A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and Her Characters Went to the Ball by Susannah Fullerton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Physically, this is an absolutely lovely book – the layout, illustrations, paper are all delightful. I also really enjoyed the “play by play” of all the dance scenes in each of Austen’s novels, as well as details on the dress and social customs of Austen’s time. I really wanted to love this book, but I have two major issues with it. Firstly, I found it to be a bit repetitive, with the same material reappearing in successive chapters. Because the writing is smooth and entertaining, I could have lived with that.
However, my second, and major complaint is with the coverage of the actual dances themselves. I have been involved with modern English country dancing since the late 1970′s, and while I’m no historical expert, I do think Fullerton should have attended some English country dances and balls herself, as well as interviewed dance callers and experts in the field. If she did indeed do so, that is not reflected in the final descriptions.
The amount of actual material on the dances, associated music, and choreographic details makes for less than a full chapter, but perhaps that is just as well. The author makes it sound as if all dances were triple minors, and that the majority of the dancers were standing still throughout the course of the dance, with only the initial top, or active, couple and two other couples at a time dancing. If this was, indeed, the way things were done, I will stand corrected; if not, Fullerton needed to do more research and make her writing clearer.
Austen fans will still find much to like about this book, and I would recommend it to my English dance friends as well – but please let me know if I’m totally off base here. I would love to see Fullerton do justice to the dance section, do some more extensive, detailed research, and produce a second, expanded/corrected edition.
reviewed by Carol Ansel
View all my reviews
Update: Many thanks to dancer Kris Howe for directing me to Susan de Guardiola’s informative blog. It appears that Fullerton was on the right track, but Susan’s explanation is much more detailed and illustrative. While the dances were initiated by the top couple, eventually, as they worked their way down the set, the entire group did end up dancing. And while triple minors would have been the only country dances (Playford’s duple minors would have been seen as hopelessly old-fashioned and out-of-date), they would have also done cotillions (in square formation), and the Boulanger (which Fullerton does explain well).