“British 19th– Century Balls in Pride and Prejudice: A Comparative Study” by Rebeca Company Almagro
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Austen, p. 3). This is the first sentence of the novel Pride and Prejudice and it clearly sets an ironic tone, since the book is about a poor woman of the 18th Century in want of a husband. The Bennet’s are a middle-class family of five daughters and Mrs. Bennet is desperate to get her daughters married since their home, Longbourn, will be inherited by the nearest male relative when Mr. Bennet dies. So, when Mr. Bingley rents a nearby house, she decides to “catch” him for one of her girls (Parril, p. 45). And what better place for that in the 18th-19th Centuries than a ball? Pride and Prejudice has been Jane Austen’s most popular and most adapted novel for film and television (Parril, p. 48). Simon Langton’s and Joe Wright’s adaptations probably are the most famous ones. The former is the 1995 BBC Miniseries and the latter is the 2005 Universal Pictures movie. In this essay, I am going to focus on Wright’s movie adaptation. More specifically, on the two dance scenes that appear in the movie: the dance at Meryton Assembly and the ball at Netherfield. I will analyze and compare these scenes in some respects at the same time that I examine if they are faithful to what a dance/ball would be like in the 18th-19th Centuries. In order to do so, I will first explain what balls were like during Jane Austen’s time, going over the rules of conduct and etiquette that were followed at these events. Then, I will give a description of the selected scenes from the 2005 movie adaptation, contrasting them with one other and comparing them to the traditions that were followed during that period.
In 19th-century England, the house party was one of the most important social rituals and they are portrayed in Jane Austen’s novels (Pool, p.81). Young ladies were trained in London or Bath for the social season: they used to go to the theatre, to balls and so on. If the season ended in marriage, it meant that it had been a successful one (Watkins, p. 23). There were some differences between balls and ordinary dances. For instance, if there were an orchestra (and not just a piano), elaborate decorations and 200-500 attendants, the event had turned into a ball. The ladies of the house were in charge of sending the invitations some weeks before the ball took place and guests were to answer within a day.
The arrangements for the ball were different according to the type of house. In a large house, servants would prepare a refreshment room next to an arranged group of open rooms on the first floor [this way ladies would not get cold between dances because they did not have to change floors to go get something to drink] and the ballroom would be long and narrow. In smaller houses, you would find the same things in just one small room with some refreshments at the back and the ballroom would be squarish. The size of the house did not matter, but there were some “compulsory” things to have. First, there had to be cloakrooms for ladies to leave their shawls and have their dresses mended by maids if necessary. Second, there had to be a supper room downstairs where guests could attend the main meal. And third, there had to be a card room for elderly people to play while younger people danced (Pool, pp. 78-79).
Often, the hostess of the ball and her daughter(s) received the guests at eight p.m. as they came in the front door or after they had gotten something to eat. After completing social courtesies, the guests went into the ballroom (Pool, p.79). In the 2005 adaptation, there is a big contrast between the movie’s first dance scene at Meryton and the second dance scene at Netherfield. In the dance at Meryton, there is no one receiving the guests [at least that we see, since the camera goes into the room when the dancing has already started]. There is a large room, the walls are quite dark and there is much more decoration than large candlesticks hanging from the roof and a chimney opposite the door. This shows that the dance is being celebrated in a humble house. There are many people in the room, some dancing, some standing looking at the dancers and others sitting down, such as Elizabeth and Jane. We do not see any other room in the house with food or in which to play cards. All this suggests that this first dance scene at Meryton is an ordinary dance, part of a public assembly. In the scene at Netherfield, Mr. and Ms. Bingley are receiving the guests at the door, which suggests it is not an ordinary dance, but a ball [and a private one, as we learn later when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy dance together]. There is an obvious higher number of attendants and the house has been arranged for it: there is a big ballroom decorated in a way that shows that the house belongs to a wealthy family, a room with a piano, another room with the food, another one with sofas where people can talk, and waiters with drinks in some of the rooms; everything distributed throughout several floors.
The opening dance was usually an old-fashioned minuet, and then “sets of light-hearted country dancing were performed, in which couples faced one another in rows or formed circles” (Watkins, p. 200). The most popular ones were the quadrille and the cotillion, during which dance couples were carefully watched to remain at the distance of an arm. In informal private balls, one of the ladies played the piano and, sometimes, a violinist from the servant´s hall provided the music (Watkins, pp. 200-201). In formal balls, there was an orchestra at the ‘top’ of the room, usually the farthest away from the door. However, it was sometimes hidden behind shrubbery or even placed outside the room, where guests could still hear the music. The orchestra usually was formed by a cornet [except in the case of small balls], a piano, a violin and a cello (Pool, p.79). In Meryton, the orchestra is above the people in a kind of amphitheatre. This fits with the description I just mentioned, because in this position, the orchestra is “hidden”. There are four violins and a cello. At Netherfield, the orchestra is at the top of the room, where people can actually see them. We are not shown the entire orchestra, but we see there are a bass, a flute and a violin.
Protocol for these events varied. While balls and assemblies were not so common, there was a master of ceremonies who attended to maintaining decorum. Moreover, he generally made the introductions between a man that wanted to dance and a lady that was waiting to dance (Pool, p.79). This character appears at the dance in Meryton, greeting the Bingley’s and Mr. Darcy at their arrival; an arrival which causes the dance to stop almost abruptly. There was also a prescribed etiquette for the beginning and ending of each individual dance. At the beginning of the century, the gentleman would bow and the lady would curtsy to her partner before the dance started. Then, the gentleman had to walk half of the room taking the lady’s left arm with his right (Pool, p. 80). In the dance at Meryton, at the beginning of the scene we cannot see if this is what happens before dancing since they are already dancing when the camera enters the room. It is in the first dance between Jane and Mr. Bingley when we see the bows and curtsies. In contrast, we can observe that these rules of protocol are seen to at Netherfield ball both when Elizabeth dances with Mr. Collins and when she dances with Mr. Darcy. In the first case, we see the bow of the men; and in the second, we see the curtsy of the women. This is so because we are only shown one half of the ballroom in each case: the row of gentlemen in the former, and the row of ladies in the latter.
Regarding fashion, dress was an indicator of one’s fortune and status, and high society spent a lot of money to stay ahead on the latest fashions (Watkins, p.141). There were a lot of accessories to wear with dresses and they became indispensable with the simple Regency styles (Watkins, p. 145). The year Jane Austen was born, the style of ladies’ gowns was becoming more relaxed: “the exaggerated, side-fullness of the mid-century was giving way to skirts extending out at the back into a shallow train that could be draped or looped by the use of cords. Hoops were abandoned except for Court dress” (Watkins, p. 132). Moreover, the bodice was tightly fitting and narrow sleeves ended at the elbow. Stockings became decorative because ankles were revealed. Ladies wore tall hairstyles and used artificial hair too (Watkins, p. 132). “Towards the end of the century the prevailing taste for classical simplicity was reflected in fashion” (Watkins, p. 137). Women mimicked the appearance of ancient Greek statues wearing high-waisted dresses that were free flowing and more tightly fitting to the woman’s form. Some women even wore damp dresses over their buckskin underclothes. In the same way, the slim silhouette was also adopted by men: gentlemen wore tightly fitting buckskin breeches which descended below the calf, paired with Wellington boots. “Pantaloons soon replaced breeches and were topped by short-waisted, double- or single-breasted coats with long tails behind, showing the full length of skin-tight pantaloons from waist to ankle” (Watkins p. 137).
After 1810, fashion saw a trend for women’s waistlines to drop lower very gradually at the same time as ornamentation around the hem of the dress was being introduced. Because of this ornamentation, dress skirts began to widen. Dresses were more emphasized on the sleeve and more decorated on the bodice (Watkins p. 138). Throughout the 19th Century, ladies’ fashion continuously showed greater structure, almost to a point of near-bondage during the Victorian period. In fact, women’s apparel has undergone a more or less constant change because women have consistently been given greater liberty and variation in their dresses and ornamentations, unlike the gentlemen (Watkins, p. 139). Additionally, there were two hair styles: “in a short, natural style or short at the front with curls about the face, leaving the back hair long enough to be drawn up to the crown of the head in a chignon and fastened with combs” (Watkins p.148). Furthermore, jewelry was usually worn during the evening and, if worn during the day, it was done minimally. Some accessories were worn both by ladies and gentlemen, such as muffs and gloves. Gloves were an important dress accessory, especially for the evening, and they “were made of leather, silk, or could be hand-knitted” (Watkins, p. 150).
Looking at their dresses, we can perceive that the attendants to the dance at Meryton belong to a humble class. Both men and women are wearing suits and dresses in different colors, and there does not seem to be anything special about them. That is, their dresses seem to be the ones they would wear any day; not those they would reserve for a special occasion. The ladies are wearing middle or long sleeves and they are not wearing jewelry. Also, their hair is worn as if they were at home. They all make contrast with the Bingley’s and Mr. Darcy the moment they come into the ballroom: Mr. Darcy is following the protocol wearing “formal black trousers, black jacket, and black waistcoat with white tie and shirt” (Pool, p. 79). Mr. Bingley follows it too but his outfit, although dark, is lighter than Mr. Darcy’s. This is probably so to show the audience that Mr. Bingley belongs to a lower social position than his friend. In the same way, Mr. Bingley’s sister also follows the protocol “in white, wearing the jewelry that was considered de trop during the day” (Pool, p.79). During this century, “both sexes wore gloves at all times” (Pool, p.79). However, in this case only Miss. Bingley is wearing them. In the ball at Netherfield, on the other hand, all ladies are wearing short-sleeved white dresses and jewels, as if they were Greek statues. Some of them, such as Mrs. Lucas and Jane, are wearing gloves and floral decorations on their hair as well. These decorations were popular in the 1850’s and 1860’s, and it must be noted that until the 1890’s, the governess [or a married woman who was friends with the family] chaperoning the lady would avoid too much exposure of her neckline, since she was the one in charge of ensuring that scandal would not be attached to the reputation of the young lady she was chaperoning (Pool, p.79). Going back to the dance scene, the hair of all the ladies in the movie is carefully arranged this time, contrasting with the first dance scene at Meryton.
Lastly, I would like to address the conversations that take place in both scenes. Even though this is not directly related to the etiquette and protocol of the 18th-19th Centuries, it is important in terms of the story. The first aspect I want to talk about is the form of address. For an English gentleperson, life was full of perplexing things at that time, especially when dealing with the aristocracy and the highest classes. Gentlepeople had problems when addressing them in conversation and when they had to write them a friendly note or send them an invitation to their ball (Pool p. 38). In the movie, there is not much problem with this, as Darcy and Bingley are just “Mr.”. The first conversation in the movie between the Bennet’s, the Bingley’s and Mr. Darcy takes places at the Meryton dance, and it is very brief. When the guests of honor arrive, Mrs. Bennet stops dancing and grabs Jane [who then grabs Elizabeth and is followed by Charlotte] and brings her, along with the other two, into the presence of the new visitors. When her husband notices this, he immediately takes his daughter Mary by her right arm and they both approach the visitors with the rest of their family. Then, the master of ceremonies, Mr. Lucas, introduces all of them, except for Mr. Bennet, to Mr. Bingley. The ladies curtsy to Mr. Bingley as each one of them is being introduced and the fact that Mr. Bennet is not introduced is noticeable, as he is the head of the family and the one who has to give his consent for any of his daughters to marry. After a brief exchange of words between Mr. Bingley and Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Lucas introduces Mr. Darcy to all of them. Everyone greets Mr. Darcy at the same time, the ladies curtsying and Mr. Bennet bowing, but Mr. Darcy barely looks at them. This is why Mrs. Bennet gives up on him “as a prospective mate for one of her girls since…he offends everyone by his arrogance” (Parril, p. 45-46), unlike Mr. Bingley, on whom she has set her eye as a very prospective mate for Jane. Surprisingly enough, the master of ceremonies does not introduce Ms. Bingley either. This scene is followed by a conversation between Jane, Elizabeth and Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth mentions that the library at Netherfield is one of the best in the country and he says that, even though it is, he does not read much because he prefers being outdoors. Jane and Mr. Bingley discover they have something in common, as they both would like to read more but they have many other things to do. After this, we have the first conversation between the two main characters, in which Elizabeth asks Mr. Darcy if he dances, to which he answers: “Not if I can help it” (2005 feature film).
After Mr. Bingley has finished dancing with Jane, he talks to his friend. It is during this conversation that Mr. Darcy “snubs Elizabeth” (Parril, pp.45-46) saying that she is tolerable but “not handsome enough to tempt me” (2005 feature film). Elizabeth overhears the whole conversation because she is sitting with Charlotte in a place where both friends cannot see her. This is when the most important conversation of the scene takes place; during one of the pauses between dances. The interlocutors are Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth, Jane, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley and Ms. Bingley. Mrs. Bennet, as it is usual in her, undervalues Ms. Lucas and embarrasses Jane saying that a young gentleman was in love with her and wrote her some verses. Elizabeth sees the opportunity to cut her mother, and save Jane, and gives her opinion about poetry. As the 18th Century progressed, husbands expected their wives to be their companions and not just a “decorative adjunct and housekeeper” (Watkins, p. 18). Therefore, the art of conversation based on knowledge of history, literature and poetry was increasingly encouraged as an appropriate skill for ladies (Watkins, p. 18). For this reason, we would expect the men in the group to be pleased that Elizabeth can converse about poetry. However, Mr. Darcy disagrees with her: she thinks that poetry “drives away” love if it is just a “vague inclination” (2005 feature film), whereas he thinks that poetry is always the food of love. Elizabeth makes use of the disagreement and takes a little revenge on his snubbing her before: to his question on what she recommends to encourage affection, she answers “dancing, even if one’s partner is barely tolerable” (2005 feature film). And then she goes away, not before making a curtsy, leaving him taken aback.
This tension and clash between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth takes an interesting shift at the ball in Netherfield, after the events that are taking place in the story have started to gradually change these characters’ relationship and feelings towards each other. The shift takes place when Elizabeth and Charlotte run into Mr. Darcy and the latter asks Elizabeth “May I have the next dance, Miss Elizabeth?” (2005 feature film). Elizabeth then answers, without hesitation, “you may” (2005 feature film). Then, Mr. Darcy bows and leaves abruptly, barely giving the ladies time to finish making their curtsy. Elizabeth herself is very surprised that she accepts Mr. Darcy’s offer to dance, and drags her friend rushedly to a balcony, where no one can hear their conversation, to discuss what just happened. She asks her friend in a dubious tone “Did I just agree to dance with Mr. Darcy?”, which Charlotte confirms by replying “I dare say you will find him amiable”. Then, she goes on by saying “It would be most inconvenient since I’ve sworn to loathe him for all eternity”. Both friends then laugh and rejoin the party. Right after, the camera shows Elizabeth’s and Mr. Darcy’s dance. The fact that Elizabeth has taken up Mr. Darcy on his offer to dance is also remarkable because at Meryton Assembly she had told Charlotte that she “wouldn’t dance with him for all of Darbyshire […]” (2005 feature film), after overhearing the conversation between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley in which the former had insulted Elizabeth. When they start dancing, they do not talk but only look at each other. It is Elizabeth who breaks the ice and says “I love this dance” (2005 feature film). However, Mr. Darcy’s response is very short and he does not continue the conversation. Hence, knowing that he does not “have the talent of conversing easily with people [he has] never met before” (2005 feature film), she helps him by suggesting several topics he can address to make conversation. Elizabeth stills talks for a while after he asks her what she would like to hear and if she always talks as a rule while dancing. It is during the first bits of their conversation, before Mr. Darcy’s question, that we learn that the ball at Netherfield is a private one, when Elizabeth mentions that “[…] private balls are much pleasant than them public ones” (2005 feature film). It takes a while for Mr. Darcy to make conversation himself, but then he asks Elizabeth if she and her sisters usually walk to Meryton and they start a real conversation. Nonetheless, the tension returns when Elizabeth brings up Mr. Wickham. After a heated discussion about Mr. Wickham, they finish the dance without speaking. Both of them are clearly affected by the conversation, but Elizabeth is the only one who fulfills protocol by curtsying; while Mr. Darcy does not bow and just remains standing there watching her leave, as he had done back at Meryton. This is surprising, once again, because Elizabeth belongs to a lower class, so she would be the one expected to break protocol, and not him.
For all this, it can be concluded that the 2005 movie adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been faithful to 19th-Century England, its society and its practices. The dance scenes that appear in the movie portray the protocol and rules of etiquette of the English society during the 19th Century in a very truthful way. Ballrooms, dresses, manners…Everything that has been examined in this essay coincides with the descriptions of the society found in the books that were consulted. In addition, a big contrast was found between the two dance scenes analyzed in this essay: the dance at Meryton Assembly and the Netherfield ball. This is so not only because of what we see, but also because of what we hear. On the one hand, the way houses are arranged, the number of attendants and the way they are dressed help us identify the first dance scene in the movie as an ordinary dance celebrated at a humble house [as part of a public assembly], and the second one as a proper private ball organized by a wealthy household. On the other, there is an evolution in the conversations that take place at both: the Meryton dance is where the main characters meet for the first time; while their encounter at Netherfield ball takes place after prejudices towards one another have been formed. Overall, we see that Joe Wright payed careful attention to the customs that England used to have during the time the novel was written and tried to make his adaptation as close to reality as possible, as both the humble dance at Meryton and the fancy private ball at Netherfield reflect perfectly what a dance would look like during Austen’s time.
Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice. New York: Signet Classics, 2008. Print.
Parril, Sue, Jane Austen on Film and Television. A critical study of the Adaptations.
USA: McFarland, 2002. Print.
Pool, Daniel, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1993. PDF
Pride and Prejudice. Dir. Simon Langton. Perf. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth. BBC, 1995.
Pride and Prejudice. Dir. Joe Wright. Perf. Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen.
Universal Pictures, 2005. DVD.
Watkins, Susan, Jane Austen’s Town and Country Style. London: Thames and Hudson
Ltd., 1990. Print.
Meryton Dance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Y9hGQImApE
Netherfield Ball: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkYK4Drekeo
Biographical Note: Rebeca Company Almagro is a postgraduate student at Universidad de Sevilla, where she graduated in English Studies. She wrote this essay for the elective course Otras Manifestaciones Culturales Anglo-Norteamericanas her senior year. Rebeca was a Fulbright grantee working as a Spanish lecturer at Gardner-Webb University (NC) during the 2017/18 academic year. Currently, she is doing her PhD under an international co-tutelle agreement with Leuphana Universität Lüneburg.