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Etiquette, flirting and hidden passions: all the thrill of the Regency ballroom

pride and prejusice, regency ball, etiquette, jane austenYay, it’s Friday!  Tonight I’m going to sit down with a big bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and a glass of wine, and I’m going to watch a programme I’ve been looking forward to for ages.  It’s called Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball.  The programme recreates in full the dramatic events of the Netherfield ball, held by Darcy’s friend Bingley, and it’s being shown as part of the celebrations of Jane Austen’s  200th anniversary.  It souds fabulous.  You can find out a little bit about the programme here in this BBC link.

Jane Austen loved dancing.  She wouldn’t have had to explain the etiquette of the ballroom to the readers of her day, or the sort of dishes provided for supper, or the type of dances and music played.  Balls played a vital role in the social life of the middle- and upper-classes, and her readers would already have been well aware of what was involved.  The BBC is going to fill in the missing pieces for a modern audience, and I can’t wait to watch the progress of that dramatic evening being recreated in real life, with all the heat of the candles and the food and drink and the massively complicated dance steps.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned about the ritual of the Regency ball in the build-up to the programme:

  • if a woman refused to dance with a man, that meant she had to refuse everyone else as well.  When Mr Collins asks Elizabeth to dance the first two dances at Netherfield, etiquette forces her to accept, or else sit out the whole ball.
  • dances could go on for fifteen minutes, and sometimes up to an incredible half an hour.  So if you were dancing with a rubbish dancer, or someone you didn’t really like (such as Mr Collins), it must have been a sort of torture.
  • a man can only ask a woman to dance if he has been formally introduced to her.  At his first ball in Meryton, Darcy refuses to be introduced to any of the young women in the room.  He will dance with only the people he knows – the snob!
  • a man mustn’t introduce himself to another man who is of superior social status.  When Mr Collins insists on introducing himself to Mr Darcy, Elizabeth is mortified.  Darcy shows a sort of cold surprise at Mr Collins approach.  He answers him civilly, before walking away.

There are millions of other little  necessities of etiquette that would have been second nature to the people of the day, but which we would find a minefield.  A couple shouldn’t dance more than two dances together, for example, or they would be the talk of the neighbourhood.  Men had to wear short breeches and stockings, and not their usual pantaloons – unless they were in the army, when they could wear their uniform pantaloons and boots.  The list goes on and on.  If you’re interested in all the unspoken rules, there’s a great listof them here on Regency Dances, put together by Thomas Wilson,  a dance master of the time.

You may remember the Netherfield Ball from the book.  It’s the one where Darcy finally asks Elizabeth to dance, and she is so stunned she accepts.  They have a fabulously tense conversation, in which Elizabeth is wittily rude, her “fine eyes” flashing, and Darcy can’t seem to get enough of her sarcasm.  All the while they are pretending to be polite to each other – and they still manage to remember all the complicated dance steps throughout.  The undercurrent of sexual tension is brilliant.  It’s one of the best scenes in the whole novel.

There was a book published recently called A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters Went to the Ball, by Susannah Fullerton.  The author says:

“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…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.”

Jane Austen is one of the absolute experts at using the ball scene for character development, and for the development of a romance.

There are other authors who have written great ball scenes in literature, and here are some of my favourites:

gone with the wind, etiquette, ball, charity, scarlett o'hara, rhett butlerMarageret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind.  If a woman lost a close family member, the rules were she had to go into strict mourning for a certain period of time.  This meant wearing black and giving up all social engagements.  After a while, the woman could progress to lilac or grey clothes, and was allowed to go to a ball, but under no circumstances dance.

Of course Scarlett O’Hara is absolutely fabulous in the novel’s ballroom scenes.  She attends a charity ball whilst still wearing black for her first husband.  Her aunt is shocked, but Scarlett persuades her that as long as she doesn’t actually dance, no one will object, because it’s for charity.

Of course she’s lomging to dance, and sick that everyone else gets to wear fine clothes.  When Rhett Butler taunts her by bidding $150 (in gold) to lead her out in the first dance, she surprises him by accepting.  Her aunt Pittypat faints away with the embarrassment of it all, and once again Scarlett causes a scandal.  The ball scene in the film is beautifully shot, and the conversations between Rhett and Scarlett make me laugh out loud.

Georgette Heyer, Sylvester.  The heroine of this novel, Phoebe, has anonymously written a scathing satire about the Quality, making Sylvester, Duke of Salford the villain.  Later they meet, get to know one another, and inevitably fall in love.  Phoebe daren’t tell Sylvester the truth – that she is the author of the scandalous novel going the rounds.  One evening, in a dramatic ball scene, all comes to light.  Sylvester asks Phoebe to dance, and they have a furious conversation on the dance floor, in which Sylvester is so angry, and upsets Phoebe so much, she leaves him standing on the dance floor and runs out.

Of course any sort of emotional outburst in public was absolutely frowned in in the day (apart from fainting or the vapours – which seem to be OK!)  The argument, and particularly the fact that Phoebe makes a fool of Sylvester by abandoning him mid-dance, casues a massive scandal, and is the talk of the town.  Phoebe is forced to consider leaving London because of it.

Nowadays if everyone had to leave London after rowing with their partner in a night-club, the city would be pretty empty!

war and peace, ball, ballroom, etiquette, natasha, leo tolstoyLeo Tolstoy, War and Peace.  I’ve written before about how much I love this book.  When I first read it, I understood what makes Tolstoy such a great writer.  He gets right into the heart of how the heroine, Natasha, feels as a teenager, entering a magnificent ballroom in all her finery, for the first time.  “..She felt her eyes growing misty, she saw nothing clearly, her pulse beat a hundred to the minute and the blood throbbed at her heart.”

In one short chapter, all the main characters – heroes and villains alike – are gathered together, and it’s where Natasha dances with the swoonworthy count Andrei Bolkonski for the first time.

I could never do justice to this scene or this book.  You can read a snippet of the ballroom scene here on Classicreader if you’re interested, or else watch a film clip of the dance, with Audrey Hepburn as Natasha, here on Youtube.

And as the beautiful Audrey Hepburn says at the end of the clip:  “Don’t you just love dances?”

(And thanks to Bethany for this link to information on Regency fashion history, culture and lifestyle!)

Do you like Jane Austen?  Is there a particular ball scene you love, in film or books?  If so, please let me know in the comments – I always love to hear from you!

12 thoughts on “Etiquette, flirting and hidden passions: all the thrill of the Regency ballroom

  1. Fabulous post! I love Jane Austen, especially Persuasion.
    I want to see that special you’re talking about now! I hope someone will be kind enough to upload it onto YouTube.

    Have you ever watched Lost in Austen? It’s so cute. A girl from today, obsessed with P&P, ends up switching places with Elizabeth Bennett. It’s funny and sweet. I love it so much!


    1. Hi Tammy, thanks for coming! I’m sure that BBC programme will be available in the States soon, and lots of other countries, so hopefully you will get to watch it soon. Period drama is what the BBC does best. And I still haven’t seen Lost in Austen, but I’ve heard loads about it and keep meaning to. I must order it and watch it – everyone says it’s great. And Persuasion is also my favourite Jane Austen! I wrote a post a while back on a Youtube interpretation of P&P, which I also loved, called The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, which you might like if you love Austen. They were really funny!


  2. I missed it last night Helena, but will catch up with it later. The programme looks fascinating as balls were so fundamental to ‘society’ in Regency times. Your post also reminded me of all of the excellent Georgette Heyer books I read a long time ago now, but which I remember fondly.


    1. I think you’ll like it Tina. It really put ballroom scenes in a different light for me. The food for supper was fabulous. When the guests sat down for supper, though, it wasn’t the elegant scene I imagined – more like a total bunfight! I’d like to get some recipes from that time, and have a go at some of the desserts. They looked wonderful!


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