Sunday, December 19, 2010

A template for a Regency ball?

The following is from Thomas Peacock's novel Headlong Hall. Though it's satirical, we can assume that the details of the ball are accurate. I've given the main points below in italics and made bold the text evidence that comes after. I've also cut out chunks that were irrelevant to this. The text is available on line if you want to read it all. Some of the text below is garbled.

A "set" was two dances. So the "first set" is two dances, but a lady would take one partner for the two. Thus, a set. Each set lasts half an hour. That would be a pretty good workout, I think. In this case supper was served after the third set, and included musical performances by the guests. They then returned to the ballroom for more sets.

Balls started late and went on till dawn. Guests didn't sleep at the house. They took breakfast and went home.

After having danced a set with a lady, a gentleman may not dance the next, but he can reclaim her, if she's willing, for the one after.

I have cut this from below this, which was a commonly held position on the benefits of a dance.

"It has the advantage of bringing young persons of both sexes together, in a manner which its publicity renders perfectly unexceptionable, enabling them to see and know each other better than, perhaps, any other mode of general association. Tete-atetes are dangerous things. Small family parties are too much under mutual observation. A ball-room appears to me almost the only scene uniting that degree of rational and innocent liberty of intercourse, which it is desirable to promote as much as possible between young persons, with that scrupulous attention to the delicacy and propriety of female conduct, which I consider the fundamental basis of all our most valuable social relations."

Another passage. "As to the men, the case is very nearly the same with them. To be sure, they have the privilege of making the first advances, and are, therefore, less liable to have an odious partner forced upon them: though this sometimes happens, as I know by woeful experience : but it is seldom they can procure the very partner they prefer, and when they do, the absurd necessity of changing every two dances forces them away, and leaves them only the miserable alternative of taking up with Boiiieiiuiig, uiaagrecabls perhaps in itself, and at all events rendered so by contrast, or of retreating into some solitary corner, to vent their spleen on the first idle coxcomb they can find."

The following is the original text, cut about a bit.

The ball-room was adorned with great taste and elegance, under the direction of Miss Caprioletta and her friend Miss Cephalis, who were themselves its most beautiful ornaments, even though romantic Meirion, the pre-eminent in loveliness, sent many of its loveliest daughters to grace the festive scene.

Numberless were the solicitations of the dazzled swains of Cambria for the honour of the two first dances with the one or the other of these fascinating friends: but little availed, on this occasion, the pedigree lineally traced from Caractacus or King Arthur: their two philosophical lovers, neither of whom could have given the least account of his great-great-grandfather, had engaged them many days before.

Mr. Panoscope chafed and fretted like Conwy in his bed of rocks, when the object of his adoration stood up with his rival: but he consoled himself with a lively damsel from the vale of Llwyd, having first compelled Miss Cephalis to promise him her hand for the fourth set.

The ball was accordingly opened by Miss Caprioletta and Mr. Foster...

When the two first dances wore ended, Mr. Escot, who did not choose to dance with any one but his adorable Cephalis, looking round for a convenient seat, discovered Mr. Jenkison in a corner by the side of the Reverend Doctor, who was keeping excellent time with his nose to the lively melody of the harp and fiddle. Mr. Escot seated himself by the side of Mr. Jenkison, and inquired if he took no part in the amusement of the night ?


No. The universal cheerfulness of the company induces me to rise: the trouble of such violent exercise induces me to sit still. Did I see a young lady in want of a partner, gallantry would incite me to offer myself as her devoted knight for half an hour: hut as I perceive there are enough without me, that motive is null. I have been weighing these points pro and con, and remain in statu quo.



...Then suddenly place before him a chandelier, a fiddler, and a magnificent beau in silk stockings and pumps, bounding, skipping, swinging, capering, and throwing himself into ten thousand attitudes, till his face glows with fever, and distils with perspiration: the first impulse excited in his mind by such an apparition, will be that of violent fear, which, by the reiterated perception of its harmlessness, will subside into simple astonishment. Then let any genius, sufficiently werful to impress on his mind all the terms of the communication, impart to him, that, after a long process of ages, when his race shall have attained what some people think proper to denominate a very advanced stage of perfectibility, the most favoured and distinguished of the community shall meet by hundreds, to grin, and labour, and gesticulate, like the phantasma before him, from sunset to sunrise, while all nature is at rest, and that they shall consider this a happy and pleasurable mode of existence, and furnishing the most delightful of all possible contrasts to what they will call his vegetative state—would he not groan from his inmost soul for the lamentable condition of his posterity ?

The spcond set of dances was now terminated, and Mr. Escot flew off to reclaim the hand of the beautiful Cephalis, with whom he figured away with surprising alacrity, and probably felt at least as happy among the chandeliers and silk stockings, at which he had just been railing, as he would have been in an American forest, making one in an In

Squire Headlong was now beset by his maiden aunt, Miss Brindle-mew Grimalkin Phoebe Tabitha Ap-Headlong, on one side, and Sir Patrick OTrism on the other: the former insisting that he should immediately procure her a partner; the latter earnestly requesting the same interference in behalf of Miss Philomela Poppyseed. The Squire thought to emancipate himself from his two petitioners by making them dance with each other; but Sir Patrick vehemently pleading a prior engagement, the Squire threw his eyes around till they alighted on Mr. Jenkison and the Reverend Doctor Gaster; both of whom, after waking the latter, he pressed into the service. The Doctor, arising with a strange kind of guttural sound, which was half a yawn and half a groan, was handed by the officious Squire to Miss Philomela, who received him with sullen dignity: she had not yet forgotten his falling asleep during the first chapter of her novel, while she was condescending to detail to him the outline of four superlative volumes. The Doctor, on his part, had most completely forgotten it; and though he thought there was something in her physiognomy rather more forbidding than usual, he gave himself no concern about the cause, and had not the least suspicion that it was at all connected with himself. Miss Grimalkin was very well contented with Mr. Jenkison, and gave him two or three ogles, accompanied by a most risible distortion of countenance, which she intended for a captivating smile. As to Mr. Jenkison, it was all one to him with whom he danced, or whether lie danced or not: he was, therefore, just as well pleased as if he had been left alone in his corner : which is probably more than could have been said of any other human being under similar circumstances.

At the end of the third set, supper was announced, and the party, pairing off like turtles, adjourned to the supper-room. The Squire was now the happiest of mortal men, and the little butler the most laborious. The centre of the largest table was decorated with a model of Snowdon, surmounted with an enormous artificial leek, the leaves of angelica, and the bulb of blanc-mange. A little way from the summit was a tarn, or mountain-pool, supplied through concealed tubes with an inexhaustible flow of milkpunch, which, dashing in cascades down the miniature rocks, fell into the more capacious lake below, washing the mimic foundations of Headlong Hall. The Reverend Doctor handed Miss Philomela to the chair most conveniently situated for enjoying this interesting scene, protesting he had never before been sufficiently impressed with the magnificence of that mountain, which he now perceived to be well worthy of all the fame it had obtained.

Now when they had eaten and were satisfied," Squire Headlong called on Mr. Chromatic for a song: who, with the assistance of his two accomplished daughters, regaled the ears of the

Squire Headlong returned thanks with an appropriate libation, and the company returned to the ball-room, where they kept it up till sun-rise, when the little butler summoned them to breakfast.

My next book featuring a Regency ball is the reissue of Forbidden Magic. Read an excerpt here.



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