Dancing and Balls
The Lord of the Dance
This print, of an unnamed Regency lady, depicts what Marianne, her sister Elinor, and Austen's other heroines would wear to a ball or assembly room. As assemblies were one of the primary settings in which to interact with fellow members of the gentry, women would frequent these events in the efforts of attracting a suitable husband.
Dancing was therefore an important skill women must acquire during their education. In Sense and Sensibility (1811), Marianne Dashwood's fondness of dancing establishes her courtship with John Willoughby (who is later revealed as a cad).
"They speedily discovered that their enjoyment of dancing and music was mutual, and that it arose from a general conformity of judgment in all that related to either."
Marianne's lively dancing skills make her universally desirable by the conventions of Regency society. Yet despite the importance of good dancing skills, Austen also emphasizes the need for restraint and discreet behaviour. Marianne's overenthusiasm for dancing reflects the frivolity of her character, demonstrating her susceptibility to Willoughby's charms.
This image was produced in Britain c. 1820s, toward the end of the Regency period. The print was created using the mezzotint method, in which the artist would use a small tool called a "rocker". The rocker had fine teeth in order to roughen the print plate and thus produce shading without the need for hatching techniques.
Graceful Bows and Everything Gallant
In addition to good posture and grace, formal dress served to complete the overall impression of elegance and manners. In Northanger Abbey (1817), Mr. Henry Tilney appreciates Catherine Morland's "sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings" at the rooms in Bath, remarking that she "appeared to great advantage".
Unmarried women could not speak to men in a ballroom unless they had been formally introduced by the Master of Ceremonies, just as Henry Tilney is to Catherine. The etiquette of the dance was weighted against women in some instances; for example, when the unsavory John Thorpe asks Catherine to dance, she can only refuse him if she accepts that she will not be able to stand up with any other gentleman that evening.
This, of course, meant that women had to be skillful in their choices of whom to accept as a dance partner, for they did not have the liberty of actively seeking out gentleman partners themselves.
Hence, women's fortunes on the marriage mart were contingent on their comportment, as they could not actively pursue a man. Rather, they were expected to demonstrate their accomplishments and politesse enough to attract a wealthy and noble suitor. Austen highlights women's restricted role in the social sphere; and though her heroines often speak out against some of the more ridiculous rules, they rarely go so far as to cross the line of propriety.