regency. Many of these traditional tunes were also played at the private balls of the beau monde. Another surprise was the discovery that these dances were not just intended for the pleasure of those who were actually dancing. It was understood that those on the dance floor were entertaining the spectators, many of whom were probably reliving their own youth as they watch the intricate movements executed on the dance floor. It seems that was one of the reasons that the waltz was not well received, especially in less urban areas. Nearly as bad as the fact that the couples were in physical contact with one another, the movements were not particularly elaborate and therefore provided little entertainment to the spectators. It is in this chapter that you will learn the origins of the term "to stand up with someone," meaning to dance with them.

All of that strenuous activity in the ballroom could not help but engender an appetite, in both the dancers and the spectators. At any ball, but especially a private ball, supper was de rigueur. In Emma, Jane Austen wrote: "A private dance, without sitting down to supper; was pronounced an infamous fraud upon the rights of men and women … " And even at public assemblies, those in attendance expected to be provided with some sort of refreshments, even if it was only the warm lemonade and stale cake on offer at Almack’s. In her chapter on the suppers made available to Regency dancers, Fullerton presents details on the wide selection of food and drink which those attending a ball or assembly might find in the supper room. The illustration on the page facing the chapter opening is a period diagram which lists the different dishes which would be set out, and where they should be placed on the serving table.

Another surprising revelation in this book was how much time those who attended a ball or assembly would spend talking and/or writing to their friends about it in the days following the event. It seems that the post mortem of each dance was nearly as enjoyable as the dance itself had been and the discussions often continued for many days among those who had attended the ball or assembly. These were significant social events, not only to those who took to the dance floor, but also to those who sat and watched the proceedings, especially in country towns and villages. However, Fullerton does also address impromptu dance parties when the young people pushed back the furniture and rolled up the carpets to dance to whatever tunes were played by any musicians in the group. She noted that in some households, those musicians would be servants who were known to be able to play an instrument.

Those who enjoy the film versions of Jane Austen’s novels will have a particular interest in the last chapter of this book. It is devoted to the dances which are portrayed in many of those films. Fullerton touches on the difficulty of capturing these intricate dances on film, and for those who are especially fond of the 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice, she lists the names and dates of all of the period music which accompanied the various dance scenes in that delightful mini-series.

A Dance with Jane Austen is illustrated with a plethora of contemporary prints and drawings, most in color and a few in black and white. There are also color photographs of dance-related artifacts, and stills from a number of the Austen films. Regrettably, there are no footnotes to the text, but there is a substantial bibliography on the various aspects of dance history and Regency socials customs. The copy of the book I was given is the hard cover edition, which is printed on sturdy, good quality paper and is quite nicely bound, with a lovely pictorial dust jacket.

Whether you are a devotee of Jane Austen’s novels, an author of Regency novels yourself, an avid reader of such novels, an aficionado of dance, or a casual historian of the social history of the Regency, you will find something of interest in A Dance with Jane Austen. It is well-written and a delight to read, as you imagine yourself in those same ballrooms in which Jane Austen and her characters danced, once upon a time.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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23 Responses to Dancing Through the Novels of Jane Austen

  1. …and does it document the chalked floors as excellently as you have done? I stopped in the middle of reading this to go and put it on my wish list, which is far too long! [and yes, I feel cheated if I don’t have at least 3 books at Christmas]

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Since this is a more a social and cultural history, Fullerton did not spend any time on the decoration of ballrooms or their floors.

      As for books at Christmas, my family all lives out West, and I think it makes things easier for them to send me books, since they are easier to pack and ship. But it works for me.

      =^..^=

  2. elfahearn says:

    Amazon.com has it listed for $18.18 for a new copy. Ugh, I JUST finished posting a comment on a blog about being a book addict and how terrible it is that our homes can no longer support any more book shelves. Now I’m longing for this book. Yikes.

  3. HJ says:

    The BBC did a fantastic re-enactment of a Regency Ball in honour of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, called “Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball”, with Prof Amanda Vickery and Alistair Souke. It demonstrated graphically how physically strenuous the dances were, and how long they lasted. It also revealed how crucial it was for the men in particular to be good dancers (any mistakes they made were very evident, whereas the long dresses masked some errors made by women). There was also fascinating detail about clothing and the food which would have been served.

    I recommend anyone who can access it to watch it on BBC iPlayer – http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01sf0q6/Pride_and_Prejudice_Having_a_Ball/

    It is available until 22.29 on 17th May 2013.

    • It was fascinating and I much regretted not having an up to date video that I could use to take a copy to turn into a computer friendly version to send to people. the re-enactors were making some very insightful comments about how it felt, and how exciting it actually was [and how sozzled they were with the liquid refreshments!]

      • Kathryn Kane says:

        I am now even more envious that I could not see it. I have emailed our local PBS station here in Boston, asking them to consider adding to their upcoming programming. Over the years, PBS has aired a number of Jane Austen-related programs and I understand they have always been well-received and also profitable, if they made them available on DVD. One can but hope!

        Kat

        • Best of luck!
          I hope PBS come through – it might be worth while asking JASNA to lobby as well.

          • Kathryn Kane says:

            Might not be necessary. Someone at the RWA Beau Monde Chapter list found a copy of the video on YouTube and posted a link.

            It can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwdqMdmbh84.

            They also mentioned that there will be a DVD coming out in June. I hope there will be Region 1 versions, but even if it is only available as Region 2, most people should be able to view it on their computers.

            In the meantime, this is the first time I have ever thought YouTube was of any value, since this is the first time it has hosted a video I have thought worth watching!

            =^..^=

  4. Kathryn Kane says:

    Thank you very much for sharing! I am a little jealous, since it sounds like a fascinating program. I wish I could see it.

    At least those in the UK can watch this program. Those of us who live elsewhere will just have to hope it will be made available outside the UK. We in the States do sometimes get lucky and such programs play here on BBC America or they are made available on DVD. I will be keeping my fingers crossed for one or the other!

    Regards,

    Kat

  5. Kathryn Kane says:

    If anyone does hear of “Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball” being released in the US or on DVD, please do post the details here.

    Thanks very much!

    Kat

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