Today is a very exciting day at Guillotine Towers as it marks the release of my lovely friend Ankaret Wells‘ latest novel, Firebrand which she has described as ‘a steampunk fantasy romance inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Angria novelettes, and featuring airships, plaid, a mechanical birdcage, de jure princesses, evil stepdaughters, and war by means of teapot.‘ Who could possibly resist?
To mark this occasion, Ankaret has very kindly written a post for us about ball scenes in novels.
L’Ambitieuse, James Tissot, c1883-5. Photo: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Fort Worth, Buffalo.
I love a good ballroom scene. Since all the way back before Shakespeare chronicled the events of the Capulets’ costume party, writers have been enjoying the chance to dress their characters up and send them out for a formal dance, and I’m all for it.
What’s your favourite ball scene? Maybe it’s from fiction – perhaps the Netherfield ball where Darcy first gets the opportunity to demonstrate his pride and sparks off Elizabeth’s prejudice. Or from history – the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo was immortalised by Millais and Thackeray and has lived on in historical novels and biographies ever since, and even Sharpe showed up there once. Or maybe it’s from cinema – Scarlett O’Hara’s foot tapping longingly beneath her widow’s weeds, or Holmes and Watson sweeping one another round the floor in the recent film Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows.
As a writer, I love getting the chance to describe the broad sweep of a ballroom. The excited chatter, the musicians tuning up, the flickering light of candles or the smokier gleam of gaslight, the soft glow of silk and the flutter of muslins and, if we’re lucky, the gold braid on military uniforms too. But ball scenes can also offer a chance for the characters to snatch more intimate moments.
In Jane Austen’s Emma, for example, the ball at the Crown Inn has an unpromising start, with the characters huddling around a fire on a raw evening in early May. But it leads to Emma and Mr Knightley taking a cautious, almost unconscious step forward from thinking of themselves as brother and sister and to Harriet being very grateful to dance at all.
The Last Evening, James Tissot, c1885. Photo: Musée d’Orsay.
From the introduction of the waltz in the early nineteenth century to the decline of social dancing in the late twentieth, there’s a window of opportunity for the historical novelist to send their characters sweeping around the floor in one another’s arms. The country and court dances that flourished before the waltz have their own delights. If you’re writing anything set during the glittering days of the Renaissance, for example, it’s hard to resist the Volta, in which the man lifts the woman clean off her feet and thrusts his thigh under hers. Queen Elizabeth danced it with the Earl of Leicester.
For young women whose opportunities for exercise mostly consisted of walking, with riding thrown in at one end of the social spectrum and housework at the other, the chance to work off some energy through the skipping and marching and changing of partners of an old-fashioned country dance must have been exhilarating. It also offered an opportunity for conversation away from the ears of chaperones – perhaps with a variety of gentlemen.
But when the waltz arrives, the opportunities for hero and heroine become more alluring still. In Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s memoir The Glitter And The Gold she describes how circumscribed her life was as a young woman in Gilded Age New York. (Possibly she had reason to make those days sound even more confining than they actually were, as she later attained an annulment of her marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough on the grounds that her mother had forced her into it – but that doesn’t stop The Glitter And The Gold being a page-turner) When a young woman was brought up in the expectation of barely so much as touching a man’s arm until they arrived at the altar, the prospect of that arm clasping her around the waist and whirling her round the dancefloor must have been truly exhilarating.
The Woman of Fashion, James Tissot, c1883-5. Photo: Private Collection.
Giving your characters a chance to dance together lets them notice one another’s bodies, not just with glances across the crowded room but with the other senses too. (Well, maybe not taste – unless they escape out onto a balcony or into a conservatory, and then good luck to them!) The way a person moves, the touch of their hand, even the scent of tuberose perfume or of ‘leather, tobacco and clean male sweat’ can do a lot to bring a book to tingling life.
Even in modern romances, the ballroom scene isn’t quite dead. The hero and heroine can hit the dancefloor at a nightclub or maybe just revolve together to the sound of Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra while the moon shines through the window of the hero’s swanky apartment. And in science fiction and fantasy, imagination is the only limit. Suave wizards bowing across a polished dancefloor? Steam-powered automaton dancing partners? The Antigravity Volta? Bring it on!
Long live the ballroom scene, whatever form it takes!