Having heard Cheryl A. Wilson
present part of her research on Almack's and on silver-fork novels at two recent conferences, I was eagerly awaiting the
publication of this book. It did not disappoint me. Well-researched,
well-articulated, and well-explicated, it clearly proves her an expert on
social dance customs and literary manifestations of them in the nineteenth
century. While music, among other cultural topics, has recently been opened up
to critical inquiry, social dance has been relatively untouched. This book,
therefore, is well-situated within the Cambridge
Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture series dedicated to newer cultural
Generations of readers have, of
course, noticed the scenes of dance that pervade the novels of Austen,
Trollope, and others. Wilson brings an important critical eye to these literary
moments. Participating in contemporary engagements with culture, she wisely
avoids treating dance as simply a self-contained thematic motif, "a style
of analysis," she writes, "that presents dance history as merely a
context for literary study or treats dance as a literary metaphor that is
removed from the physical experience of performance" (13). Instead,
Wilson's approach "takes account of the physicality and cultural
significance of dance. Different dance forms offered different sites for
textual exchange, and the social and cultural implications of the dances
themselves provide a touchstone for further inquiry" (12). By reading
contemporary descriptions of specific dance form, Wilson uncovers debates
surrounding gender, class mobility, and nationhood. Part of the strength of
Wilson's approach is her nuanced readings of the literary dance as she explores
actual dance patterns (shown with images from contemporary dance manuals) for
metaphors and meanings: "Indeed, it is the 'structuredness' of
nineteenth-century social dances--the careful formations, the matching of
measured steps to music, and the codification of movement--that, in part,
allowed for their multifaceted incorporation into nineteenth-century
literature" (9). Though sometimes belabored and repetitive, Wilson's
Introduction thus offers a strong articulation of her upcoming arguments.
In Chapter One, which explains the social customs of dance, Wilson provides not
just a history but a close analysis of culture. Of the gendered roles of dance,
for instance, she shows that "performing the man's part or the woman's
part (distinctions carefully maintained in dance manuals) [...] contributes to
gender socialization and construction even as it has the potential to
destabilize gender norms" (34). Likewise, Wilson considers the implications
of class mobility and national identity within the context of dance. As she
concludes, "It is precisely because dance can be read as an agent of
hegemony, reinforcing traditional gender and class ideologies, that it became
so useful for nineteenth-century writers who were committed to a
re-investigation of the social order" (39).
Wilson's uncovering of primary-source material is especially notable in Chapter
2. Using contemporary periodicals, articles, and reviews, she reveals an entire
world of social dance unknown to a modern audience but surely vital to the
social world of Regency London: the ballroom at Almack's. After demonstrating
the immense political and social influence of the actual Lady Patronesses,
Wilson then considers them as cultural templates for the women protagonists in
Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury's The Exclusives, Marianne Spencer Stanhope's Almack's:
A Novel, and Jane
"The 'official' duty of the Lady Patronesses," she concludes,
"was to control the dance--to construct the narratives of the ballroom.
The social, political, and cultural implications of these narratives provide an
embedded subtext that reaches far beyond the doors of Almack's, establishing a
structural model that was adapted and employed by writers throughout the
nineteenth century" (68).
The remaining chapters explore three prevalent types of dance--the country
dance, the quadrille, and the waltz--and align them with major Victorian texts.
In Chapter Three, Wilson examines not only the inherent nationalism of the
English country dance but also its enactment of gender separation and class
rigidity, wherein women rely upon male dance partners to move up and down the
divided dance rows (69). Victorian writers use this image, she argues, to
signify the increasing gap between "an antiquated social structure and the
needs of individual women" (75), as found in Jane Austen's Northanger
Abbey, Thackeray's Vanity
Fair, and George
Eliot's Adam Bede.
At the same time, Wilson argues, each of these authors uses the country dance
to say something about English nationalism: Austen upholds English culture,
Thackeray suggests an "invasion" by French culture which the English
yet resist, and Eliot criticizes an over-idealism of English history (102).
Chapter Four shows how the square dance formation of the French-imported
quadrille symbolizes the social pressure to "[establish] and [maintain]
one's place within the set" (107)-- in two novels: Catherine Gore's Mrs.
Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now. Treating the quadrille in these novels as both
literal and symbolic, Wilson explains how "four family sets" attempt
social mobility in the face of nationalistic and class concerns.
"Enter the waltz" is the provocative subtitle to Chapter Five,
"Les contretemps dangereaux," in which Wilson moves beyond the prose
novel to explore not only Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters but also Elizabeth Barrett
Browning's novel-in-verse Aurora Leigh and two short stories: Sarah Grand's "The
Yellow Leaf" and Ella Hepworth Dixon's "One Doubtful Hour."
Emphasizing the "scandalous" posture of the close-partnered waltz,
its circling and repetitive patterns, and its "sense of vertigo and
euphoria" (133), Wilson defines the dance characteristics that she will
explore through her selected texts. In her especially deft readings of the two
New-Woman short stories, she shows how sexuality and time destroy the
middle-aged heroines. No longer sought-after on the dance-floor, Evangeline and
Effie ultimately take their own lives in their ball-gowns, "cementing an
image of [them] at [their] most desirable by assuming the costume of the ball
that was once a site of social triumph" (170).
In short, this book is a lucid,
smart analysis of social dance, showing how literary dance scenes signify
larger social discourses--on the New Woman, for instance--and how actual dance
moves represent elements of the fictional narratives (as when quadrille sets
stand in for inflexible social hierarchies). Employing when needed the theories
of Laura Mulvey (14), Mikhail Bahktin (75), and Hélène Cixous (139), the book
nevertheless steers clear of theoretical impasses. Other strengths are Wilson's
deliberate foreshadowing and summations of her argument throughout her
chapters. Her writing is coherent and clear, and makes for very accessible
reading. At times she could have used more secondary scholarship on the very
famous authors she chooses, especially Thackeray, Eliot, Barrett Browning, and
she often endnotes critics rather than naming them in the text (64, 84, and 93,
for example). But in glossing a text with noteworthy dance scenes--Austen's Northanger
Abbey or Eliot's Adam
brilliant in showing what those scenes imply for the culture at large. In the
three dances of Austen's novel, for example, Wilson closely explains how the
language of physical experience shifts from restriction to freedom, symbolizing
Catherine's increasing social confidence (82).
When the text lacks any obvious
reference to dance, however, Wilson must work extra hard for connections: the
physicality of bodies and the forming of partnerships in the otherwise
"dance-less" Aurora Leigh, for instance. Rather than positing these generic,
figurative, often forced associations, Wilson might have done better to ask
what is implied by the absence of actual dance in these texts. The clever organization of
chapters by dance genres also breaks down at times: in the chapter on the
quadrille (Ch. 4), Wilson likens the structure of Gore's Mrs. Armytage with the quadrille, yet must admit
that the novel depicts only country dances and gallopes (115). Anomalies such
as this prompt us to question how and why certain texts were chosen for
analysis, especially given the wealth of other dance-saturated novels, by the
Bront?s or Thomas Hardy, for instance.
These criticisms aside, I am pleased to recommend this book to many readers:
Victorian scholars, cultural critics, and even lay people who wish to learn
more about the importance of dance in nineteenth-century culture. As Wilson
cleverly concludes in her "Afterward: Confessions of a Lady
Patroness," "conducting the research, organization, and management of
a set of unruly nineteenth-century writers and texts is not unlike the labors
of the Lady Patronesses in organizing an Almack's ball. [...] I only hope that
my own endeavor merits assuming--or, perhaps just borrowing--the title"
(173). This immensely worthwhile topic could not be in more capable hands.
Alisa Clapp-Itnyre is Associate Professor of English
at Indiana University East, Richmond, IN, and author of Angelic Airs,
Subversive Songs: Music as Social Discourse in the Victorian Novel (Ohio UP, 2002).