Thursday, 22 November 2012

How to dance...with Jane Austen

Respect others, don't hog your partner and never offer a compliment - Susannah Fullerton revisits the extraordinary rules that kept Jane Austen's ballrooms running perfectly politely

The rules of the ballrooms of Jane Austen’s day date largely to the time of Beau Nash, arbiter of good behaviour in public places and author of the 1706 Rules To Be Observ’d at Bath. Many, however, were brought to life in her famous novels. Here are some of the cardinal regulations…

Never attend a private ball without an invitation
In Jane Austen’s early story (1792) Catharine, Or The Bower, Edward Stanley follows his family to a ball given by Mr and Mrs Dudley, without invite. When Catharine raises some scruples, he replies, ‘Oh! Hang them; who cares for that; they cannot turn me out of the house.’ But the Dudleys do care, feel ‘their dignity injured’, and treat him with haughtiness. In real life, Austen was often at some pains to procure invitations for her brothers, Charles and Frank, and never took the liberty of taking them along if no invitation had been issued.

A gentleman should not ask a lady to dance unless they have been formally introduced
In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney needs master of ceremonies, Mr King, to introduce him to Catherine Morland before he can ask her to dance. In Pride And Prejudice, Mr Bingley, eager to dance with Jane Bennet, ‘asks to be introduced’. A stranger could be introduced to a partner after applying to the master of ceremonies, so it was usually easy to gain introductions. In Pride And Prejudice, Elizabeth chides Darcy by telling him most satirically, ‘True; and nobody can ever be introduced in a ballroom’. But you did need to know someone in order to bring an introduction about. In Bath, Mrs Allen knows not a soul, so Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland must remain without a partner for the entire night.

A lady must accept an invitation to dance (unless seriously tired), or spend the rest of the evening sitting out all the dances In Pride And Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet had hoped to reserve the opening dances at the Netherfi eld ball for Mr Wickham, so is most put out when Mr Collins asks her to save them for him. However, she is obliged to accept his offer if she wants to dance with anyone else during that fi rst set. And if Mr Collins continues to stand by her the entire evening, other men are not likely to ask her to dance. By the end of the night, Elizabeth decides she would rather remain without a partner at all than undergo the misery of another dance with Mr Collins.

A couple can dance a maximum of two sets with each other. They must then do their social duty and find other partners
Dancing was a community activity, so couples who danced exclusively with each other were neglecting their duties as members of that community. In Sense And Sensibility, Marianne and Willoughby break this rule: ‘they were partners for half the time’; and so do Northanger Abbey’s James Morland and Isabella Thorpe. Isabella blames James, but she knows she is behaving badly.

Catharine (of Catharine, Or The Bower) dances ‘the greatest part’ of the evening with Mr Stanley, but has little experience of balls, so does so from ignorance, not a deliberate flouting of the rules.

A gentleman is expected to invite ladies who are available to dance
In Emma, Mr Elton rejects this rule when he sees Harriet Smith without a partner. Even when Mrs Weston points out Harriet’s single state, Mr Elton still refuses to dance with her.
Other offending Jane Austen characters are Lord Osborne (The Watsons), Tom Bertram with his cousin Fanny (Mansfi eld Park), Northanger Abbey’s Captain Tilney (unless a very pretty girl catches his eye) and Mr Darcy at the Meryton assembly. In contrast, Mr Knightley well knows this etiquette requirement and shows his true gentility by going to the rescue of Harriet Smith.

Everybody must submit to the master of ceremonies’ decrees
Thomas Wilson [England’s great Regency dancing arbiter] complained that young men at assembly balls were too apt to ignore the master of ceremonies ‘whose authority is unquestionable, and decisions final’.

One must dance neatly; not caper, kick out or bump into others
In Pride And Prejudice, the Bennet girls have yet to learn this rule – they are too noisy, energetic and frolicsome on the dance floor. There is little hope that Mr Collins will ever learn it – he will remain a terrible dancer. Surely Charlotte will make sure that, once married, he never dances again.

Couples must join country dance sets from the bottom; not push in
In Catharine, Or The Bower, the heroine is hurried by Edward Stanley to the top of the set. This behaviour is ‘highly resented by several young Ladies present’ as neither she nor her partner have the rank to justify taking fi rst place. Nor have they drawn tickets to entitle them to this elevated position. Catharine has little choice, but Edward should have known better.

Appearance should not be complimented. A dressmaker or tailor did not need to be praised for doing their job properly
In Emma, Mrs Elton, so distressed at receiving no compliments on her gown and jewellery from her partner Mr Weston, takes the task upon herself and reveals her vulgarity when she loudly forces Jane Fairfax to praise her appearance. Miss Bates knows this and although she looks at Emma with great admiration, says, ‘Must not compliment, I know… that would be rude.’

Gentlemen, offcers on duty excepted, will not be given entry if wearing boots
Captain Denny and the other offi cers quartered in Meryton would have all danced in their shiny Hessians, as would Captain Tilney in the public rooms in Bath. But Edmund Bertram, Mr Knightley and other non-soldiers would never have dreamed of wearing boots in a ballroom.

Respect others at all times
Balls were an opportunity for display of all sorts: of your person, your status, your importance in the community – but such display was expected to be discreet. Balls were the most important social events of the day and it was critical everyone had a good time. If some were rude, noisy or inconsiderate, then everyone suffered as a result. Jane Austen shows many examples of people breaking the above rules, and their reputations are damaged. In her novels, balls reveal gentility, contrast good manners with bad and show that fun can be had by all, so long as everyone behaves.

A Dance With Jane Austen: How A Novelist And Her Characters Went To The Ball, by Susannah Fullerton (Frances Lincoln, £16.99).

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