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A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters went to the Ball, Susannah Fullterton

“Ah”, I said, when I saw Susannah Fullerton’s book in my mail box. “Here’s just the book I need.” Some of the biggest gaps in my Austen reference library concern dance and music. Whenever I wanted to find out more about the social customs of balls and dancing, how ladies and gentleman conducted themselves, the food served at supper balls, the etiquette of a gentleman’s introduction to a lady before he could dance with her, precisely when the waltz became acceptable not only among the racy upper crust but with villagers in the hinterlands as well, and the difference between private balls and public balls, I had to consult a variety of books. This was time-consuming, and a bit frustrating, for there were variations in details that each source offered.

And now Susannah Fullerton has come to my rescue! Readers who have visited the Jane Austen Society of Australia (an excellent site) know that Ms. Fullerton is its president, and that she has written a previous book, Jane Austen and Crime. A Dance With Jane Austen is a compact illustrated book crammed with information, but written in a relaxed and accessible style. Topics include: Learning to dance, Dressing for the dance, Getting to and from a ball, Assembly balls, Private balls, Etiquette of the ballroom, Men in the ballroom, Dancing and music, ‘They sat down to supper’, Conversation and courtship, The shade of a departed ball, and Dance in Jane Austen films.

Ms. Fullerton culls information from Austen’s letters, novels, and historic texts, such as The Complete System of English Country Dancing, by Mr. Wilson, a dancing master of some renown and decided opinions. She also describes how Beau Nash, the influential master of ceremonies and taste maker in Bath, laid down a set of rules for Society to follow. Nash single-handedly changed a small, sleepy city into THE playground for the smart set with his dictums and innovations, which lasted well beyond his death.

The Five Positions of Dancing, Wilson, 1811

Jane Austen was no stranger to Bath’s public assemblies, or to dancing in private settings. She loved to dance and rarely said no when a man approached her for a set. Jane danced as often as she could, wryly observing to her sister when she was in her thirties and when partners became scarcer: “You will not expect to hear that I was asked to dance, but I was.”

Getting to a ball might be problematic for those who had no means to keep horses or carriages. It made little sense to walk miles in fancy garb over dirt roads to a social event, and so arrangements needed to be made for those who were going to a dance to piggy-back with individuals who were willing to take them. This meant arriving and leaving a dance on someone else’s schedule. Catherine Morland did not walk to the Assembly Rooms, but took a sedan chair, for private carriages were seldom used within Bath proper. Her journey from “Great Pulteney Street to the Upper Rooms would have cost her between one shilling and six pence and two shillings (one way) – an expensive luxury at the time.”

A Modern Belle Going to the Rooms at Bath, Gillray caricature

The dancing ritual was one of courtship, and Jane Austen took full advantage of a ball to set the stage for character development. In each novel she takes a different approach. Lizzie and Darcy tense relationship began at the Meryton Assembly Ball, a situation that was not helped at the private ball at the Lucas’s house nor at the Netherfield Ball, where Lizzie’s family behaved abominably. The dances in Mansfield Park serve to show how selfish the characters are, and to point out Fanny’s isolation from the neighbors. Dancing masters taught children to dance properly, and they received further practice at children’s balls, but Fanny had few opportunities for practice, and she felt tense when she was prominently displayed at her birthday ball. Jane Austen masterfully used the dances in Emma to show how Emma never quite loses sight of Mr. Knightley even as she dances with Frank Churchill, and one gets a good sense of the frustration Catherine Morland feels at not being able to dance at her very first ball in Bath, for there was no one to introduce her and Mrs. Allen properly, or the utter irritation she feels when John Thorpe ruins her well-laid plans to dance with Mr. Tilney at a later assembly ball. Austen also uses balls to demonstrate how outrageous Marianne Dashwood’s behavior is towards Willoughby, breaking many rules of etiquette and decorum.

A Broad Hint of Not Meaning to Dance, James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphreys

Ms. Fullerton sets aside a few pages to discuss dances in films. These elaborately staged scenes are highly popular with film buffs. The costumes are beautiful, as is the music, and the settings are often quite lavish. But be aware that most of the dances and music are often inaccurate and chosen for cinematic effect. (As an aside, I was glad to note that Susannah’s take on Pride and Prejudice 1940 was similar to mine.)

Susannah Fullerton

Insights such as these make this book a sheer pleasure to read. A Dance with Jane Austen will be a valuable addition on the book shelves of any Regency author, Janeite, and history buff. As Susannah Fullterton says about her book:

Dances in the Regency era were almost the only opportunity young men and women had to be on their own without a chaperone right next to them, and dancing provided the exciting chance of physical touch. ..Dances were long – one often spent 30 minutes with the same partner – so there was plenty of opportunity for flirtation, amorous glances, and pressing of hands. After the dance was over, there was all the pleasure of gossip about everything that had happened.”

A Dance with Jane Austen will be available in October. Readers who are lucky enough to go to the Jane Austen Society Annual General Meeting in New York in a few weeks will have the opportunity to meet Ms. Fullerton! I give this book 5 out of 5 Regency tea cups.

Preorder the book at this Amazon.com link or at Frances Lincoln Publishers
Hardcover: 144 pages
Publisher: Frances Lincoln (October 16, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0711232458
ISBN-13: 978-0711232457

Please note: The blue links are mine; other links are supplied by WordPress. I do not make money from my blog. I do, however, receive books from publishers to review.

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wilton_pride_prejudice_1a_450x300Philip Sheppard, who wrote Crystallized Beauty, a musical piece that was used to advertise the Jane Austen Season for ITV last year, has made his recent compositions for piano available on one post. Click on the link to listen to an unnamed piece based on an empty drawing room at night, a slow ballade waltz, a piece entitled The Long Letter, the full version of Crystallized Beauty, and Elena.

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Rowlandson illustration from Wikipedia

‘What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing, after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies.’

‘Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world; every savage can dance.’

Sir William only smiled. ‘Your friend performs delightfully,’ he continued, after a pause, on seeing Bingley join the group; ‘and I doubt not that you are an adept in the science yourself, Mr. Darcy.’

‘You saw me dance at Meryton, I believe, sir.’

‘Yes, indeed, and received no inconsiderable pleasure from the sight.
– Conversation between Sir William Lucas and Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter VI.

Dances figure prominently in Jane Austen’s novels. Whether performed in public assembly rooms in Meryton or in private at the Netherfield Ball, dances offered social opportunities for young people to mix and mingle and converse in an acceptable fashion. In an era when a young lady of good breeding was strictly chaperoned and escorted everywhere she went, she would find it difficult during a routine day to meet privately with a single gentleman, even one who was courting her. Indeed, such conduct was strictly forbidden (and the reason why Marianne Dashwood’s behavior with Willoughby was considered shockingly forward). The ballroom, however, afforded a social situation in which a couple could arrange to be together for one or two sets. Since a dance would often last for half an hour, the dancers had ample time to converse, flirt, and even touch one another in an accepted manner.

A gentleman would, of course, never ask a young lady to dance unless he was first introduced to her. This is one of the reasons why Henry Tilney made sure to arrange a formal introduction to Catherine Morland and Mrs. Allen through the Master of Ceremonies.

During this era people were often judged for their ability to dance skillfully, and a gentleman was pressured to cut a fine figure on the dance floor. In his advice to his son about manners and deportment, Lord Chesterfield wrote: “Now to acquire a graceful air, you must attend to your dancing; no one can either sit, stand or walk well, unless he dances well. And in learning to dance, be particularly attentive to the motion of your arms for a stiffness in the wrist will make any man look awkward. If a man walks well, presents himself well in company, wears his hat well, moves his head properly, and his arms gracefully, it is almost all that is necessary.”

It is notable that Mr.Collins movements are awkward, and that his conduct on the dance floor mortifies Lizzy: “The first two dances, however, brought a return of distress; they were dances of mortification. Mr Collins, awkward and solemn, apologising instead of attending, and often moving wrong without being aware of it, gave her all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give. The moment of her release from him was exstasy.” (Pride and Prejudice) Mr. Collins’ ineptness as a dancer would have been immediately understood by the contemporary reader to mean that he was not a polished gentleman. To compound his lack of manners, he boldly walks up to Mr. Darcy to introduce himself.

Young ladies and gentlemen practiced their dancing steps, belying Mr. Darcy’s assertion that “every savage can dance.” Professional dancing masters were employed to ensure that a young lady and gentleman learned the steps to a variety of intricate dance movements. Such instruction also helped a young gentleman to keep his bearing upright. Lord Chesterfield wrote his son, who was taking The Grand Tour, “Remember to take the best dancing-master at Berlin, more to teach you to sit, stand, and walk gracefully, than to dance finely. The Graces, the Graces; remember the Graces! Adieu!” Learning the steps was easier said than done, since “between 1730-1830 over twenty-seven thousand country dances with their tunes were published in England alone.” Thankfully, the Master of Ceremonies would choose only a certain number of dances to be performed for the evening, most likely consisting of the most fashionable dances of that particular year.* (Thompson, The Felicities of Rapid Motion)

The most important lady present would open the ball by dancing the first set, as Elizabeth Elliot did as the eldest daughter. Emma Woodhouse would have also been given the honors. Mr. Darcy’s rank and friendship with Mr. Bingley most likely put his position at the top of the line of dancers. Thus, when he asks Elizabeth to dance at the Netherfield Ball they would figure prominently in the line of dancers. The other couples in a country dance set would follow the lead of the top couple, and progressively work their way down the line. Sets of five to eight couples were popular during this period, with partners standing opposite each other as the other couples completed a sequence of movements

Standing and facing each other in line, therefore, was typical for couples engaged in a country dance. However, they were expected to make some conversation as they waited for the next movement. A gentleman, if he applied himself, could skillfully lead the conversation and put a young lady at ease, or pretend to be interested in any topic she brought up. Mr. Darcy chose to remain silent.

They stood for some time without speaking a word; and she began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and at first was resolved not to break it; till suddenly fancying that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk, she made some slight observation on the dance. He replied, and was again silent. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time with:

“It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. — I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.”

He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.

“Very well. — That reply will do for the present. — Perhaps by and by I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones. — But now we may be silent.”

“Do you talk by rule then, while you are dancing?”

“Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together, and yet for the advantage of some, conversation ought to be so arranged as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as as possible.” – Pride & Prejudice, Volume 1, Chapter 18

In a public assembly, where people paid a fee to attend, people from various walks of life would come in contact with one another. “Aristocrats would interact with gentry, tradespeople, or even servants who were called in to make up a set if there were not enough couples…” (Sullivan, p 168). Mr. Darcy chose to dance only with Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley at the public assembly rooms in Meryton, thereby displeasing a wide variety of people, particularly Mrs. Bennet, who was vocal about her displeasure, for there was a scarcity of gentlemen and Lizzy had been forced to sit out two dances. For her part, once a lady refused a gentleman, she was honor bound to pass on other invitations to dance for the rest of the evening.

Private balls became more popular towards the end of the century, when many grand houses began to boast their own ballrooms. At private affairs, the host and hostess could invite the ‘right’ sort of people. These balls were not only more selective, but they provided music played by more professional musicians, and offered delicious and elaborate refreshments as well.

Illustration from The English Folk Dance and Song Society

Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot is the music featured at the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice 1995 (You can listen to it by clicking on the YouTube video above). The piece was written by Johan Playford in 1695, and published in Playford’s Dancing Master, a country dance guidebook. Maggot in those days meant “favorite,” and the term probably was used in conjunction with a favorite dance. “Today there are two modern versions of the dance – one published by Pat Shaw and one by Cecil Sharp. Shaw’s version of Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot is generally accepted to be the most authentic since it follows the AAB structure of the music, and Playford clearly states that the second, or B, line of music should be ‘played but once’.”

Links and Resources:

Festival Ball Tickets for September 27, 2008 are now on sale at The Jane Austen Centre, Bath. Tickets this year are £65. To purchase tickets and for further information on the ball and dance workshop taking place in the afternoon of the ball, contact Farthingales or call 44 (0)1225 471919

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Off on Holiday

Like Jane Austen, who was close to her siblings, my own family obligations are calling me away as I join kith and kin on vacation. This blog will remain relatively quiet until August 14th. Meanwhile, please enjoy this pleasant scene from a bygone day when families whiled away the evening hours in music, or read a fascinating interview with the creators of Pride and Prejudice, the musical, which sits below.

A little music or the delights of harmony, James Gillray, 1810

Find this image in the Princeton University Library Digital Collections

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