Dance, Physicality, and Social Mobility in Jane Austen's Persuasion

By Wilson, Cheryl A. | Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview

Dance, Physicality, and Social Mobility in Jane Austen's Persuasion


Wilson, Cheryl A., Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal


IN JANE AUSTEN AND THE PROVINCE OF WOMANHOOD, Alison Sulloway notes, "with the exception of Anne Elliot, all the heroines either meet their lovers at balls or their creator provides them with a crucial scene at a ball" (155). Austen scholars have noted the indisputable importance of dance in the novels, usually arguing that the prominent ballroom scenes stand as microcosms of Austen's social world. However, in Persuasion, Austen appears to have abandoned dance and relegated Anne Elliot to the status of "heroine without a ball.'u While there is very little dancing in Persuasion, images and rhetoric of English country-dance appear at key moments in the text, enabling Austen to employ time, space, and physicality to advance a consideration of social mobility. Attention to dance highlights the tension between the body and the spaces within which it can move, and in turn reinforces Austen's approach to social mobility in the novel--she uses a rhetoric of dance to explore the role desire plays in negotiating boundaries between the individual and society. In Persuasion, Austen depicts society as a set of separate closed circles, modeled on country-dance formations, and uses these to illustrate the possibilities for--and yet limitations of--individual mobility within established social structures.

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Austen's use of dance and the dance metaphor can most effectively be understood if Persuasion is first situated within the landscape of Regency Era social dance. The country-dance with which Austen and her characters would have been familiar was "a social dance of English origin in which a number of couples perform a set pattern of figures" ("Country Dance" 254). (2) In its most inclusive definition, "country-dance" included square dances in which four couples stood in a square formation and the movement of the dance occurred in, around, and across the square. This square form, which illustrates the French influence on English country-dance, became increasingly popular in the second half of the eighteenth century: "the square form of the contredanse, or cotillon, gained some popularity in England through works such as G. A. Gallini's Critical Observations on the Art of Dancing (c. 1770)" ("Country Dance" 256). (3) These square dances were called "Contredanse Francaise," and the longways dances became known as "Contredanse Anglaise." Thus, "countrydance" was used comprehensively to signify most types of social dance and specifically to refer to longways dances. (4) The "Contredanse Francaise," known as the "cotillion" (or "cotillon") in England, used the same steps as longways dances (Contredanse Anglaise), changing only the form (the arrangement of the dancers). In a dance manual, "a dance might be given in two forms so that it could be danced either as a Cotillon or as a Longways Progressive set" (Wood 95). By the beginning of the nineteenth century; the longways dances and cotillions were phased out in favor of the quadrille--a dance that retained the square formation of the cotillion, but employed less energetic movements. Thus, the cotillion occupies a transitory place in the history of English social dance because it was adapted from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century longways dances and introduced the square formations that would characterize much of nineteenth-century social dance. The legacy of the cotillion was noted in the Ball-Room Preceptor (London 1843): "The Cotillion, that once universal favorite in the ball-room has now also, in great measure, been superseded, at least in name; but 'even in its ashes live its wonted fires,' for its figures have been cut up to form new quadrilles" (qtd. in Aldrich 145). (5) Like the cotillion, Persuasion occupies a space between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the novel both structurally and thematically follows and deviates from eighteenth-century traditions. (6)

The role of the square formation in country-dance has been emphasized here because Persuasion is modeled on this dance form. …

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