If you’ve ever watched the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, you’ll easily recall the key scene of the ball at Netherfield Hall. The balls in Austen’s novels are important devices by which she reveals aspects of the main characters and how they interact with each other. But they also give us insight into the society in which the stories are set and some of the prevailing conventions. So in the Netherfield ball for example, the clumsy Mr Collins not only manages to make a hash of dancing by turning the wrong way and stepping on his partner’s toes, he commits the ultimate faux pas of engaging with Mr Darcy without the benefit of a formal introduction. One of the younger Bennett sisters is chastised for hogging the piano so that other females don’t get their own chance to ‘exhibit’ their piano playing and singing skills.
A new BBC program to be broadcast this week takes a look at some of those conventions and how such events would have been experienced by families like the Bennetts. The program Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball, was designed as an experiment in which the BBC set out to re-create a full scale Regency style ball as part of the bicentenial celebrations marking the publication of Pride and Prejudice. One of the questions the producers were interested in discovering was whether ‘every savage can dance’ as Mr Darcy maintained.
According to one of the participants, the answer to the latter is a resounding No!
The Miss Bennetts and Miss Caroline Bingley might have made them look easy, something they could do without even the slightest hint of a rosy cheek by the end, but the truth apparently was that they were devilishly difficult and strenuous. Even though many of the cast in the new BBC program were dance students and well used to strenuous routines, after 15minutes (the length each set piece lasted typically) they were perspiring freely.
Broadcaster and journalist Alastair Sooke who took part in the program commented on his experience:
Regency dancing involved lots of skipping and prancing – I spent most of my time on the front parts of my feet, so that afterwards my calf muscles were clenched like cricket balls. It was also very boisterous. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I ever really got the hang of some of the steps, one of which was a kind of quick rhythmic flutter of each foot followed by a pert hop. It was so physically demanding everyone was glistening by the end.
In addition to recreating the dances, the BBC tried to visualise every aspect of the grand occasion – from the 300 plus candles with which the rooms would have been lit, to preparing a 63-dish banquet with the help of an expert on Regency style food.
Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball will be shown on BBC2 on Friday, May 10 at 9pm for those of you lucky enough to live in Europe. I know I’m going to be glued to the screen for this one.
If you’re interested in the significance of the ball in Austen’s novels, you might want to take a look at The Guardian which has an interesting article on the subject written by John Mullan, author of What Matters in Jane Austen: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved or this article by the Jane Austen society on how women prepared for these events.