November 2013 Meeting: Having a ball

Prepared by member Cheng …

Have you ever wondered what it would have actually been like to attend a Regency ball? Whether you could have moved comfortably in one of those slender silk taffeta gowns or elegant, tightly tailored coats? Would you have remembered all those intricate dance steps and the fearsomely intimidating rules of etiquette?

On Saturday 16 November, our group met in a member’s house to watch a wonderful BBC documentary Pride and Prejudice : Having a Ball and discover the answers to these questions and many more. With a glass of Veuve Clicquot  in hand we sat, fascinated, as Amanda Vickery and Alistair Sooke led us through all the facets of preparation for an historically accurate recreation of that Netherfield Ball – so integral to the plot of Pride and Prejudice.

The recreated ball was to be held in the large wood panelled hall of Chawton House, a room in which Jane Austen would most probably have danced. Professor Jon Mullan introduced the social scene of complex hierarchies within a village setting, with life evolving slowly for the young ‘ladies in waiting’ as they dutifully polished their accomplishments.

The invitations were printed on an early 19th century printing press and whilst we were not shown the 21st century guests replying, we did see them learning the steps for a longways dance of the time with Regency dancing master Stuart Marsden. Interestingly, the highest socially ranked guests lined up closest to the orchestra.

By 1813, elaborate Baroque style movements were out of fashion and the sweating dance students were surprised at just how energetic a quadrille could be. Stuart Marsden mentioned that dancing lessons would have cost from 5/6 to £1/1/00 and displayed a 1790’s fan patterned with dance steps that could be purchased by those needing a crib sheet to cope with such a tour de force for the brain.

Correct clothing, of course, was vitally important and from Professor Hilary Davidson we heard how the cut, fabric and trimming of outfits reflected the whole social range of those present and were keys to reading age and character. At a ball your clothes were a public display of your assets, both physical and financial. They determined your posture and carriage – the gentlemen’s jackets (which had no pockets) did not allow slouching and helped a man maintain a ramrod stance. The cutaway design emphasised the groin and the fine stockings revealed the shape of his calves. A gentleman was exposed to as much scrutiny as a lady in her low-cut gown.

The room was inspected by lighting expert Lisa White from the National Trust. Beeswax candles, not the smelly working class tallow ones, were to be used. Originally they were sold by length, to burn for either 4 or 6 hours and a guest could discern immediately how long an evening party would last. A ball might use 300 candles, costing a sum of £15 – a year’s wages for a servant – conspicuous consumption that would gladden Mrs Bennett’s heart!

And then to the food. We marvelled at the menu that Ivan Day was creating: Georgian ice cream, the essential white soup, a partridge pie with 4 whole birds, jellies, flummeries and blancmanges. He demonstrated removing a jelly from a ‘Solomon’s Temple’ mould and chatted about the status dishes of game. The service would be a la française with all the food on the table at once; the visual impact increased with solid silver salvers, dishes and tureens. Spectacle was as important as taste. We hoped that none of the guests would be inspired to emulate the Georgians by crunching on chicken heads and sucking the brains through the beaks …

The music for the ball was to be taken from the Austen family music books. Professor Jeanice Brooks delighted Alistair Sooke with a glimpse of Jane Austen’s own notation that included a tiny drawing of girl’s face instead of a clef sign. As the music had been summarised for piano, Professor William Drabkin was rescoring it for orchestra.

At this point we stopped for refreshments ourselves and then returned to watch the culmination of all this activity – the Ball.

By the light of a full moon the guests walked through the snow or were driven to Chawton House to see and be seen. Their manner of arrival marked their status for everyone knew that it required at least £1,000 a year to keep a carriage. Those who walked carried their dancing slippers (which could be shredded in a single night) and changed into them before entering the hall.

The Ball is a pivotal moment in the book and epitomises what the novel is about. Dr. Hannah Grieg, an etiquette expert, explained the social hierarchy and manoeuvring for approval to Amanda Vickery whilst they stood discreetly on the sidelines. It was a vortex for snobbery and rank, inclusion and exclusion, with the greatest goal of all – a marriage partner! The young guests threw themselves into their roles with such contagious enthusiasm that we viewers felt just as involved in their flirting & posing.

The first dance was a Cotillion followed by a Savage dance that had been made popular in 1813 through a musical based on Robinson Crusoe, reminding us of Mr Darcy’s comment that ‘every savage can dance’. After Lady Caroline Neal’s Waltz came the Boulanger that apparently typified the amorous goings on down at the bakery. It was the length of the dances, a full 25 minutes each, that was most remarkable to our 21st century minds. We wondered how long a recovery time was granted between dances to enjoy that creamy Parmesan ice cream. Lydia Bennett, who could dance every dance, was certainly a girl ‘with heft to her’.

During the dancing they had the most opportunity to talk and display themselves to advantage. In the novel, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy talked whilst dancing but were silent off the floor. In such a microcosm of society there would have been, as in the novel, plenty of tensions under the surface. Every single kind of gesture was open to interpretation by other people. There would have been no hearty laughter from any of the young ladies as that was considered indicative of sexual availability, garrulousness and vulgarity. Poor Lydia!

The sit down supper was a spectacular success at showing off the Bingley wealth. Ivan Day sent out 63 dishes! 40 sweet and 23 savoury. Such was the craving for sweet things that in 1794 there were 700 confectioners in London – hence Sir Thomas Bertram’s concern about the management of his Antigua estate.

The keenest and fittest couples still had the strength for Scottish reels during the supper break but most guests concentrated their energies on the table: widgeon, mutton, a haunch of venison, ragout of slow roasted veal (one of Jane Austen’s personal favourites), a stewed sturgeon (cunningly shortened to fit the cooking vessel), gateaux, biscuits, jellies and flummeries were only some of the delicacies spread out on the table. What surprised us most was the ‘help yourself’ manners. People reached across the table with Georgian gusto; the ladies not removing their gloves. Roman punch, Portuguese wine and a fortified Regency punch were quaffed liberally.

After such an interesting DVD we ended our meeting with the traditional round of quotes and quiz and sincere thanks to our kind and generous hostess for a marvellous afternoon.

Next meeting

We will next meet at the, surely appropriate, Poacher’s Pantry on Saturday 14th December for out annual joint celebration of Jane’s birthday and Christmas.

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