And How Jane Austen Broke Them
The past few blog posts have been a focused, academical look into Jane Austen’s world. I have learned that research and immersion into an author’s life and culture reveals a much deeper understanding of their novels and characters. Whether you love Jane Austen’s novels or not, they are always a part of a wider conversation. By learning more about the world she lived in, we as readers can get a greater picture of how and why her novels have garnered such attention and even shaped much of the literary canon.
Looking at Regency dance etiquette today, the rules seem limiting, often sexist, and generally absurd when compared with our social customs. However, without understanding the societal expectations of the time, many important details go unnoticed. Many readers misunderstand the subtle signs of flirting, displays of passion, deliberate snubs, or general undermining of expectations. Understanding the etiquette of the day allows a reader to see where the author is pushing against that etiquette or even creating social subterfuge to bring nontraditional ideas to light.
One of the reasons why these dances were so important to the courtship process, was because they were one of the few times when a couple could exchange conversation semi-privately. All other meetings would be chaperoned or in the presence of others, and written correspondence was a very forward and intimate thing. During 30 minutes of dancing, however, the couple was in a properly public place, but could hold a conversation hidden by the crowd. Hence the fact that every Regency Era novel or period drama movie places extreme importance on the conversations which take place during a dance. There is always that dramatic scene where tension boils over during a dance and comes out through terse words of contempt or longing that could be exchanged at almost no other time.
Check out these five rules of Regency dance. While some of expectations may seem shocking, you must know the rules to know who is breaking them! 😉
1. A lady didn’t dance with the same gentleman more than twice at one ball
Any more than two dances, and a lady’s reputation would be under attack. Even dancing two with the same man showed that they had some sort of interest in each other, because a set of two dances could last almost 30 minutes! Country dances were also often danced in sets of two – so once a lady accepted a gentleman for that set, they were dancing together for a significant amount of time.
In Sense & Sensibility Marianne Dashwood and Willoughby defy rules openly and boldly by spending most of the ball together. Because of this, there is a general expectation that they are already engaged. Even Mrs. Dashwood just assumes that Marianne would not be acting in this way if she was not already engaged to Willoughby. The interesting thing is that even engaged couples were not supposed to dance more than two dances together. When it comes to light that Willoughby never made any such promises, Marianne is under even more harsh scrutiny.
2. A gentleman could only ask a lady to dance after they had been properly introduced
There had to be a formal introduction by either a mutual acquaintance, the host of the ball, or the Master of Ceremonies at a public ball.
In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland and Mrs. Allen lament the fact that they have no connections in the Assembly rooms. Because of this, there is no one to introduce them to anyone else, and the spend most of their first night without speaking to anyone but themselves. Eventually, the Master of Ceremonies introduces Catherine to Mr. Tilney (her immediate love interest). Once the two are properly introduced, Tilney is able to ask Catherine to dance.
Evelina, Or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance Into the World which was a novel published in 1778 by one of Austen’s predecessors, shows the drama that ensues when a forthright young man asks the eponymous character to dance without an introduction.
3. A lady could only refuse a gentleman for a dance if she was previously engaged or if she intended to sit out the rest of the dances for the night.
A woman had the right to refuse a man when he asked her to dance, but she had to be careful about her decision. Manners dictated that unless she was engaged for the particular dance which the man invited her to, she could not decline one man and then accept another. She was able to decline him, but then she couldn’t dance for the rest of the night. It’s easy to see how this rule could have led to frustration and either dances with undesirable partners, or having to decline a partner with whom they wished to dance.
In Pride & Prejudice Mr. Collins asks Elizabeth for the first two dances. Although she would rather avoid him, she accepts, because she is hoping to dance with Mr. Wickham later. It turns out that she actually dances with Mr. Darcy later, which lays the foundation for the rocky start to their relationship.
In Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland purposely avoids John Thorpe until Henry Tilney can ask her to dance. Once he has, Thorpe tries to cut in, but Tilney reminds him and Catherine of the importance of following the proper etiquette of a dance.
4. Just like a gentleman couldn’t introduce himself to a lady, he could not introduce himself to a gentleman of superior status.
Not only were there divisions along the lines of gender, there were also social status lines which were not meant to be crossed. In fact, dances did provide opportunities for social climbing, but mostly in the context of one’s partner for a dance.
“Thus, the pattern of the country dance, wherein gentlemen and ladies move up and down the line, reflects the social hierarchy, for it replicates climbing the social ladder,” – Jane Austen Society of North America
In Pride & Prejudice, Mr. Collins unabashedly introduces himself to Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth is mortified at her cousins presumptions, and Mr. Darcy’s pride causes him to remember the event and believe that the Bennett family and their relatives were incapable of following social mores. For his part, Mr. Collins simply believed that having Mr. Darcy’s aunt as his patron gave him permission to overstep social boundaries.
5. A gentleman was supposed to dance with whomever the host or hostess wanted him to ask.
While the gentlemen had control over whom they asked, they were also supposed to ask young ladies to dance when it was suggested by the host, hostess, or Master of Ceremonies.
This shows that both Mr. Elton in Emma and Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice were deliberately breaking the rules as they both decline to ask women even when the host asks them to do so.
Importance of the Rules
As Mr. Tilney points out in Northanger Abbey, a country-dance was “an emblem of marriage”. In this context, it becomes a bit more clear why the etiquette was taken so seriously. In a way, the dance was a sort of test as to whether or not partners could commit to each other in the correct context. I hope you have enjoyed reading about the rules of Regency Era dance. If you have the time, go watch a period drama or book adaptation and see if you notice anything new about the dances!