Jane Austen Dance
"I do not think I can live without something of a musical society. I condition for nothing else; but, without music, life would be a blank to me."
These words spoken by Jane Austen's character Mrs. Elton in the novel "Emma" could be applied to Jane herself. Her love of music began at an early age and as she was the more musical sister she became the one provider of music in the Austen household. By the age of twenty-one she was taking piano lessons from a visiting master George William Chard, assistant organist at Winchester Cathedral. We can therefore surmise from this that Jane was a very accomplished musician and that music must have played a major role in her life.
The enjoyment of music in Regency England as a form of entertainment was of the highest importance. Without the instant access to music which we today take for granted and the limited occasions to attend a professional musical recital, the Regency home would be obliged to provide its own musical entertainment. The task of providing music usually fell to the women of the house, men were not expected to learn a musical instrument unless it was for employment. A gentleman's place was to listen and admire. We can see this in all of Jane's novels, an evening soiree was always accompanied by the household's daughter or house guest singing and playing the musical instruments of the time. In "Sense & Sensibility" Marianne is invited to play after dining at Barton Park even though most of the assembled guests continued their loud conversations. Singing for your supper in fact!
The importance of music to Jane is vividly highlighted in her novels. Crucial scenes often centre around a character playing a musical instrument. For example, the scene in" Pride & Prejudice" where Elizabeth Bennet plays the piano forte at Rosings Park, this gives Mr. Darcy the opportunity to admire her. "You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me?". At this juncture we begin to guess that Darcy's opinion of Elizabeth is becoming more favourable, Elizabeth, however remains determined to continue to dislike him.
A sad fact in Jane's life was having to sell her piano when her parents decided to leave her childhood home in Steventon and move to Bath. She would not own a piano again until at the age of 33 when she with her widowed mother and sister Cassandra were settled at Chawton.
"Yes, yes, we will have a pianoforte, as good a one as can be got for thirty guineas, and I will practise country dances...".
Jane did practise most mornings before breakfast so as not to disturb the daily routines of the household, she also copied music sheets from friends and neighbours to add to the Austen collection. The piano and handwritten sheet music are on display at Jane Austen's house in Chawton, https://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/. These sheets will include songs by Handel and English composers of the day, as well as instrumental pieces by Corelli, Gluck, and Johann Christian Bach. She was also found of French composer, Ignaz Pleyel, a composer we are no longer familiar with.
With music came dancing and through Jane's letters we can ascertain that as a young girl she loved dancing.
"We had an exceedingly good ball last night...There were twenty dances, and I danced them all, without any fatigue."
Dancing provided opportunities for socialising, physical exercise, dressing in one's best gowns and the obvious chance to meet with the opposite sex. Dances held in local assembly rooms would provide the means for the close neighbourhood to congregate allowing the older members to chat, drink and play cards while the younger attendees could dance and flirt all evening. While living in Steventon, Hampshire, Jane would attend the Assembly rooms in Basingstoke, and continued her attendance at such occasions in Bath when the family moved there in 1801. The assembly rooms in Bath were much grander than those she had left behind and Jane often referenced them in her novels:
“Mrs Allen was so long in dressing that they did not enter the ballroom till late. The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could." Northanger Abbey, 1818
Another grander music and dance event would be a ball held at a great country house by kind hospitality of the resident family, involving a great deal of preparation and local excitement! These occasions were by invitation only to neighbouring gentry, professional musicians would be booked and a supper provided for all. The style and type of music performed at such events has been captured in "Lady Caroline's Regency Romp" which provides a collection of dance music played during the late regency period.
The style of dancing enjoyed in Jane's life was English Country Dance, where a group of gentlemen and ladies would be required to stand facing each other and move elegantly around in defined steps.
When organised dances were not forthcoming, then the Regency family would often just push back the furniture and with a suitable piano player enjoy dancing at home, so there was always opportunities for music and dance. As Jane grew older she would provide the music and allow her nieces and nephews the time and opportunity to dance as she had in her younger years. Her attitude to balls and such gatherings as she aged was marked, her enjoyment seemed to have waned "I was very glad to be spared the trouble of dressing and going, and being weary before it was half over." October 1813.