Henry Tilney comments to Catherine Morland at the Bath Assembly, “‘I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage’” (NA 76). His inclination to dance suggests his interest in romance, for, as Austen declares in Pride and Prejudice, “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love” (9). Jane Austen liked to dance and excelled in the art, and so it is not surprising that her novels are filled with dances. As Joan Grigsby claims, “Dancing, whether in assemblies, in private balls, or even for impromptu evening entertainment, sparkles through the pages of Jane Austen’s six finished novels like candles on a Christmas tree” (118).
Dances do more, however, than add sparkle to Austen’s novels: they provide a metaphor for marriage. In all her novels Austen employs dancing to choreograph courtship, the subject of Mr. Elton’s charade in Emma, including in Northanger Abbey, where dancing constitutes a form of courtship leading to marriage. As Darrell Mansell claims, “Her novels are more like ballroom dances than like anyone’s conception of life in the raw. They present the relationship between the sexes in a graceful, restrained and highly stylised form of art that has developed in polite society” (48).
The truth of Tilney’s claim is borne out by Austen’s use of the patterns of country dance to choreograph the courtship of her hero and heroine as she structures their developing relationship through five dance scenes in the Bath section of the novel. I will also explore Tilney’s comparison of country dance to marriage and explain how the dynamics of the characters’ relationships inside the ballroom are replicated outside the ballroom.
The importance of dance to Austen’s society
To comprehend the significance of dancing in Northanger Abbey we must understand the importance of dance to Austen’s society. Cheryl Wilson explains that Northanger Abbey is in dialogue with the widespread cultural phenomenon of country dance, which was at the height of its popularity in the 1790s, through its awareness of social hierarchy and depiction of women’s limited mobility within that hierarchy” (79). In discussing “The Culture of Dance,” she addresses the prevalence of dance manuals, dance masters, and dance instruction, as dance masters enjoyed social mobility similar to clergymen. Even children were taught dances and encouraged to attend balls, as we see in The Watsons.1
Dancing allowed eligible young women and men to “try out” partnerships. As Jacqueline Reid-Walsh observes, “It was commonly accepted during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that ballrooms were arenas of courtship” (115). Austen employs the proposal to imply a parallel between dancing and marriage by using the same terminology for both: the man offers his hand, engaging the woman as his partner both in the ballroom and in life. Austen emphasizes the parallel by having Mrs. Allen repeat the word “partner,” saying, “‘I wish you could get a partner’” (21), “‘I should get you a partner.—I should be so glad to have you dance’” (23), and “‘I wish we could have got a partner for her. . . . I am so sorry she has not had a partner!’” (23). Catherine is “disappointed in her hope of re-seeing her partner,” and later asks Mrs. Allen, “‘And is Mr. Tilney, my partner, the only son?’” (35, 69). The parallel is reinforced when, remonstrating with Isabella regarding her brother John Thorpe’s marital intentions, Catherine says that her only indication of his intention to propose marriage has been his inviting her to dance. On his visit to Fullerton, Tilney “offered [Catherine] his hand” after declaring to his father “his intention of offering her his hand” (244, 248). Timothy Dow Adams concludes, “When we realize how frequently dancing and courtship are connected in the novels, we begin to see the terrible importance of getting a partner both for the dance and for life” (57).
Northanger Abbey could be subtitled A Sentimental Education, to borrow Laurence Sterne’s title, for, as Austen declares at the outset, Catherine Morland is “in training for a heroine” (15). As in other Austen novels, where the hero, the heroine’s elder, functions as her instructor—most notably in Emma, where Mr. George Knightley chastises Emma Woodhouse for so cruelly mocking Miss Bates’s garrulousness at the Box Hill picnic—Henry Tilney, with his sister Eleanor, acts as Catherine’s tutor, instructing her in how to behave at a ball as well as how to appreciate history and novels, how to comprehend landscape painting and perspective, and finally, how to distinguish reality from gothic fiction. This lesson catalyzes an awakening in Catherine similar to that inspired in Elizabeth Bennet by Darcy’s letter. The fact that Catherine requires tutelage and is aware of the fact is made clear when she asks Mr. Allen about the propriety of driving out with a young man in an open carriage. Thus, along with its courtship narrative, Northanger Abbey provides an instruction manual for young ladies who wish to know how to comport themselves in the ballroom and in society, with the Tilneys and the Thorpes providing good and bad examples.
The patterns of English country dance
To appreciate Austen’s skill, we must understand the principles of country dance, so popular when she was composing Northanger Abbey. Couples lined up facing one another and danced up and down the line, separating and reuniting, turning and even kissing one another, and then casting off each partner in favor of another, until they returned to their original partners, as described in Playford’s English Dancing Master (1658–1725). Cecil J. Sharpe, in The Country Dance Book, says, “flirtation or coquetry lies at the root of nearly all of its figures and evolutions” (10). Such scenes render Austen’s novels highly cinematic, as several films adaptations can verify.
Austen employs three specific patterns of country dance to structure her narrative: first, the practice of moving up and down the line, replicating the social hierarchy; second, the pattern of changing partners; and, third, the equality of the sexes, as I will explain below, and as film clips from the 1987 and 2007 film adaptations illustrate.
The term “country dance” derives from the French term “contre-danse,” so called because men and women lined up facing each other in a “longewayes” set, as in a Virginia reel (Playford 1). In A Jane Austen Companion, B. F. Pinion writes, “The usual dance was the country-dance, so called because partners formed the set in two lines, the gentlemen opposite the ladies” (48). He explains its hierarchical nature:
The leading lady “called” or selected both the tune and the figure. While she and her partner danced from the top to the bottom of the set, followed at a suitable interval by the next couple, the other pairs of dancers moved up, spending their time as enjoyably as they could in conversation; so the dance proceeded, each couple moving to the top in turn. When all had danced and the first couple regained their position at the top, the dance was over. The leading couple then moved to the bottom for the next dance. (48).
Thus, the pattern of the country dance, wherein gentlemen and ladies move up and down the line, reflects the social hierarchy, for it replicates climbing the social ladder, a critical theme in Northanger Abbey, as Catherine advances in society, beginning as a country parson’s daughter and eventually joining the Tilney family, as Isabella Thorpe hopes to do. David Daiches observes, “How ruthless is the clarity with which Jane Austen observes and records the economic realities underlying this graceful social dance!” He adds, “Yet the atmosphere of the novels does remain that of a comedy. There is almost what might be called a ballet movement in many of them” (291).
Manners were viewed as an outward indication of morals, and one’s performance on the dance floor was a spectacular example. Participants’ skill in performing the dances signaled their potential success or failure in ascending the ranks of society. As Reid-Walsh affirms, “Ballroom scenes are central to Jane Austen’s novels for they provide public arenas where the characters reveal both their degree of accomplishment in surface manners and their inner courtesy or vulgarity” (115). Cheryl Wilson posits that dancing spectacularizes the female, for those engaged in watching the dance as a spectacle are able to view the female body in all its performativity (16, 39). Thus, balls allowed women increased social and sexual power. Austen invokes the male gaze when Catherine notices General Tilney observing her as she dances with his son.
The principle of changing partners is central to country dance and to Northanger Abbey. G. E. Mitton explains the Bath Assembly ballroom etiquette: “Everything was to be performed in proper order. Each ball was to open with a minuet danced by two persons of the highest distinction present. When the minuet concluded the lady was to return to her seat, and Mr. Nash was to bring the gentleman a new partner” (223). In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland is pre-engaged by John Thorpe, while her brother James partners Isabella Thorpe, until Catherine is reunited with her life partner, Henry Tilney. Thorpe’s disruption of the hero and heroine’s dancing is replicated in his interference in their courtship. (Catherine’s kindly allowing Henry Tilney’s sister, Eleanor, to join her set prefigures their becoming more closely related.) Although Isabella is well aware of the rules of etiquette governing the ballroom, complaining to Catherine that her brother is too solicitous—“‘He wants me to dance with him again, though I tell him that it is a most improper thing, and entirely against the rules. It would make us the talk of the place, if we were not to change partners’” (57, emphasis added)—nevertheless, when monopolized by Captain Tilney, she cheerfully flouts the proscriptions. Although country dance involved changing partners, dancers ultimately returned to their original partner—something that Isabella fails to do—a failure that has further repercussions in her romantic life.
Equality is the third aspect of the country dance that Austen’s narrative reflects. Henry Tilney’s qualification as a hero is his belief in the equality of the sexes, of which contre-danse is an emblem, as he declares: “‘In every power, of which taste is the foundation, excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes’” (28). Reid-Walsh considers country dance not just “an emblem of marriage” but an “‘emblem’ of equality” (116), citing Thomas Wilson, dancing master of the King’s Theatre Opera House in London during the Regency, who argues in his 1816 Companion to the Ball Room, “Both women and men are equal agents while dancing, their movements are largely in parallel, synchronized and in exact balance to one another, . . . [reflecting] the symmetry between the women and men because they perform the same steps as mirror images of one another” (cited in Reid-Walsh 116–17). Reid-Walsh opines that country dancing represents for Catherine “a period of suspended inequality, a time of temporary freedom and equity and an emblem of the autonomy of both partners while they dance” (120). Catherine, enjoying this period of suspended inequality, demonstrates greater temerity in disagreeing with Tilney’s comparison than she would likely display if they were to meet outside the ballroom.
The ballroom scenes in both the 1986 BBC and the 2007 Masterpiece Theatre adaptations demonstrate ladies and gentlemen lined up facing each other, advancing and retreating, forming circular patterns, and changing partners, but always returning to their original partners.2
© 1987 BBC
The 1987 BBC adaptation—written by Maggie Wadey, directed by Giles Foster, and starring Peter Firth and Katherine Schlesinger—shows couples lined up longways, turning and clapping, circling in groups of eight, changing partners, and finally returning to their original partners. The dancers form a set of eight, hold hands, skip in a circle, and then circle with their own partners. The four couples form a square, and, after approaching and bowing to the couple opposite, first the women and then the men change partners, finally returning to their original partners. Meanwhile, we see John Thorpe ogling Catherine and addressing General Tilney about her, as well as Isabella Thorpe’s flirtation with Captain Frederick Tilney. Catherine and Henry Tilney promenade together, his arm around her waist, while he delivers a short version of his speech comparing country dancing with marriage, suggesting that he is proposing marriage to Catherine, although she disagrees with his analogy. After he explains man’s power of choice versus woman’s power of refusal, she retorts, “Do not underestimate woman’s power of refusal.”
© 2007 WGBH/Granada
The 2007 WGBH/ Granada film adaptation—written by Andrew Davies, directed by Jon Jones, and starring Felicity Jones, JJ Feild, and Carey Mulligan—also portrays Catherine dancing and conversing with Henry Tilney, while being ogled by John Thorpe, as Mr. Allen consults Mr. King about Henry Tilney, and Eleanor Tilney, dressed all in white, observes the dancing. After two couples hold hands, skip in a circle, and separate into individual couples, Henry and Catherine link arms and walk off, in conversation, but Davies, as mentioned above, does not include Henry’s famous speech.
Structuring the courtship through five dance scenes
Just as Austen structures the courtship of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy in volume 1 of Pride and Prejudice through four dance scenes, so she structures the courtship of Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney in the Bath section of Northanger Abbey through five Assembly scenes (Stovel). Catherine enters the Upper Rooms in high hopes: “She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already” (19), but “our heroine’s entrée into life” (20) is marred as her chaperone, Mrs. Allen, has no acquaintance in Bath; she only wishes that she could get a partner for Catherine so that she could dance, to spare her “the discredit of wanting a partner” (53). But as Austen’s narrator earlier interjects, “[w]hen a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way” (16–17).
On her second visit, this time to the Lower Rooms, Catherine is rescued by the Master of Ceremonies, Mr. King, who partners her serendipitously with “a very gentlemanlike young man” named Tilney (25), who, Mr. Allen learns, is a clergyman from a respectable Gloucestershire family. Thus, while Mrs. Allen bemoans her torn muslin and wishes she could find a partner for Catherine, Mr. Allen, by appealing to Mr. King, actually does find her a partner—not only for the dance, but for life.
Henry Tilney is extremely eligible—so eligible that one wonders why he has not been snaffled up long since. No sooner are the author’s duties to her reader so felicitously fulfilled, however, than the plot first thins through Tilney’s disappearance from the ballroom in the third Assembly scene and then thickens through the interference of John Thorpe, that “rattle” (50) with a gig, who mortifies Catherine by monopolizing her and preventing her from dancing with Tilney in the fourth Assembly scene (55).
Catherine learns to her sorrow that being pre-engaged does not necessarily bring bliss, especially when one has been matched with the wrong partner, one who ignores the etiquette of the ballroom, abandoning her to the ignominy of the wallflower in favor of the gaming table. Thomas Wilson cautions in his 1816 Companion to the Ball Room, “Snapping the fingers, in country Dancing and Reels, and the sudden howl or yell too frequently practiced, ought particularly to be avoided” (244, qtd. in Reid-Walsh 117). Although Thorpe eschews howling, his exaggerated “scrape” (45) and bow to Catherine would not please Thomas Wilson, who proscribed awkward behavior. Cheryl Wilson, citing James P. Cassidy’s 1810 A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Dancing, observes, “Here, Austen engages dance manual descriptions of elegant deportment, which condemn John’s overdone antics” (80). Austen employs Thorpe as an amusing model of how not to behave at a ball—including his abandoning Catherine as his pre-engaged dancing partner in favor of the card table and interrupting her dancing with Tilney—in contrast to Henry, whose ballroom behavior is impeccable.
Henry Tilney delights Catherine by offering his hand as a dance partner, but, because she is pre-engaged to Thorpe, she is obliged to refuse him. Rarely was a young woman so unwilling to employ her power of refusal: Austen writes, “in giving her denial, she expressed her sorrow on the occasion so very much as if she really felt it, that had Thorpe, who joined her just afterwards, been half a minute earlier, he might have thought her sufferings rather too acute” (54–55). Moreover, since Thorpe does not dance any better than he drives, “one mortification succeeded another” (55), recalling Elizabeth Bennet’s mortification in dancing with Mr. Collins under the critical eye of Mr. Darcy. Thorpe’s boorish invitation—“‘Well, Miss Morland, I suppose you and I are to stand up and jig it together again’” (59)—drives her to declare her desire to dance no more, thus putting it out of her power to dance with Tilney, who has, moreover, found another partner, leaving her to listen to Thorpe’s disquisition on dogs and horses with as much civility as she can muster. Dance manuals clarified punishments for women who employed their power of refusal inappropriately: “To transgress these rules brought shame and community stricture, as poor Evelina found out” in Frances Burney’s novel (Reid-Walsh 117).
Thorpe’s and Tilney’s proficiency on the dance floor is mirrored in their styles of driving and reading. Catherine’s experience of driving in the rattle’s gig is contrasted by her experience of riding in Tilney’s curricle, leading her to conclude that “To be driven by [Henry], next to being dancing with him, was certainly the greatest happiness in the world” (157). Another signal to the reader, if we needed one, that Thorpe is not an appropriate partner is the fact that, unlike Tilney, he is not a reader of novels, “in which the greatest powers of the human mind are displayed” (38). As Tilney declares, “‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’” (106). Clearly, Thorpe is intolerably stupid, as he dismisses novels as “‘full of nonsense and stuff’” (48).
The fifth dance scene reunites Catherine with her original partner. She enters the rooms in hopes of dancing with Tilney and in fear and trepidation of being partnered with Thorpe. This scene reflects a parallel situation in Austen’s own experience, as recorded in her earliest surviving letter, written at age twenty: “I danced twice with Warren last night, and once with Mr Charles Watkins, and, to my inexpressible astonishment, I entirely escaped John Lyford. I was forced to fight hard for it, however” (9–10 January 1796). Catherine avoids Thorpe’s gaze by staring fixedly at her fan. She is in an awkward position regarding her refusal of Thorpe, as he has the double recommendation of being “James’s friend and Isabella’s brother” (50). She suddenly finds herself “addressed and again solicited to dance, by Mr. Tilney himself” (75)—with no prompting this time from any higher being. But again Thorpe interrupts: “‘Heyday, Miss Morland! . . . what is the meaning of this?—I thought you and I were to dance together’” (75). In response to her mild, “‘I wonder you should think so, for you never asked me,’” he rudely retorts, “‘That is a good one, by Jove! . . . this is a cursed shabby trick!’” (75). The meeting of the rival partners prompts Thorpe’s question, “‘Does he want a horse?’” (76) and triggers Tilney’s comparison of dancing and marriage.
Thus, the first and last of the five dance scenes frame Tilney’s courtship of Catherine: if her debut at the Assembly is a frustrating disappointment, the last ball is so satisfactory that “her spirits danced within her, as she danced in her chair all the way home” (81).
Henry Tilney’s discussion of country dance as an emblem of marriage
Langdon Elsbree considers Tilney’s comparison the only fully developed figure of speech in Austen’s novels (114). It is also her only extended discussion of dance. Most important, it is her only extended consideration of marriage and, hence, is of utmost significance. It is astonishing that Andrew Davies entirely omits it from his 2007 film adaptation.
Thorpe’s interference in the dance arouses Tilney’s resentment: he declares, “‘That gentleman would have put me out of patience, had he staid with you half a minute longer. He has no business to withdraw the attention of my partner from me.’” He expands his notion of country dance as a trial marriage: “‘We have entered into a contract of mutual agreeableness for the space of an evening, and all of our agreeableness belongs solely to each other for that time. Nobody can fasten themselves on the notice of one, without injuring the rights of the other’” (76). Here he makes clear that, by addressing Catherine, Thorpe is offending her partner.
Henry Tilney elaborates for Catherine his comparison of country dance to marriage: “‘Fidelity and complaisance are the principal 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’” (76), comparing “cutting in” to adultery. He identifies another crucial parallel, however—“‘that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal’” (77). Let us not underestimate woman’s power of refusal: we need only consider Elizabeth Bennet’s rude rejection of Fitzwilliam Darcy’s declaration of love and proposal of marriage. Indeed, Lizzy’s earlier rejection of Mr. Darcy’s invitation to dance a reel prefigures her rejection of his marriage proposal. Isabella Thorpe utterly lacks the power of refusal, however, at least when it comes to the blandishments of Captain Frederick Tilney.
Initially, Catherine, emboldened by the temporary equality conferred by the ballroom, exercises her power of refusal by disagreeing with Tilney: “‘But they are such very different things! . . . People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together. People that dance, only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour’” (76–77). Her disagreement prompts him to explain his comparison: his “‘definition of matrimony and dancing’” is
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 any one else.” (77)
These points suggest the dance “Dissembling Love” (Playford 59) and bring to mind Isabella Thorpe, who abandons her partner, James Morland, in favor of the dashing Captain Frederick Tilney. Again, Catherine has the temerity to disagree with Henry’s analogy, inspiring his concession: “‘In marriage, the man is supposed to provide for the support of the woman; the woman to make the home agreeable to the man; he is to purvey, and she is to smile. But in dancing, their duties are exactly changed; the agreeableness, the compliance are expected from him, while she furnishes the fan and the lavender water’” (77) in the temporary reversal of power conferred by country dance.
Reid-Walsh observes that “Henry Tilney’s witty comparison of the country dance to marriage expresses the notion of dancing as being a form of trial marriage” (115) and that he employs his wit to “woo” (119) her. Though Rachel Brownstein writes that “Henry’s clever chaste comparison of marriage to a country dance reflects the novel’s sassy sexlessness” (38), his romantic speech actually constitutes a veiled proposal. After all, he has invited Catherine to dance and then compared country dancing to marriage, suggesting his interest in marrying her. Too modest, as well as too inexperienced in the “finesse of love” (NA 36) to assume such a compliment to herself, Catherine does not take the hint. Other instances reveal her modesty and naiveté: when General Tilney mentions ordering another set of fine domestic china, although not for his personal use, the narrator observes that Catherine is the only person in the party who does not catch his drift. When Eleanor chides her brother for teasing Catherine as he does his sister, saying that she is not as familiar with his “‘odd ways,’” he replies, “‘I shall be most happy to make her better acquainted with them’” (113). He makes his intentions clear to the reader, if not to his intended.
Tilney tests Catherine’s faith in fidelity, again suggesting his intentions, by asking, “‘You totally disallow any similarity in the obligations [of dance and marriage]; and may I not thence infer that your notions of the duties of the dancing state are not so strict as your partner might wish? Have I not reason to fear, that if the gentleman who spoke to you just now were to return, or if any other gentleman were to address you, there would be nothing to restrain you from conversing with him as long as you chose?’” He is only pacified when she replies, “‘I do not want to talk to any body,’” to which he responds, “‘Now you have given me a security worth having; and I shall proceed with courage’” (77–78). And he does, eventually, after the General’s outrageous behavior to Catherine inspires him to stand up to his father and to ask for her hand.
The motif of ballroom engagements reflected outside the ballroom
Austen reflects—even replicates—the motif of invitations and engagements inside the ballroom by those outside. Thorpe’s “cutting in” on the dance floor is paralleled by his interference with Catherine’s engagements to walk with the Tilneys. On the first occasion, when the Thorpes plan to drive to Blaize Castle, John deceives her, lying that the Tilneys are driving in a different direction. On the second occasion, when the Thorpes wish to drive to Clifton, he interferes more egregiously by calling on Miss Tilney to tell her that Catherine has a previous engagement. Catherine is distressed when even her own brother tries to persuade her to break her engagement. Both attempts to thwart her blossoming romance with Henry Tilney backfire, however, when, genuinely mortified, she apologizes to the Tilneys profusely, permitting them to see the degree to which she values their opinion.
By “cutting in,” Thorpe attempts to cut Catherine out of the Tilneys’ orbit. Cheryl Wilson parallels this element of Austen’s plot with the rules of country dance previously discussed: “John, as an adjacent dancer/suitor, not the primary partner, should enjoy only a brief turn with Catherine before returning her to her proper place; however, by physically taking Catherine away from Henry, John threatens to disrupt the dance lines and impede the courtship” (82). Indeed, Thorpe’s reckless driving, which distresses Catherine, is tantamount to an abduction. Thorpe’s interruption of the young couple’s dancing is also reflected in his interference in their marrying: though his vain boasting of Catherine’s prospects prompts General Tilney to earmark her for his daughter-in-law, his equally false diatribe prompts the General to send her home.
Austen choreographs her novels cleverly, using dancing to parallel courtship patterns that underlie the polite intercourse of Regency society. Emma’s Mr. Knightley claims, “‘Fine dancing, I believe, like virtue, must be its own reward’” (258), but Austen demonstrates that dancing can lead to the greater reward of marriage, if one is matched with the right partner. Mansell concludes, “There is nothing that could be called ‘suspense’ concerning the final disposition of the couples who began; only a gentle tension as they threaten to deviate from traditional patterns, but finally do not. The destined couples thread their way through an intricate design, to be united at the close” (8–9).
Northanger Abbey concludes with the double marriage of both virtuous young women, Eleanor Tilney and Catherine Morland, while Isabella, who failed to return to her original partner, may be obliged to dance solo, rather than enjoy a pas de deux. Eleanor’s engagement to the man of her choice, who felicitously falls heir to a peerage plus a fortune, reconciles the General to the marriage of Henry to the woman of his choice. Austen writes, “To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen, is to do pretty well; and professing myself moreover convinced, that the General’s unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment” (252). As the readers “see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity” (250), we assume both couples are dancing to the altar.3
The clips used in this essay satisfy the criteria for fair use established in Section 107 of the Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code.