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.

Regardless, Regency bucks and belles would not have recognized the waltz that Edmund and Fanny performed.

In 1816, dancing master Thomas Wilson produced his “Description of the Correct Method of Waltzing for the Truly Fashionable Species of Dancing” which claimed to lay out The Right Way to Waltz (Wilson was a bit of a complainer and thought that he was the only qualified teacher around). He notes that the English, “till lately,” were not so conversant with the right way of performing the dance, and he carefully describes the differences between the French and the German styles of turning.

His description of the French Waltz, for example, shows that it commonly had three parts—the Slow Waltz, the Sauteuse Waltz and the Jetté or Quick Sauteuse Waltz—all of which he liked to see preceded by a slow March in waltz time (one step per measure). Each part of the waltz was slightly faster than the previous. The style of the dance was very high on the toes, and to greatly simplify the instructions for the Slow waltz, imagine that the gentleman pirouettes in three beats (that is, he is in demi-pointe position on both feet, one behind the other in fifth position, and in three beats is just sort of gyro-scoping around with legs straight and in “an easy equilibrium of the Body,” so that the foot that was behind ends up in front). During his pirouette, the lady takes three bourrée steps around him; then they reverse the roles. This alternating pirouetting and stepping has a very different appearance from the modern ballroom waltz. Also different to modern eyes was the Sauteuse, which involved light, leaping steps (from the French, sauter, to jump). So, even if Fanny and Edmund were waltzing in-doors, on the polished wooden floor that the dance really requires, the style of the dance would be very different from what we saw in the recent film.

Wilson also goes on to describe the variety of hand holds, rather than just the simple “ballroom” position that we saw: for example, partners could stand side-by-side, with the left hands clasped in front of them, the lady’s right hand at her waist and the gentleman’s right arm encircling her waist to grasp her hand; or they could assume the position that Lord Byron found so particularly shocking in 1813: both the lady’s hands on the gentleman’s shoulders, his hands on her waist and his feet moving in between hers. Tsk, tsk.

As for Austen herself, she was 35 in 1810, past her dancing days. It seems highly unlikely to me that she would have learned to waltz—she was rather dismissive of her niece Fanny’s modern quadrille music, for example. When younger, she liked to dance, and many people have noted that her plots are rather like the intricacies of a country dance. Surely if she had seen a turning waltz, and noted its shockingly close embrace, she would have made use of it in her plots. In fact, the only mention of a waltz in her novels is in Emma (written between 1814 and 1815) when Mrs. Weston strikes up a “irresistible” waltz just as Emma must depart, but we don’t know whether this was just pretty music to listen to, or music for a turning waltz or a waltz country dance. Mansfield Park was written between 1812 and 1814 and Persuasion was completed in 1816, so it is technically possible that some of the characters could have been familiar with a waltz; again, however, we don’t know how rapidly the craze spread beyond London. Prior to Wilson’s publication (which he claimed any gentleman could use teach himself the waltz with “ease and precision”), one would have had to learn the waltz directly from a dancing master.

Beyond the technicalities of the dates, we must also examine Austen’s characters’ motivations (as opposed to the filmmakers’ characters’ motivations). I could well imagine Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford enjoying the close embrace of a turning waltz at a smart party in London (Mr. Rushworth being too stupid to learn it), but where would Edmund Bertram have learned it (even if he were inclined to it—recall how merely acting a play bothered him), and inconceivable that Fanny would have learned it either at Portsmouth or the Park. And in some of the recent films, particularly Mansfield Park, it is rather difficult to pinpoint the year the movie is actually supposed to be set in: inconsistencies in costuming, which may have been introduced as a short-hand for characterization, make it difficult to date the film.

To sum up, it is technically possible—but a bit of a stretch—to see characters from Austen’s later-written novels waltz, but if they had waltzed, it would have looked quite different from the waltz of today. Both historically and as far as characterization goes, I find the out-of-doors waltz that we saw Fanny and Edmund perform in the latest movie of Mansfield Park impossible. Whether other viewers felt that it conveyed the appropriate emotion of love triumphant is up to them.