Going to balls and dances in the Regency Era was an opportunity of a social assembly to flirt and get to know each other. In the Regency Era, balls and dances were particularly important because it allowed for courtship and socialization that may possibly lead towards engagement, and overall, marriage. Jane Austen’s novels “do not ramble. They are tightly constructed stories that cover a short span of time” (Tomalin 9). Austen treasured balls, which were thrilling events that she got to experience. In her fictions, she uses them splendidly for their mixture of passion and properness.
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The drama of Austen’s novels is crafted around the etiquette of balls. Young folks were anticipated to have light conversation ready to go so if need be, they could pass the time at the ball. In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney has the host introduce him to Catherine Morland. A man may only ask a woman to dance with him after being formally introduced. Socialization and courtship depict an immense role in going to balls and dances in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In going through why most of Jane Austen’s novels, in particular, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, had dancing as the centerpiece of her novels. Going through Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, we will discuss the different dance types such as Minuet, Cotillion, and Country-Dance, and who chooses to dance and not to dance in the two novels.
Though dancing in the eighteenth and nineteenth century had a copious amount of physical interaction, which made the courting easier for the gentlemen, this was the only approved form of sexual engagements that were received till marriage. In the Regency period as in previous times, it was felt that the ability of a person’s dancing stated the quality of his or her soul or spirit. In today’s time, we do not evaluate our government by their proficiency to dance, but in the Regency Era it determined a man’s capability to dance with certitude, to stand well, to move effortlessly with headlining himself, to enter an area elegantly were all ways to determine whether or not he was truly a gentleman. Jane Austen uses balls and dancing in Northanger Abbey, by making the elegant balls the centerpiece of. Dance formations were always coming and going with new names starting in the seventeenth century with the Minuet, then progressing to the late eighteenth century early nineteenth century with Cotillion, also known as Country-dance in the upcoming nineteenth century.
French balls and dances began the trend of social dancing that spread across Europe through the eighteenth century. The Minuet which was a popular French dance, “was used ceremonially as the opening dance of a ball; and in both the order of the couples was determined by their social position, with the highest-ranking couple dancing first” (McKee 6). This dancing style was brought by the French and carried over into the eighteenth century.
While executing the Minuet, there would be two performers that meandered around the entire ballroom. The Minuet was difficult to complete, but once knowing the dance it looks as if you are dancing with ease. This dance style portrays “eight measures (or multiples of four or eight measures) in each reprise” (Russell 118). The way you would learn these dance styles were through dance manuals that helped illustrate the dance steps that were supposed to be done. It was captivating to see that “the dance manual of this period is an interesting compilation, part conduct book and part dance instruction book” (Reid-Walsh 116). When comparing the Minuet to other dance styles during the eighteenth century it was “the most universally associated with that elegant period, not only because of its great popularity in its hey-day, but because it was the only baroque and rococo dance of that dancing time to be incorporated into the classical symphony and sonata…” (Sutton 119).
Moving into the late eighteenth century early nineteenth century, the style of dancing moved from the Minuet to Cotillion, or Country-dance, that is a longways dance style. All of the dances in the eighteenth and nineteenth century emphasized symmetry in the dances and that it was also “emphasized in the diagrams for the specific often complex figures of the dances themselves” (Reid-Walsh 117). The longways dance style was fixed for five to eight couples, with partners standing on the opposite sides of each other. Even though the Regency Era was reigned by Country-dance or Cotillion, there were several other dance types that took place during that period such as, the Waltz, the dances from the Scotch, and the Quadrille.
The Country-dance and the Cotillion are the same types of dance style except the Cotillion has more complicated combinations. The Cotillion dance style became the basis of square dancing. The Country-dances that took place during Jane Austen’s time “included square dances in which four couples stood in a square formation and the movement of the dance occurred in, around, and across the square.
You see that Austen’s novels are centralized on patterns of four and eight with the characters. Wilson begins to describe how the Country-dance, in that time period, relates to the eight main characters of the novel, and how they end up with their soulmate in pairs of two. These being, “eight single people around whom the romantic storyline moves: Anne Elliot, Elizabeth Elliot, Louisa Musgrove, Henrietta Musgrove, Frederick Wentworth, William Elliot, Captain Benwick, and Charles Hayter” (Wilson 60). With these eight people, you can see which couples end up together at the end being, “the characters have arranged themselves into four couples: Anne and Frederick, Louisa and Benwick, Henrietta and Charles, and Mrs. Clay and William Elliot” (Wilson 60). These square dances were called “Contredanse Française,” and the longways dances became known as “Contredanse Anglaise.” Thus, “country- dance” was used comprehensively to signify most types of social dance and specifically to refer to longways dances” (Wilson 56).
We see that the country-dance was predominant in both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion by having both of the main heroines introduce them like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey when she says, “the cotillions were over, the country- dancing beginning” (Austen 93). You can also see this in Persuasion when Anne is playing the piano so the rest of the girls could “country dances to them by the hour together” (Austen 83). In the dance “each couple has a place along one side of the dance square, and the dancers’ movements are dictated by that location” (Wilson 57). The Country-dances were very physical and brought the two performers into close contact, which would have been known as inappropriate in that time period.
Going into the two novels by Jane Austen that we are going to discuss, we will start with dancing in Persuasion. In Persuasion, the dance centerpiece is missing from the novel that Austen showcases in her other works. We as the reader only know that the night ends with “occasionally, in an unpremeditated little ball” that Anne does not participate in since she has “quite given up dancing” (Austen 83, 105). The heroine in Persuasion, Anne Elliot, does not dance and would rather entertain others with music, like her sisters. Although this is Austen’s last novel, dancing is not a centerpiece towards the story overall. In the novel, there were family get together that were unofficial, sustained until after dinner to the playing of one beginner musician, like Anne in Persuasion, as she played at the Musgrove’s house. Wilson’s “Dance, Physicality, and Social Mobility in Jane Austen’s Persuasion” compares the other novels that Austen wrote to Persuasion since it had the least amount of dancing in it, and why did she do this to the last novel that she wrote. You can see in Wilson’s thesis of her paper that “in Persuasion, Austen depicts society as a set of separate closed circles, modeled on country-dance formations, and uses these to illustrate the possibilities for—and yet limitations of—individual mobility within established social structures” (Wilson 55).
In Persuasion going to balls and dances were where most men courted the ladies to find a marriage. Balls and dances were important because that was the only real chance you were able to have an intriguing conversation that could also lead to social encounters, such as dancing. Wilson suggests that “though analyses of dance in Persuasion focus primarily on the social implications of not dancing, the novel’s conclusion has also received some critical attention as a metaphoric representation of dance” (Wilson 59). In Persuasion, Anne Elliot’s happiness with Captain Wentworth was apparently lost eight years ago when they were engaged. Anne, playing the piano for the Musgrove sisters to dance with the man she once loved. After hearing about Anne and Wentworth’s past we know that they use to dance, and even explains when she overhears Captain Wentworth ask the Musgrove sisters “whether Miss Elliot never danced”; with the response being, “Oh, no; never; she has quite given up dancing. She had rather play” (Austen 105). Anne gave up dancing because she is depressed and “is cited as a sign of her sad slide toward spinsterhood” (Wilson 59).
While dancing is an important part of Persuasion, you also see that through dancing you have your social statuses. Austen arranges Persuasion around Country-dance patterns to better understand the individual characters and places that were in Persuasion, and also the issues of social mobility that takes place in Persuasion. Austen presents two main social groups in Persuasion, the first being “the landed gentry, represented by the Elliot family (including the Walter Elliots, the Musgroves, and their various connections)” and the second being “the navy (including the Crofts, the Harvilles, and Benwick)” (Wilson 66). With those two groups being the main social groups in the novel, Anne permanently leaves the landed gentry and goes to the navy where she is much happier with Captain Wentworth.
You can see the social mobility that Wilson brings up, working through the novel when Anne declines Mr. Elliot’s proposal and runs to Captain Wentworth after receiving the letter of his feelings for her, and accepts his proposal. This relates back to the landed gentry and the navy because Anne moves from the landed gentry (Mr. Elliot) to the navy (Captain Wentworth) where she belongs at the end of the novel. Whenever Anne and Captain Wentworth first interact with each other, the narrator refers to “spirits dancing” being symbolic of how they feel even though they are not really dancing (Austen 248). The societal stance back in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was related to male dominance in society.
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We can see in Austen’s fictions that without the male being introduced to the female they will not be able to dance. The only thing that the women had control over in the Regency Era was to accept a proposal and reside with that partner for the rest of her life. We see this with Anne, because even though she got proposed to eight years ago and accepted she still had the right to break off the proposal. We see it again whenever she declines Mr. Elliot’s proposal, and good thing she did because he only cared about his happiness, and even had a mistress lined up if Anne declined.
Balls and dances were one of Northanger Abbey’s centerpieces that Jane Austen wrote about. Catherine Morland is Austen’s heroine in Northanger Abbey that loves to dance, and goes to balls. She especially wants to see Henry Tilney at these balls and wants to dance with him, but he has to ask. There were open dances in Bath, such just like the ones Catherine Morland would attend in Northanger Abbey. It was generally accepted in the eighteenth and nineteenth century that the ballrooms were used for courting young women.
While Catherine Morland goes to one of the balls with John Thorpe she refuses to dance with him because she ultimately wants to dance with Henry, but has yet to be introduced to him. John Thorpe deserts Catherine at the beginning of the ball for the card table, so Catherine is forced to sit with the other young women that could not dance without their partner, which is why she has to refuse Henry Tilney’s offer at first. Moving into Northanger Abbey one of the things that Catherine notices, “the cotillions were over, the country-dancing beginning” (Austen 93). Henry Tilney wanted to dance with Catherine and gives a speech on comparing Country-dancing and marriage:
I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not chuse to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbors. You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution (Austen 95).
Henry Tilney’s comparison of country-dancing to marriage demonstrates the role of dance in Jane Austen’s novels. Catherine automatically responds to Henry’s speech by saying that, “but they are such very different things! That you think they cannot be compared together. To be sure not. People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together. People that dance, only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour” (Austen 95). With Catherine being so determined that country-dance and marriage are different, we forget to look at her perspective of the freedom that she has of just dancing, and not making it a commitment.
While thinking about dancing, and how close you have to be with your partner leads into Wilson saying, “one of the most significant characteristics of country-dance, which accounts for its status as a symbol of marriage and courtship, is its sexually charged nature” (Wilson 58).
The patterns of Country-dance and or Cotillion that were accustomed by Austen and her readers were intertwined between Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. In Northanger Abbey, you see more of dancing as the centerpiece of the novel, whereas in Persuasion it is more of the ideas behind dancing, like the formations and patterns. You see more of the social mobility happen in Persuasion than you do in Northanger Abbey because the centerpiece of the novel is not balls and dances, but the different aspect that comes from those such as courtship and conversation. Not having Jane Austen’s original centerpiece of dances and balls in Persuasion opened up the opportunity to better understand the underlining of the novel.
While going through Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, we discussed the different dance types such as Minuet, Cotillion, and Country-Dance, and who chose to dance and not to dance in the two novels. Going to balls and dances during the Regency Era was more of a social standing for courting women. We see this in Persuasion with the main heroine Anne, not dancing but playing the piano for the Musgrove sisters that were head over heels for Captain Wentworth, whom she ends up with in the end. We also see this in Northanger Abbey with Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney wanting to dance together, but having the etiquettes of dances be in their way at first. In conclusion, an understanding of the conventions of the late eighteenth century, early nineteenth century provides today’s readers with an enhanced understanding of the dancing in Jane Austen’s works, as enlightened by her characterization.
- Austen, Jane. “Persuasion.” Broadview Press, 2013, broadviewpress.com/product/persuasion/.
- Austen, Jane. “Northanger Abbey.” Broadview Press, 2013, broadviewpress.com/product/northangerabbey/.
- Mckee, Eric J. “Decorum of the Minuet, Delirium of the Waltz: A Study of Dance-Music Relations in ¾ Time.” Google Books, Indiana University Press, 2012, pp. 1-257. books.google.com/books?id=mR6wDQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_gesummary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
- Reid-Walsh, Jacqueline. “‘Entering the World’ of Regency Society: The Ballroom Scenes in Northanger Abbey, ‘The Watsons’ and Mansfield Park.” Persuasions: Journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America, vol. 16, Dec. 1994, pp. 115–24. EBSCOhost, steenproxy.sfasu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1997023037&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- Russell, Tilden A. “The Unconventional Dance Minuet: Choreographies of the Menuet D’Exaudet.” Acta Musicologica, vol. 64, no. 2, 1992, pp. 118–138. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/932912.
- Sutton, Julia. “The Minuet: An Elegant Phoenix.” Dance Chronicle, 1984, pp. 119-152, DOI: 10.1080/01472528408568908.
- Tomalin, Claire. “Jane Austen: A Life.” Google Books, 2007, books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=DV_DfmN9UDUC&oi=fnd&pg=PT13&dq=blls%2Bin%2Bjane%2Bausten&ots=f6eGpRlB2J&sig=7lxTsrcV8pPgcDDaoAia4nI7aA#v=onepage&q&f=false.
- Wilson, Cheryl A. “Dance, physicality, and social mobility in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.” Persuasions 25, 2003, pp. 55-75.
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