What could Jane Austen and similar unmarried gentlewomen of the Regency Age, look forward to? There were certainly a host of activities that could fill and kill time, but what could be anticipated with some pleasure? One of the few prospects was the Ball or the Assembly. Roughly, the former would be held in the house of a local worthy, who would ‘give’ the occasion and would rightly be the centre of attention, and the latter would be a commercial operation run from a large assembly hall or large local establishment.
Both public and private balls were a key part of Jane’s social life, and the life of all unmarried people of her class. There would be at least one large rectangular room, with dancing from about 9pm until early the next morning, with supper and some allied amusements like whist for the non-dancers, and normally another, separate room. Jane often liked it when there was a separate anteroom for the sitting and chatting. Jane makes it clear that chairs and dancers were needed for a good evening;
There was the same kind of supper as last year, and the same want of chairs. There were more dancers than the room could conveniently hold, which is enough to constitute a good ball at any time.
Jane attended five balls in the winter of 1796,always looked forward to the next one, and reported back to her sister Cassandra in one of her many chatty and gossipy letters written from home (see left) . The first ball that had taken place at the Harwood family residence at Deane Park, not far from their much more modest home in Steventon. The Harwood Ball was a private affair with invited guests only, and a step above the assembly room affairs.
Today, we might assume that the ball was a good way of mingling freely with the opposite sex; but there was no mingling and nothing was free. Nothing about the activity was spontaneous. It was not an eighteenth century discotheque, except perhaps in one respect. It was a ruthless meat market, to use a phrase that Georgians would have understood. A single man at a ball was advertising his desire for marriage; a single woman is doing the same, but with an asymmetry of power that made it much harder work for women, as Jane regularly noted.
In order to converse with men outside your family circle you had to dance with them, so competent dancing skills were vital . Books were published to guide would-be dancers. The steps and movements were complicated and could not be varied, and the social rules were as rigid as the dance itself. Only practice beforehand or a course of lessons would be enough.
Jane always listed her dance partners in her letters to Cassandra. They are social contacts with men, some more desirable than others, but all with significance. Dancing with people you did not like was ‘a dance of mortification, as Austen said in Pride and Prejudice Jane wanted some control over who she danced with yet stay within the etiquette of a Regency Ball.
On one occasion, she managed to avoid ‘to my inexpressible astonishment’ the company of John Lyford. He did not ask her to dance but she had to actively try to avoid it – ‘I was forced to work hard for it’. If she had refused Lyford she would have been obliged to refuse everybody else and the evening would be ruined. Later in the evening it was just about possible to claim tiredness, as these balls were punishingly physically affairs and not the cool and sedate events shown in television dramas, but the rule generally held. The wrong man could spoil the evening;
I had an odd set of partners : Mr. Jenkins, Mr. Street, Col. Jervoise, James Digweed, J. Lyford, and Mr. Briggs, a friend of the latter. I had a very pleasant evening, however…
The ‘however’ is the key word here. There were two J. Lyfords, father and son, but this was probably the son that she managed to avoid at an earlier assembly. Assuming the partners were in chronological order, at least he was near the end of the evening.
Jane would always have a chaperone. A mother would be ideal, but in at the Harwood ball it was James Austen, Jane’s elder brother. The fact that they spent some of the evening coaching James in the skills of dancing shows the importance of this social skill; but his most important role at the ball was to act as a counterbalance for his sister, a single woman. He could not help her out by dancing with her to avoid unwanted partners. It was frowned upon to dance with close family – this was a mating game after all, but his presence was still vital. She did not resent it, despite ‘modern’ feelings on the restrictions on women. Indeed she loved the presence of her brother at such events – ‘a ball is nothing without him’.
Dancing brought some freedom. Some dances, like minuets, involved watching other people dance and therefore couples would have been able to talk while public attention was elsewhere. There was some scope for touching as well; both parties wore gloves, which expanded opportunity by making it acceptable, but also dulled sensation.
Jane always looked forward to balls; it fitted in with her social life which consisted of being in ‘company’. A lot of energy and time went into what was to be worn, especially caps. She made and altered clothes, turning a domestic time-killing activity into something that had a point. She also held clothes back for this special occasion – ‘my china crepe is still kept for the ball- because it was a place where you would be judged’.
‘Judged’ is the key word here. People were on show. On January 14 1801, Cassandra reports back on the Chilham Ball, and was told off light heartedly for dancing with Mr Kembler four times- ‘why not rather dance two of them with some elegant brother officer who was struck with your appearance as you entered the room?
When the obsequious Sir William Lucas attempts to compliment Mr. Darcy, he says: “’I have been most highly gratified indeed, my dear Sir. Such very superior dancing is not often seen. It is evident that you belong to the first circles
It was all about rank. Jane knew about these issues when meeting somebody through dancing. Although jokingly, social status was never far away. On one occasion she danced;
twice with a Mr. South, a lad from Winchester, who, I suppose, is as far from being related to the bishop of that diocese as it is possible to be,’
The Bishop of Winchester was Brownlow North
What happened in the ballroom stayed in the ballroom. Although you would have had to have been formally introduced in order to dance at all, having danced with somebody gave you no more rights after the ball was over and certainly not on next meeting. In December 1808, Jane describes meeting somebody who she had danced with;
We have always kept up a bowing acquaintance since, and, being pleased with his black eyes, I spoke to him at the ball, which brought on me this civility; but I do not know his name, and he seems so little at home in the English language that I believe his black eyes may be the best of him.
Her decision to acknowledge him was within her power. Dancing did not imply a new relationship; this was impossible, considering the number of partners people had over a season.
Physical sacrifices were made in order to attend dances. Despite her eyes hurting, Jane attended a ball, where she knew there was dust in the room and her need to keep her eyes open all night would exacerbate the condition. When she wrote to Cassandra, her eyes were still hurting, but there was no question that is was worth it.
The number of dances, like the society, the room and the quality of the supper, varied. When there were more or fewer dances than usual, she commented on it;
There were twenty dances, and I danced them all, and without any fatigue.
There were only twelve dances, of which I danced nine, and was merely prevented from dancing the rest by the want of a partner. We began at ten, supped at one, and were at Deane before five. There were but fifty people in the room.
Dancing took youth and strength, two attributes that made you good marriage material.
The number of people and a gender balance were vital for a good evening. On one occasion there were only eight couples and twenty-three people in the room. Jane was concerned that all women should have the opportunity to dance.
Assemblies needed private transport. Carriages came before marriages, but owning private transport was expensive. It required in vehicles, stabling, servants and taxes, and needed an income of about £1000 per year in the 1790’s. The Austens were on the cusp of carriage company; at times they had one and other times not, and it deeply affected Jane’s lifestyle. How did you get to the ball, and get back at 4.am, without private transport? No eligible man or woman arrives at the ball on foot or donkey cart. Jane would regularly attend the Thursday assembly in Basingstoke It was their nearest large town, but a carriage was needed to get there, and they did not have one by November 1798, when she comments how pleased she is that the Basingstoke Assembly had declined just as their ability to get there had been reduced;
Our assemblies have very kindly declined ever since we laid down the carriage, so that disconvenience and disinclination to go have kept pace together.
This may have been a convenient excuse for what must have been a social blow, although favours from friends were possible. Jane often stayed with the Bigg-Wither family at Manydown Park after the Basingstoke Ball, and sometimes they would be lent a chaise, but they were vaguely unsatisfactory options. In her novels, Austen identified the exact type of private transport as a way of pinpointing people’s social status, so she knew exactly what her own was – fading gentry.
Jane Austen features as one of the seventeen interesting Georgians in my new book.
Publishers details here