Sunday, 29 April 2018

Jane Austen and the Bath spring fashions of 1801

In May of 1801 Jane Austen wrote to her sister from the Paragon:

'Mrs Mussell has got my gown, & I will endeavour to explain what her intentions are.'

Mrs Mussel was a dressmaker and milliner of 9 Queen Street. She was married to the hairdresser William Mussell.

'It is to be a round gown with a jacket'

A round gown was a gown with no centre front opening in the skirt. The round gown was a simple style and it was the precursor to the Empire line gowns which are now what is generally seen as "Jane Austen or Regency style".

'& a frock front, like Cath: Bigg's'

Catherine Biggs and her sisters Elizabeth and Aletha were particular friends of the Austen sisters. They were the daughters of Lovelace Bigg-Withers of Manydown Park, Wootton St Lawrence, Hampshire. The next year after this letter was written their brother Harris would propose marriage to Jane.

A Drawing of Marydown Park in 1833

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

How far apart should you stand in Regency Country Dances?

The London dancing master Thomas Wilson in his 1825 book "The Complete System of English Country Dancing" writes:


The proper distance of the lines formed by the Ladies and Gentlemen from each other is about four feet and a half, and the distance of the respective couples from each other is about two feet and a half.
The proper distance and the keeping of the lines truly parallel is necessary to the correct performance of the Figures, every person in the set having thereby an opportunity of seeing the various evolutions of the Figure performed by the leading couple, which very frequently proves of the greatest utility to those persons in the Dance unacquainted with the Figures, and prevents the confusion that would otherwise occur.'

The average modern person has a shoulder width of around 18 inches. Applying this to Wilsons numbers and adding a foot to allow for depth means that 3 couples will require a space of approximately 58 square feet just to stand.

Wilson's reference to the 'seeing the various evolutions' reminds us that, unlike modern balls, the Georgian practice was for the top couple to chose the figures and other would join in as they progressed down the set.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

First impressions of Balls at the Assembly Rooms in the 1790s

Minuets became less and less popular during Jane Austen’s time in Bath. A clue to why might be found in this quote from a letter in the Bath library describing a ball in the Upper Rooms in 1792:

“It was amazingly crowded, although the minuets had not begun, so much so that we found some difficulty to get seats. I was very much entertained with the bad minuet dancers especially with a Mr Badcock who was obliged to stand up with seven or eight Ladies successively, to the great diversion of the spectators. I believe there were twenty minuets which was rather tiresome, but at last the Country Dances began”

Fancy Balls were a new innovation designed to combat the decline in attendances at the Cotillion Balls of the previous decade and an increasing resistance to the rigid dress codes. Fancy Balls were, in Georgian terms, much more relaxed occasions Ladies could appear in hats or make any other elegant fashion statement they pleased, short of actual fancy dress costumes. Fancy balls started with a country dance, after which there was one Cotillion only, and then tea – after tea, a country dance, one Cotillion only and the evening ended with more country dances, and the Long Minuet famously illustrated by Henry Bunbury.

Cotillions were danced in a square formation, by four couples, and consisted of a number of relatively simple standard verses in between which was danced a chorus that denoted a particular cotillion. The dance had its own vocabulary of step and in particular punctuation steps such as the rigadon. The dance involved a lot of exchanges of partners and opportunities to show off to and acknowledge members of the opposite sex. However, cotillions take a long time to dance and involve a lot of repetition.

In the 1790s, Dress and fancy balls in the Upper Rooms began as soon as possible after seven o’clock and concluded precisely at 11 even in the middle of a dance. These times were slightly different at the different rooms and the start times were altered slightly over time probably to accommodate shifting fashions for private parties.

In 1797 the 22-year-old Jane Austen visited Bath and it is possible that the description of a first ball at the Upper Rooms in Northanger Abbey is drawn from this visit. Certainly, her description of the Upper Rooms is in keeping with both contemporary illustrations and written descriptions in letters and diaries.

“Mrs Allen was so long in dressing that they did not enter the ballroom till late. The season was full, the room crowded and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr Allen, he repaired directly to the card-room and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves.”

Struggling through the crowd they hoped to find seats and

“watch the dances with perfect convenience,”

 but even when they gained the top of the room,

 “they saw nothing of the dancers but the high feathers of some of the ladies.”

By continual exertion of strength and ingenuity, they found themselves at last in the passage behind the highest bench, and Miss Morland gained a comprehensive view of all the company beneath her.

“. .. It was a splendid sight and she began for the first time that evening, to feel herself at a ball: she longed to dance, but she had not an acquaintance in the room.”

It is interesting to compare this fictional description of the 17-year-old Catherine Morland’s experiences based on those of the 22-year-old Jane Austen with the description of a first ball at the Upper Rooms by the 15-year-old Elizabeth Canning writing to her mother the redoubtable Mehitabel Canning.

“at length a little past seven arrived and we set sail, were soon safe landed, at the Upper Rooms. By that time I felt all impatience to be in the Ball room, & was picturing to myself all the charms I could conceive, such a place to have, when we entered it. I was fully gratified, for to be sure I never saw so brilliant an assembly. It was amazingly crowded, although the minuets had not begun, so much so that we found some difficulty to get seats.”

After watching the Minuets

“there was a great humming & hawing whether or no I should dance. If I could get a partner, I felt at first as if I should be afraid but the sound of the music did so insinuate itself into my ears, that all idea of fear took itself off & I declared to Mrs Leigh  that I should like to dance, if I could get some mighty smart partner”

After a break for tea

“Mrs Leigh was not unmindful of her little niece, for she sent her good man to look for some dapper little personage for me & indeed he succeeded very well, for he soon brought us a Young Gentleman of about fifteen the smartest little mister you ever saw. When I perceived the gentleman I began to fear lest I should be obliged to accept him, but might have saved myself that trouble, for the pride of the old aunts was up at the idea of my making my first company with a lump of a boy”

After this unfortunate start

“Mr Leigh was dispatched after two or three dapper people that Mrs L had in her mind’s eye for me, among the rest Sir William Andre.”

Sir William was 32 and had become a Baronet when his brother was executed as a spy by the Americans.

“we were standing on the upper bench, so that we could all around the room to where we saw Mr Leigh rushing about till he got to Sir W and there was a little parleying and then they walked together as if coming towards us. Then my heart began to palpitate half afraid and yet wishing to dance but after being kept in suspense for some time Mr Leigh returned to us unsuccessful as for Sir William he had refused several ladies already & could not possibly dance then without offending them, another was engaged, & a third was tired, so among them your poor little pixie was obliged to content herself without cutting capers. Which indeed I did not much lament as, as the heat was so great that I almost doubt I should not have been able to have got down the dance, but the next time I go to a Ball now that I know the manoeuvres of it I shall get them to look out for a partner earlier in the evening, and then I shall have a better chance. Altogether I was very well satisfied with the evening’s amusements and came home in very good spirits, to supper, between eleven and twelve. I slept very well & dreamt all night of the fine rooms.”

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Sherwood Grove a dance from 1788

"Book XX for the Year 1788 Eight Cotillions, six country dances and a favorite new minuet with their proper figures for the Harp, Harpsichord and Violin as Performed at the Prince of Wales's and other Grand Balls and Assemblies warmly dedicated to the Nobility & Gentry (subscribers to Willis's Rooms Festino &Co by JNo Fentum,"

The Prince of Wales was later to become George IV and was known for his extravagant entertainments. In 1788 he was about to face his first great political challenge with his father's first bout of mental instability precipitating what became know as the Regency Crisis.

Willis's Rooms had previously been known as Almack's and continued to be referred to by both names until well into the nineteenth century.Willis's was primarily a gambling club to which women were admitted, as well as men. Male members proposed and elected the female members, and women proposed and elected the male members. It was also famous for its balls which were attended by the cream of Regency society.

Festino is Italian for a feast or party and it is not clear whether Fetum is referring to particular entertainments at Willis's Rooms or the reference is to The Hanover Square Rooms run by Giovanni Andrea Battista Gallini an Italian dancer, choreographer and impresario which was colloquially known as Festino.

John Fentum was probably the son of Jonathan Fentum who had set up as an instrument maker and seller in premises located at 78 The Strand in 1762. John took over the premises and the business around 1784. In addition to instruments, John sold music, tickets for musical entertainments and was also an accomplished violinist and violist. In the 1787-1788 season, he received £4 4s for playing violin in concerts of the Academy of Ancient Music. It is also probable that he played in the band at Willis's Rooms.

F Werner was Francis Werner formally harpist, dancing master and Master of the Ceremonies at Willis's and the Hanover Rooms who had for some years published collections of fashionable dance music and figures.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Astley's Flag a Dance from 1816

In the collection of dances 'Treasures of Terpsichore" published in 1816 by the London dancing master Thomas Wilson appears a dance called Astley's Flag

Philip Astley's who had died in 1814 was an English equestrian, circus owner, and inventor, regarded as being the "father of the modern circus". The circus industry, as a presenter of an integrated entertainment experience that includes music, domesticated animals, acrobats, and clowns, traces its heritage to Astley's Amphitheatre, a riding school that Astley founded in London following the success of his invention of the circus ring in 1768.

The flag referred to may be the flag that is shown flying over the Amphitheatre in some contemporary illustrations or possible refers to a bet, won by Astley when he floated down the Thames on his back, a flag in each hand, from Westminster to Blackfriars Bridge.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Italian monfrina a dance from 1816

Monferrina is a lively Italian folk dance in 6/8 time named after the place of its origin, Montferrat, in the Italian region of Piedmont. It has spread from Piedmont throughout Northern Italy, in Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and even into Switzerland. In Piedmont, it is usually accompanied by singing and it is danced by several couples.It became popular in England around 1800 under the names monfrina, monfreda, and manfredina.

The dance starts with two circular promenades by couples arm-in-arm using a lively march step. The individual couples then join both hands for a cross-step with bent knees. The dance often contains bows and mimed teasing and coaxing.

A version of this dance is found in TREASURES OF TERPSICHORE published in 1816 by the London dancing master Thomas Wilson.

Italian Monfrina.

Single Figure.
Cast off two couple and back again down the middle, up again, and right and

Double Figure.
Chase round two couple back again promenade three couple and pousset two
Or thus:

Set and change sides and back again whole figure at top, swing with right hand
round one couple, then with the left and hands six half round and back again.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Miss Dillons Waltz a dance from circa 1810

A dance from Goulding & Co.'s Collection of new & favorite. Country Dances, Reels & Waltzes, arranged for the Piano Forte and Flute or Patent Flageolet, by John Parry.

Goulding & Co. This important firm was started by George Goulding, who was probably in business before 1784. He issued sheet-songs from the pantomime of Don Juan, performed in 1787, and other sheet music of about the same period. His address at this time was at " The Haydn's Head, No. 6, James Street, Covent Garden," and shortly afterward an additional one at  17, Great Turnstile, Holborn. About 1790 this latter was replaced by one at 113,  Bishopgate Street. From  James Street, he issued annual sets of twenty-four dances in oblong octavo.

The new firm was styled Goulding & Co., or Goulding, Phipps, & D'Almaine, and they became music sellers to the Prince and Princess of Wales. In 1803 they took additional premises at
76, St. James Street, and in 1804-5 had given both these addresses up and removed to 117, New Bond Street, with an agency at 7, Westmoreland Street, Dublin. In 1808-9 the number in' New Bond Street was changed to 124. About this time Phipps retired from the concern and probably commenced a business oil his own account. The firm was now Goulding, D'Almaine, & Potter.

John Parry was born in Denbigh, in northern Wales, the son of a stonemason. He taught himself to play the fife on an instrument that he made himself from a piece of cane, and a dance-master who lived nearby taught him the rudiments of the clarinet, which he used to accompany singers in church.

In 1793, Parry joined the Denbighshire militia's volunteers' band, becoming its conductor in 1797. He became a master of the harp, the clarinet, and the flageolet and learned to play many other instruments. In 1807, he left the band and settled in London, where his son, the entertainer John Orlando Parry, was born. At a concert at Covent Garden, in the same year, he performed on two flageolets set together in a frame. It is thought that this inspired the flageolet-maker William Bainbridge to invent his double-flageolet. Parry subsequently became this instrument's most famous player, teacher, and proponent. By 1809, he began to compose and publish vocal compositions, especially ballads, and simple pieces for the harp and piano, as well as duets for flute and other wind instruments. He also became a facile orchestrator. The same year, he was appointed the musical director at Vauxhall Gardens and composed much of the music performed there.

The Dillons were an Hiberno-Norman landlord family from the 13th century in a part of County Westmeath called 'Dillon's Country'. Viscount Dillon, of Costello-Gallen in the County of Mayo, is a title in the Peerage of Ireland.