From Page to Screen: Dancing to the Altar in Recent Film Adaptations of Jane Austen's Novels

By Stovel, Nora Foster | Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

From Page to Screen: Dancing to the Altar in Recent Film Adaptations of Jane Austen's Novels


Stovel, Nora Foster, Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal


"TO BE FOND OF DANCING was a certain step towards falling in love" (9), writes Jane Austen at the outset of Pride and Prejudice. So she includes dances in all her novels to catalyze courtship, the subject of Mr. Elton's charade in Emma (72) and the subject of all of Austen's fiction. Austen herself was fond of dancing and excelled in the art, as we know from her letters. She wrote to her sister Cassandra from Steventon about a 1798 Christmas Eve ball: "There were twenty Dances & I danced them all, & without any fatigue.... I fancy I could just as well dance for a week together as for half an hour" (24 December 1798). Not all of her characters are fond of dancing, however. Fitzwilliam Darcy, for example, dislikes the activity, and it takes all of Volume One of Pride and Prejudice to overcome his distaste. In Emma, George Knightley says, "'Fine dancing, I believe, like virtue, must be its own reward'" (258). But Austen demonstrates that dancing with the right partner can lead to greater rewards. Austen choreographs her ball scenes skillfully to prefigure the proposals of marriage that conclude her novels. She employs the same terminology for dancing as marriage: the man "offers his hand," "engaging" the woman as his "partner" in the parlance of the period--suggesting the mating dance may be a prelude to matrimony.

Courtship patterns do underlie the formal etiquette of the dance ritual. As Steven Lonsdale notes, "Dance is an activity that can tame excessively brutal impulses while still allowing erotic expression. Dance in many cultures is an acceptable and effective way for the young to release and express sexual feelings for members of the opposite sex" (71). In the restricted social intercourse allowed to single young men and women in Regency England, dancing was one of the few ways they could converse privately or actually touch each other--a socially sanctioned method of establishing their chemistry--even though both partners wore gloves! Lonsdale adds, "The dances sort out the weak and clumsy and match up those pairs most compatible for matrimony" (71). Havelock Ellis notes, "Here we are in the sphere of sexual selection" (242), for "dancing is often an essential part of courtship" (242). Darrell Mansell compares Austen's fiction to dance: "Her novels are more like ballroom dances than like anyone's conception of life in the raw. They present the relationship between the sexes in a graceful, restrained and highly stylised form of art that has developed in polite society.... In dancing the sexual passions are celebrated in a ceremony that hints at their power while keeping them safely contained in art" (8).

This mating-dance pattern renders Austen's novels intensely sexual, even though they appear very decorous. The dance scenes also render her novels highly cinematic, as many recent films can verify. Sue Birtwistle, the director of the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, states in her chapter on "Dancing" in The Making of Pride and Prejudice, "In Jane Austen's time dancing was an integral part of social life. Given her own love of dancing and the crucial role it played in courtship, it is no surprise that she set many key scenes in the book at dances or balls" (67). (1) So it is also no surprise that film directors make the most of Austen's dance scenes, and these ball scenes, in turn, make the movie adaptations scintillating. As Linda Wolfe argues, "For many film-goers and television watchers, the stately dancing in the recent spate of Jane Austen dramatizations stirred a touch of culture envy: a longing for a presumably lost Eden of elegance, for forms of social intercourse less brash and brazen than our own" (1). (2)

The ball scenes in Austen's novels have been featured prominently in recent film adaptations. Austen employs her dance scenes to catalyze courtship--either to initiate it, or, in some cases, to terminate it, because the ballroom provides a dramatic forum to publicize the state of a relationship.

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From Page to Screen: Dancing to the Altar in Recent Film Adaptations of Jane Austen's Novels
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