Attraction and embarrassment, love and class – Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice ball had it all

"When even a kiss before betrothal was fraught with peril, a dance was the nearest genteel couples came to trying each other for size" says presenter Amanda Vickery

There are few entrances in fiction and costume drama so theatrical as that of Mr Darcy arriving at a provincial dance in Pride and Prejudice, parting the gossiping waters with his stately handsomeness and money. “Mr Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.” Prince Charming in Hertfordshire.

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Pride and Prejudice is 200 years old this year. And BBC2 decided to throw a party of their own, re-creating one of the great turning points of the nation’s favourite romance, the Netherfield Ball. Balls and dancing are central to the engineering of Pride and Prejudice, pivotal moments in the sparkling story of bristling hostility and wary flirtation giving way to thoroughgoing, intelligent love. But Jane Austen’s dances are also orchestrated set pieces for withering social analysis and comedy.

The Netherfield Ball, thrown by the affably rich and bland Mr Bingley, is the focus of the action-packed chapter 18. Miss Elizabeth Bennet rolls up, “dressed with more than usual care”, poised to conquer the heart of dashing redcoat Mr Wickham, but soon finds herself maddeningly preoccupied with Mr Darcy, “who took her so much by surprise in his application for her hand, that, without knowing what she did, she accepted him”. Their two dances allow ample pause for flirtatious repartee, where they deconstruct each other’s characters (a saucy, intimate thing to do), and though they infuriate each other, Darcy is left with “a tolerable powerful feeling towards her” smouldering in his formal chest.

Attraction and embarrassment, love and class; Netherfield has it all. But what did we learn from trying to re-create it? As a social historian I know that balls were the goldfish bowl of local polite society, magnifying networks and alliances as well as tensions and rifts. But it was only after experiencing a ball from early winter dusk to the dead of night, that I truly realised that dancing was one of the most powerful motors of accelerating romance.

We staged our experiment in the library of Chawton House, the Hampshire manor of Jane Austen’s rich brother Edward, with a cast made up of blooming, bubbly dancers from Guildford University. The Netherfield Ball was no public assembly; the elite regularly threw invitation-only balls in comparatively small rooms. In fact the crush of sweaty proximity surprised all of us. Lit by a galaxy of candles, the mood was heady and intensely intimate. The air was fetid with civet – a specially made Regency perfume oil for men – which had more than a whiff of the fecal. The atmosphere was 1 per cent oxygen, 99 per cent scent and sweat. Had a candle flame caught the muslin, the whole frilly shebang could have gone up in a firestorm.

On screen in costume dramas, balls look huge, courtly and decorous affairs, all stately minuets and promenades, but most popular dances were more akin to country dances, with hectic bobbing and skipping, hazardous for the buxom and loose-laced. One of Austen’s own favourite dances, the bouncy Boulanger, was a saucy celebration of promiscuity, mimicking the baker trying out every woman in the village. And although most steps were simple ballet moves, the sequences were complicated to learn and seemed interminable. A single dance could last 20 minutes, which made me realise just what torture it was for Elizabeth Bennet to be booked by a clumsy, self-important young cleric for the first two dances at Netherfield. “Mr Collins, awkward and solemn, apologising instead of attending, and often moving wrong without being aware of it, gave [Lizzie] all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give.”

If anything, our TV dancers were too universally charming, lithe and fit, smiling gamely for hours on end and executing their figures with precision. As opposed to women’s letters of the time, which reveal how every community had its share of ungainly dancers with two left feet, sweaty hands and bad breath. Even with a good partner, the dancing looked like an endurance test, as a ball could last up to eight hours, with a break for supper. In Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons, some of the characters take an extra helping of food beforehand, to fortify them for the test of stamina to come. And our athletic performers undoubtedly found them strenuous; after a morning’s rehearsal several were flaked out on every surface.

Ball-goers must have occasionally betrayed their boredom, displeasure, aches and pains. Yet there were thrills to be had, too, especially for the young and popular. A 20-minute dance was an opportunity for flirtation, chatting, looking and touching. One step I tried in rehearsal, the à la mode, was surprisingly blush-making. You cross arms and hands behind each other’s backs and crane back over your shoulder gazing straight into each other’s eyes, as you turn clockwise and anti-clockwise. Watching the sequences, I also noticed how each dancer had regular turns twirling with strangers in their set. Serendipity might pair up two unacquainted dancers who matched each other’s moves magically, and sparks might unexpectedly fly.

Male physical agility was also in the spotlight. It was only when I saw the gents prancing in white stockings and ballet slippers that I learnt what a test a ball could be for them. The trick (although it’s hard to imagine Mr Darcy pointing his toes and performing little soubresauts and échappés) was to balance manly dignity with light-footed agility. A handsome thigh and well-modelled calf were key components. While women’s filmy empire-line dresses could hide missteps, male footwork and calves were on constant exhibition. Luckily, Regency gentlemen grew up with dancing lessons, not only guaranteeing possession of a make-or-break social skill, but also in order to teach clots how to manage hat and cane, to walk, bow and squire a lady with graceful assurance. Clumsiness was sexual suicide.

In polite society, when young ladies chafed under constant chaperonage, a ball was a blissful moment of licensed intimacy. In fact, when even a kiss before betrothal was fraught with peril, a dance was the nearest genteel couples came to trying each other for size.

Compatibility on the dance floor was an omen for the wedding night. Today, sex before marriage is expected and divorce is endemic. In 1813, polite girls were virgin brides and wedlock was for ever. For an 18-year-old bent on trying out the field at a dance it could be now or never. No wonder so many young things wore out several pairs of dancing slippers and literally had a ball.

Amanda Vickery is Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London, and co-presents Having a Ball. 

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Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball is tonight at 9pm on BBC2