Saturday 5 February 2011


Matthew Mac Fadyen, Keira Knightley, director Joe Wright  and other members of the cast  and staff of Pride and Prejudice 2005 discuss the key role of balls in 18th century dating in one of the extra videos I have in my DVD.  

"Dancing was absolutely central in ther society - says Jane Gibson, coreographer - in terms of finding a good husband or a good wife. When you went to a dance or if there was a dance at the end of a party you would almost always be in the presence of your parents.So if you think about how you want to behave with your mum and dad watching..."
We know much about this from reading our beloved Austen "majors" , especially Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and  Sense and Sensibility, since less about the importance of balls we find in Mansfield Park or Persuasion. As we also know that a dance was the only moment you were allowed to talk alone with someone you were attracted to or in love with.

As director , Joe Wright, states in the video below : "  ... the fact that it's difficult to talk to someone who you're in love with is brilliantly highlighted in the etiquette of Austen's period, where you actually, physically, weren't allowed to talk to them alone, except when you were dancing. That's the only time you were alone, so to be able to use those dances in that way was a great way of forming collisions between characters".

"If you are only allowed to have physical contact in the dance, then dancing with someone is electric, it's so charged. And it's having that formal structure. Especially the dance, playing the little moments between  two people in that very formal structure..." - states Matthew MacFadyen (Mr Darcy)

And Keira Knightley adds: "They never really touch. Women do not shake hands with men, so the first time Darcy touches Elizabeth (she refers to a scene in the movie) is when he helps her into the carriage , which is a really beautiful moment because it is the first skin-on-skin touch and I think, today, we don't think twice about that all ..."
So we can just imagine the excitement you could experience at a ball dancing with a partner you liked!

I find this series of interviews extremely interesting and, since balls in Jane Austen 's novels and in their film adaptations have always charmed me, I've decided to post about them adding some of my favourite videos from Austen - related films and series.

First of all, there were three main kinds of dances or Formal Balls in19th century England as noted in Jane Austen's novels, and, as stated above,  they played a significant role in people's lives.
These balls included: Assembly Room dances that occurred in town, smaller dances thrown at country inns, and private balls given at a country home by a private citizen.

The Assembly Room 

Rooms were public venues specifically built for public balls. In his book What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, Daniel Pool talks about the Master of Ceremonies, whose responsibility was to know the background of the young men and women present, and then introduce them so they could dance, as it was improper for men and women of the day to introduce themselves. The Master of ceremonies also made sure that the attendees maintained their propriety and proper etiquette.

We can see an example of this in Northanger Abbey 2007: Henry Tilney after meeting Lady Allen and Catherine at a public ball in Bath helps them and inappropriately talk to them without being previously and formerly introduced. So, in order to repair the serious crime against propriety, he asks the Master of Ceremony to introduce him to the ladies. Only after that, he asks Catherine to dance with him.

Dances at country inns were similar to this, but on a much smaller scale. They were usually held in smaller communities, organized by locals, and consisted of dancing and dining. When gentlemen and ladies of high rank happened to make their appearance in such happy but humble gatherings, surprising and unexpected things could happen. Thinking of  Meryton Assembly Dance in Pride and Prejudice, of course. But also in Emma we've got a similar dance organized by Miss Woodhouse and Frank Churchill  who hire a big hall in the village for the occasion.

The Private Balls

The smallest gatherings were balls thrown at private estates by individuals.These balls would also consist of dining as well as dancing. The dinner was held very late (around midnight) and could consist of a few courses to sometimes even eight or ten. According to Maggie Lane's book Jane Austen's World, the menu consisted of things such as soup, pigeon pie, veal, cheese, oysters, and trifles, and was typically served with wine or negus, which was a mixture of boiling water, wine, lemon, spices, and calves-foot jelly. Mr. Bingley throws one of these balls at Netherfield Park in Pride and Prejudice. See this beautiful fanvideo blending scenes from Pride and Prejudice 1995 with scenes from P&P 2005
Though we are not at all sure things went this way, I love the dance in Becoming Jane ( 2007)  in which fictionalized Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) and Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) dance together at  Lady Gresham's private ball. I love when he comes out of nowhere with that incredible smile and magnetic look. Classic romantic moment.

The Style of Dancing

 As for the actual dances, they were not the dances of couples as we know in the modern sense. According to Janet Todd's Jane Austen in Context, the “ladies and gentlemen [would be] standing opposite each other in a line or a circle." These dances could have as few as three couples, and upwards of twenty. Because all of the dancers, not just the couples, were involved with the dancing, the more couples involved with the dance, the longer a set lasted. This was good for the couples, because if there were a lot of people dancing, they may have to wait their turn to dance, so they could flirt with their partner. This is seen at the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth converse throughout their dance. An average dance would last around thirty minutes, giving the couple ample opportunity to talk.

The Etiquette of Dancing

As for the dancing, it was improper etiquette for a woman to dance more than two dances with the same partner, and if two people did dance more than two dances together, they were assumed engaged. This is seen in Sense and Sensibility when Marianne and Willoughby are “partners for half the time” and “were careful to stand together and scarcely spoke a word to anybody else." Ladies would also carry dance cards to mark the names of men who they had promised dances to, so as to keep it all in order.
All of these circumstances provided the perfect opportunity to have fun, and if they were lucky, make a life match.


How would a modern girl used to dancing in clubs and  discos and to today's open, even  blunt , interactions between men and women behave if invited by Mr Darcy himself (Edward Cowan) to join him and dance? 
Though Pride and Prejudice and its world have  no secret to Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) , the protagonist of Lost in Austen, the result is not very succesful.



bccmee said...

My favorite dance scenes are from the 1995 Pride & Prejudice and the the 1996 version of Emma because they further the story effectively and they're very romantic.

Miss Laurie said...

English Country Dancing, especially as portrayed in Jane Austen adaptations has always fascinated me! I think my favorite ball sequences are the ones from the three Emma adaptations, especially the one with Kate Beckinsdale. There's such grace and elegance in these dances that our dances today lack.
Thank you for this post, it was quote informative and a delight to read!

~Miss Laurie
Old-Fashioned Charm

Unknown said...

Thank you for this lovely resumé, MG, although there is too much of P&P2005 for my tastes: by posting a "Beautiful" (?) fanvid of blending scenes from both P&Ps you've had no compassion for my poor nerves! :(
I love Mr. Beveridge's Maggot (P&P95 Meryton Ball country music: I used to have it as a ringtone in my cell), but the way they play (and dance) it in Emma96 is too fast IMHO.
Nice dance scene from 'Becoming Jane', although the music seems to be a bit old fashioned (More Valmont's than P&P's): it's a pity James McAvoy is so short...
Recently I've been invited to join a class of 19th century dances, but I declined: I'm afraid I'd do worse than poor Amanda, LOL!
Have a nice and sunny Sunday,
xx K/V

Claudia said...

This post really makes me daydream, I'd love to join a Regency ball (there's even one of these special events in my town every spring), but I'm too shy and I fear to seem ridiculous! Anyway, my favourite dance scene among those you mentioned is from Emma 1996 :)


maribea said...

I dance 19th century dances and I do assure you that they are fascinating. I love the grace, the elegance of the steps and the figures. Each time the music starts it is like a dream coming true and I cannot resist it: I have to dance. Women are dressed in crinolines and men in black tail coats and choosing garnments and ribbons is part of the fun.
Oh dancing a quadrille!!!

Jenny Allworthy said...

Your clip from the 2009 version of Emma is one of the most adorable dances ever filmed. I love this version of Emma best anyway, but the combination of sweet friendly smiles and high romantic tension during this dance is irresistible.

Jane Chiara said...

Dear Misses, dear Maria Grazia, sorry for our intromission and sorry for our "bad" English, but we have to leave here for you, something about our Austen's Dances, who will get start on 17th March 2012, in Riccione into a great event who we are named "When Emma Met Darcy".
We are very sorry for the late, who we have gave You these information about our appointment with, but we are very busy with the entire organization!
So, think about it, and we hope to have the honour to have all of You to our little crazy Austen event!
If You wanna watch about our evets, you could watch us in this YouTube link:
And if you would have much more information about it go on our web-site:
Thanks for patience and attention, enjoy your time with Jane always..and a curtsy for You ladies!
Miss Jane Chiara

Unknown said...

ooooo Love the way they dance.