Ask The Expert: The Waltz in Jane Austen's Time


La Walse by GillrayAsk The Expert will be an occasional feature of AustenBlog, when we have an expert at hand and something to ask her. :-)

Gentle Reader Anna posted a comment in the discussion about MP last week…

Since I’ve seen the waltz used in the new versions of Persuasion and Mansfield Park I’m wondering how anachronistic it is for the time period. I was initially outraged that they would try to pass off such scandalous dancing in a movie set during the Regency period. But then some quick Googling showed that it was introduced in London around 1812. Does anyone know how common waltzing would have been throughout Britain in the 1810s?

We asked Allison Thompson, who is a musician and dance historian (see her Persuasions On-Line essay on dancing in Jane Austen’s novels) if she could shed some light on the subject.

The question of the authenticity of a closed (“turning”) waltz in any dramatization of an Austen novel has two parts: one, in what year was the novel written and, two, in what year have the movie-makers chosen to set the novel. The waltz as a rhythm for music and for country dances was known in England c. 1810: dance historian/teacher Susan de Guardiola informs me that she has a c.1811 source which describes poussettes in the country dance performed with the sauteuse step (a fast 2/4 waltz) and other figures done “à la waltz.” She adds, however, that it is not clear whether either phrase implies a closed waltz position with turning, or just steps, or both. By 1813, Lord Byron was incensed enough about the turning waltz to write his long poem condemning it. And in the summer of 1814, Lady Lieven, one of the Lady Patronesses of Almacks, created a sensation and made the waltz finally accepted when she danced it at Almacks with Lord “Cupid” Palmerston. So it seems reasonable to say that the turning waltz was increasing in popularity in London from 1812 or 1813 on, really taking off after the Peace Congress in 1814, but that the evidence for a closed turning waltz prior to about 1813 is murky. Finally, it is not at all clear how rapidly the waltz traveled outwards to the provinces. Continue reading