Raise your hand if you’ve watched a Jane Austen film and wanted to step into the story to attend a ball (and not just to meet the dishy Mr. Darcy). Jane herself loved to dance and mentioned neighborhood balls in letters to her sister Cassandra. Her own enjoyment of lively country dances was echoed by many of her characters. After all, as she wrote in Pride and Prejudice, “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.”
I recently attended a Victorian Tea Dance and stumbled my way through a Quadrille and a few other numbers. Although set in an era several decades after Jane’s, many dances included steps similar to those she twirled through at local assemblies and private parties. I discovered other similarities when I read Jane’s vivacious account of a ball she attended in November, 1800 — 214 years before my own.
“It was a pleasant ball, and still more good than pleasant, for there were nearly sixty people, and sometimes we had seventeen couple. The Portsmouths, Dorchesters, Boltons, Portals, and Clerks were there, and all the meaner and more usual &c., &c.’s. There was a scarcity of men in general, and a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much. I danced nine dances out of ten — five with Stephen Terry, T. Chute, and James Digweed, and four with Catherine. There was commonly a couple of ladies standing up together, but not often any so amiable as ourselves.”
Two centuries later, women outnumbered men at my dance, too. In fact, I danced the gentleman’s part more than once myself. Alas, no one looked like Mr. Darcy. But then, I’m no Elizabeth Bennet…
You can enjoy Jane’s entire letter to her sister below, including more about her ball.
[Sections about the ball are all in blue]
Steventon: Saturday, November 1800
MY DEAR CASSANDRA,
You have written, I am sure, though I have received no letter from you since your leaving London; the post, and not yourself, must have been unpunctual.
We have at last heard from Frank; a letter from him to you came yesterday, and I mean to send it on as soon as I can get a ditto (that means a frank), which I hope to do in a day or two. En attendant, you must rest satisfied with knowing that on the 8th of July the “Petterel,” with the rest of the Egyptian squadron, was off the Isle of Cyprus, whither they went from Jaffa for provisions, &c., and whence they were to sail in a day or two for Alexandria, there to wait the result of the English proposals for the evacuation of Egypt. The rest of the letter, according to the present fashionable style of composition, is chiefly descriptive. Of his promotion he knows nothing; of prizes he is guiltless.
Your letter is come; it came, indeed, twelve lines ago, but I could not stop to acknowledge it before, and I am glad it did not arrive till I had completed my first sentence, because the sentence had been made ever since yesterday, and I think forms a very good beginning.
Your abuse of our gowns amuses but does not discourage me; I shall take mine to be made up next week, and the more I look at it the better it pleases me. My cloak came on Tuesday, and, though I expected a good deal, the beauty of the lace astonished me. It is too handsome to be worn — almost too handsome to be looked at. The glass is all safely arrived also, and gives great satisfaction. The wine-glasses are much smaller than I expected, but I suppose it is the proper size. We find no fault with your manner of performing any of our commissions, but if you like to think yourself remiss in any of them, pray do.
My mother was rather vexed that you could not go to Penlington’s, but she has since written to him, which does just as well. Mary is disappointed, of course, about her locket, and of course delighted about the mangle, which is safe at Basingstoke. You will thank Edward for it on their behalf, &c., &c., and, as you know how much it was wished for, will not feel that you are inventing gratitude.
Did you think of our ball on Thursday evening, and did you suppose me at it? You might very safely, for there I was. On Wednesday morning it was settled that Mrs. Harwood, Mary, and I should go together, and shortly afterwards a very civil note of invitation for me came from Mrs. Bramston, who wrote I believe as soon as as she knew of the ball. I might likewise have gone with Mrs. Lefroy, and therefore, with three methods of going, I must have been more at the ball than anyone else. I dined and slept at Deane; Charlotte and I did my hair, which I fancy looked very indifferent, nobody abused it, however, and I retired delighted with my success.
It was a pleasant ball, and still more good than pleasant, for there were nearly sixty people, and sometimes we had seventeen couple. The Portsmouths, Dorchesters, Boltons, Portals, and Clerks were there, and all the meaner and more usual &c., &c.’s. There was a scarcity of men in general, and a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much. I danced nine dances out of ten — five with Stephen Terry, T. Chute, and James Digweed, and four with Catherine. There was commonly a couple of ladies standing up together, but not often any so amiable as ourselves.
I heard no news, except that Mr. Peters, who was not there, is supposed to be particularly attentive to Miss Lyford. You were inquired after very prettily, and I hope the whole assembly now understands that you are gone into Kent, which the families in general seemed to meet in ignorance of. Lord Portsmouth surpassed the rest in his attentive recollection of you, inquired more into the length of your absence, and concluded by desiring to be “remembered to you when I wrote next.”
Lady Portsmouth had got a different dress on, and Lady Bolton is much improved by a wig. The three Miss Terries were there, but no Annie; which was a great disappointment to me. I hope the poor girl had not set her heart on her appearance that evening so much as I had. Mr. Terry is ill, in a very low way. I said civil things to Edward for Mr. Chute, who amply returned them by declaring that, had he known of my brother’s being at Steventon, he should have made a point of calling upon him to thank him for his civility about the Hunt.
I have heard from Charles, and am to send his shirts by half-dozens as they are finished; one set will go next week. The “Endymion” is now waiting only for orders, but may wait for them perhaps a month. Mr. Coulthard  was unlucky in very narrowly missing another unexpected guest at Chawton, for Charles had actually set out and got half way thither in order to spend one day with Edward, but turned back on discovering the distance to be considerably more than he had fancied, and finding himself and his horse to be very much tired. I should regret it the more if his friend Shipley had been of the party, for Mr. Coulthard might not have been so well pleased to see only one come at a time.
Miss Harwood is still at Bath, and writes word that she never was in better health, and never more happy. Joshua Wakeford died last Saturday, and my father buried him on Thursday. A deaf Miss Fonnereau is at Ashe, which has prevented Mrs. Lefroy’s going to Worting or Basingstoke during the absence of Mr. Lefroy.
My mother is very happy in the prospect of dressing a new doll which Molly has given Anna. My father’s feelings are not so enviable, as it appears that the farm cleared 300l. last year. James and Mary went to Ibthorp for one night last Monday, and found Mrs. Lloyd not in very good looks. Martha has been lately at Kintbury, but is probably at home by this time. Mary’s promised maid has jilted her, and hired herself elsewhere. The Debaries persist in being afflicted at the death of their uncle, of whom they now say they saw a great deal in London. Love to all. I am glad George remembers me.
Yours very affectionately, J. A.
I am very unhappy. In re-reading your letter I find I might have spared myself any intelligence of Charles. To have written only what you knew before! You may guess how much I feel. I wore at the ball your favourite gown, a bit of muslin of the same round my head, bordered with Mrs. Cooper’s band, and one little comb.
Miss Austen, Godmersham Park.