(Not)Dancing With One’s Wife

In “The Laws of Etiquette; Or, Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society” written in 1836 in the US by a Gentleman there’s this paragraph:

If you accompany your wife to a dance, be careful not to dance with her. Such are some of the canons of the ball.

Does anyone know if it was the same in England in Austen’s times? Or if there was such a rule in reference to private balls, was it also valid for public assemblies?

Waltz, 1817

Waltz, 1817

I looked through Emma, and indeed, it seems that husbands and wives are not dancing with each other. When Frank plans the ball he says: “You [Emma] and Miss Smith, and Miss Fairfax, will be three, and the two Miss Coxes five, (…) And there will be the two Gilberts, young Cox, my father [Mr. Weston], and myself [Frank Churchill], besides Mr. Knightley.”

He counts married gentlemen but not married women. Also, somebody else observes that Mrs. Gilbert would have danced at the Coles if she had been asked, which means her husband didn’t ask her. Then Mr. Weston opens the ball with Mrs. Elton, but Mrs. Weston isn’t dancing at all. Mr. Elton dances with other women, and then parades in front of Harriet in order to snub her by not asking her. When Mrs. Weston approaches him he says he’s ready to dance with herself, to which she replies she’s not dancing. He’s also ready to dance with Mrs. Gilbert who’s not dancing either. His offence is only in not dancing with Harriet because she’s single.

The Westons behave very well, since they’re giving the ball. However, the same isn’t certain about Frank, since he dances the dance when Harriet is snubbed with Jane Fairfax who likely was more popular than Harriet. The same author says:

“For any of the members, either sons or daughters, of the family at whose house the ball is given, to dance frequently or constantly, denotes decided ill-breeding: the women should not occupy those places in a quadrille which others certainly wish to fill, and they should, moreover, be at leisure to attend to the rest of the company; and the men should be entertaining the married women and those who do not dance. The latter, when they dance, should select those women who are somewhat passees and not in much request, and should procure partners for them, pressing into service those interesting young gentlemen that hang around the room like fossils.”

When one thinks about it that’s also what Sir William did telling Darcy to dance with Lizzy at his soiree. I still wonder about public assemblies though. Suddenly all the business with Georgiana’s coming out looks like a nightmare, since Darcy would have to attend the balls but wouldn’t be allowed to dance with Lizzy.

The same book also says that members of one family invited somewhere shouldn’t be seen conversing with one another.

ETA: In the meantime Nancy from Janeites confirmed that indeed husbands and wives weren’t allowed to dance together.

sm-plusPosted by Sylwia
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4 thoughts on “(Not)Dancing With One’s Wife

  1. \o/

    This is not good news for really lots of stories out there!

    In any case I suspect (though I’ve nothing to base this on) that only few people followed this kind of rules _to the letter_. They’re too stringent.

  2. Actually we had a discussion about it on Janeites and it seems that everyone did. I think we need to realise that socialising back then was more a duty than a pleasant outing. So it’s not just not dancing together. It’s also not standing on a side and talking together etc. It refers to married couples as well as brothers and sisters. People went out to socialise and take care of everyone’s pleasure, not just their own. Or rather it was assumed that everyone was pleased only when everybody kept interacting and taking care of others. In a way it’s still practiced today. I.e. no one places a married couple side by side during an official dinner. They are there to talk with others, not with each other, but we’re no longer strict about the dancing thing.

    It’s not so much on the “scandal” side as on the courtesy one. A man would slight a young lady by dancing with his wife rather than her. A single woman should be asked before a married one. It seems that every young lady had her time to exhibit. Remember that there was nothing intimate about dancing back then. It was rather an elegant exercise.

    But no, it’s not pleasant news. I was immediately sorry for Darcy and Elizabeth. I think that the only sense he ever saw in dancing was when it was with her. But then, as a married man, he’s free to go to the card room, while Elizabeth will keep an eye on Georgiana. 😉

  3. Pingback: Ballroom Etiquette « Mending My Own Pen

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