Literature and Dance in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Jane Austen to the New Woman.
By Cheryl A. Wilson.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, April 2009. ISBN-978-0-521-51909-0, $90.00. 220 pages.
Review by Luca Caddia, Independent Scholar
According to Alexander Pope, who has deserved the epigraph of this book, “those move easiest who have learned to dance” (1). Whatever mobility Pope refers to, Cheryl A. Wilson soon clarifies in her introduction that her study privileges certain aspects of the culture of dance, such as upper-class and urban entertainments. This leads her book to focus on the discipline of social dance, which turns the individual body into public discourse and imbues literary works with a range of social, political, and national concerns. In particular, the subjects she privileges are those by which feminist cultural studies are usually informed, including gender construction and social mobility, so that this book could also be defined as a study of the body politics of nineteenth-century ballrooms.
Wilson has devoted the first two chapters to a comprehension of the culture of nineteenth-century dance through the analysis of dance masters and Almack’s Lady Patronesses, two complementary categories of gender construction and destabilization. In the first chapter, for example, she highlights the idiosyncratic position of dance masters within upper-class life: often depicted as effeminate figures who eschew traditional manly employment (i.e. Dickens’s Mr. Turveydrop in Bleak House, 1853), they also figure as social arbiters through their dance manuals, which include instructions to ensure that participants in a ball behave appropriately. However, especially in the emergence of scandalous dances such as the waltz, “the dance manual emerges as a text that simultaneously affirms the need to police physical bodies and promotes transgressive behaviors” (29). Indeed, whereas social dance contributes to gender socialization and construction, it also has the potential to destabilize gender norms: while German cotillion “gives [women] the rare chance of showing their preferences” (33), figures like ‘Blind-man’s Bluff’ do incorporate descriptions of same-sex couplings” (34).
The second chapter is dedicated to Almack’s, the most fashionable club in Regency London. Wilson explains how institutions such as Almack’s react against changes in class boundaries by reveling around the fashionable aristocracy. Yet the Lady Patronesses, the aristocratic ladies who assumed an authorial role in its organization, complicate the “separate spheres” ideology by exercising political influence and arranging marriages. The chapter discusses the satirized authorial role of the Lady Patronesses through fashionable novels such as The Exclusives (1830), by Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury, and Almack’s: A Novel (1826), by Marianne Spencer Stanhope. This is perhaps the part of the book where Wilson’s own authoriality proves more reliable, especially when compared to her analysis of Jane Austen’s Emma (1816). Perhaps this happens not because Wilson has not understood Emma, but because the purposes of her chapter (a comparison between the social codes of Almack’s and those of Highbury) lead her to focus too much on a constrained comparison between Emma and Mrs Eldon that favors the former instead of treating Emma’s own unfulfilled matchmaking pretentions as the major topic it is in the economy of the novel. Indeed, if it is debatable that “Emma employs a system of admission designed to promote her own desires and in doing so positions herself in an authorial role” (65), this does not mean that “Emma displays a critical self-consciousness” (66). On the contrary, by eventually giving up to Mr Knightley’s moral authority, Emma abandons her patronizing pretentions and learns not to impose her views on others. Wilson has clearly realized this, but since her conclusion contradicts most of her previous discourse, this part of the chapter is not as strong as that devoted to silver-fork novels.
Each of the following three chapters is devoted to a single social dance as described in a significant selection of nineteenth-century fiction, which shows that, instead of compiling a catalogue raisonné of all the nineteenth-century novels where social dance has a prominent part, Wilson has chosen texts in which the relationship between literature and dance can be analyzed in narrative terms. The social dances selected in the book are the English country dance, the quadrille, and the waltz. Despite its name, the term country dance derives from the French “contredanse, which referred to the two lines of dancers standing across one another” (71). This highlights the divisions inherent in such a dance, which authors like Austen, Thackeray,and Eliot employ to consider social ideas concerning class, gender, and nation. In particular, the subchapter dedicated to Vanity Fair (1848) is particularly convincing in its attention to the French-English conflict, especially if one considers, as Wilson does, that Becky Sharp may prove unable to complete her turn through the country dance because it is a symbol of English national identity. Also striking is the way Wilson’s reading of Northanger Abbey (1798-9) manages to match that of Adam Bede (1859): indeed, the social and sexual dangers carefully avoided by Austen are sympathetically explored by Eliot by means of an intertwining of the social and the marriage plot through country dance.
The book proves even more convincing in the following chapter, which shows how, compared to the English country dance, “the quadrille embodies changing cultural perceptions concerning nation […] and enables authors to employ time, space, and physicality to advance a consideration of social mobility” (105). This is certainly true of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) and was also magnificently realized by Andrew Davies when, in his 2001 adaptation of the novel, he had a self-confident Prince George dance with the awkward Mrs Melmotte. As regards Trollope, it might have been useful for Wilson to mention Rachel Ray (1863), a pretty novel on provincial life where the waltz is employed to express the same concerns about sexuality and social mobility advocated by Wilson’s last chapter, which prefers to rely on dance-less works like Aurora Leigh (1856) instead. But who writes is far from complaining: this book is properly orchestrated and remarkable for its insightful reading, and considering Wilson’s desire to be acknowledged as a Lady Patroness herself, she can be more than satisfied with the result.