In an age when popular culture would have us believe that anything before DVDs is ancient history, that it’s only other people who have a cultural heritage, and that its more important to be outrageous, ground-breaking and cool, than considerate, accomplished or gentle, many are discovering the satisfaction that can be had by better understanding the past and bring forward from it elements that appeal. In this regard, the age of Jane Austen has proved particularly attractive to modern day young men and women. Whereas the fashions of the 18th century and late 19th century might seem weird or cruel, those high-waisted gowns and squire-like tails from the first decades of the 19th century seem romantic. Where the social order of the 18th century seems alien, and that of the late 19th century torn sooted by the industrial revolution, that of the first decades of Jane Austen’s age seem more egalitarian. Where the dancing of the 18th century is imagined to be all courtly and stiff, and that of the late 19th century all black-tie and formal, that of the Jane’s day seems plain fun. The age’s accessibility is further enhanced of course by the themes, characters, plots and good humour of Jane Austen’s novels and by the many engaging recent screen adaptations of those novels.
Perhaps we might demonstrate the attraction of the Festival by turning to just one element of it. One of the main interests of Jane Austen’s day, and indeed of Jane Austen herself, was dancing, and dance workshops and balls fill the dance hall all day on Friday and Saturday of the Festival, there is a grand Jane Austen Ball on Saturday night and an afternoon Cotillion Ball on Sunday. Dance teacher and historian Dr John Gardiner-Garden make joining in and learning easy and fun, and people soon realise why it is observed in Pride and Prejudice, that ‘To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love’ and ‘There is nothing like dancing after all. -- I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies’. Participants start to understand why Austen novels why it is noted in Persuasion ‘thirteen winters’ revolving frosts had seen her opening every ball of credit which a scanty neighborhood afforded’, why in Mansfield Park Fanny ‘found herself the next moment conducted by Mr. Crawford to the top of the room, and standing there to be joined by the rest of the dancers, couple after couple, as they were formed’, and why Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland's clever dance partner Mr Tilney says: ‘I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principle duties of both; and those men who do not chuse to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours’ and why when this comparison is challenged on the grounds that ‘people that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together’ but ‘People that dance, only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour’, he goes on to argue:
‘You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with anyone else.’
Participants in the Jane Austen Festival dance workshops and balls start to appreciate why in Emma the heroine expected to open the ball but ‘must submit to stand second to’ [the newly-wed] ‘Mrs. Elton, though she had always considered the ball as peculiarly for her’ and why ‘It was almost enough to make her think of marrying’. Indeed, invariably these workshops, balls, and indeed our Festival end with people wanting more, for as is also remarked in Emma:
‘It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind; - but when a beginning is made - when the felicities of rapid motion have once been, though slightly, felt - it must be a very heavy set that does not ask for more.’