John Mullan, author of the splendid What Matters in Jane Austen, writes in The Guardian (May 4th) on the significance in her novels of dancing and balls in a piece written to link to a forthcoming BBC2 programme Pride And Prejudice: Having a Ball (to be screened on May 10th).
“The ball,” he writes, “was the occasion for a couple to perform together in front of others. It was their opportunity for physical intimacy.” These things of course being relative: “They could not clinch each other or even touch each other’s flesh, yet they were brought closer than they could be on any other occasion.”
Of course the dance has long been a metaphor for sexual coupling, and not just the act itself but, in its elaborate rituals, its comings and goings, ins and outs, approaches and withdrawals, the prelude to the act (though of course at the time one doesn’t quite know, one cannot be quite sure, that one is engaged in the prelude to anything).
Miss Austen was a great believer in what she calls “the felicities of rapid motion”. The main purpose of the dance, of course, was to pair off, not just for the evening still less for a quick snog round the back of the coachhouse, but for life. This Jane did not succeed in doing, but this was down to bad luck rather than any lack of inclination. Still, as she was to find, if you are not to be a full participant in the business of courting, and marrying, and mothering, there are always the pleasures of the observer, and some of them can be enjoyed at the ball too. The twenty-four-year-old Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra:
I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand today … There were only twelve dances, of which I danced nine, & was merely prevented from dancing the rest by the want of a partner …There were very few Beauties, and such as there were, were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, & Mrs Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck … Mrs Warren, I was constrained to think a very fine young woman, which I regret. She has got rid of some part of her child, & danced away with great activity, looking by no means very large. Her husband is ugly enough; uglier even than his cousin John; but he does not look so very old. The Miss Maitlands are both prettyish … with brown skins, large dark eyes, & a good deal of nose. – The General has got the Gout, and Mrs Maitland the Jaundice. Miss Debary, Susan & Sally … made their appearance, & I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.