Emma Pinch drifts back to the halcyon days when ladies and gentlemen lived up to the title
WHEN Pride and Prejudice hit our TV screens in 1995, a nation was gripped. Every Sunday night, viewers were transported back to a time when passions – and daring amounts of decollete – trembled beneath the tight but deliciously decorous confines of Regency etiquette.
As Mr Darcy, Colin Firth, smouldered, women swooned and dreamed of donning an Empire line dress and being courteously asked to dance.
Since then we’ve seen Austen novels given the Hollywood makeover – Clueless, the Bollywood treatment – Bride and Prejudice, the biopic treatment – Becoming Jane, not to mention a raft of ravishing BBC adaptations. And last week, the Jane Austen Book Club added another film to the oeuvre.
But it’s not just film-makers who are succumbing to the magic of the period.
Ordinary people up and down the country are tying on their bonnets and tripping up and down assembly rooms across to the authentic sounds of 1813.
And it’s a dedicated number of Liverpool-born individuals making it happen. By day David Fleming-Williams, a sound engineer from Heswall, works on BBC Radio 4 dramas. But in his spare time he is the violinist for the Pemberley Players, named after Darcy’s ancestral home. The five-strong band play English folk dance music from the year Pride and Prejudice was set, at costumed balls, weddings and lately a 21st birthday party.
They also provide authentic pieces for Regency dramatisations, most recently the BBC’s Northanger Abbey.
The Pemberley Players will be providing the music for the forthcoming annual Pride and Prejudice ball, this year to be held amid the grandeur of St George’s Hall.
“People continue to be interested in the era, and more so,” says David. “People have got more interested in the idea of dressing up and going to a place. At first they were hiring costumes, but now they’ve bought or made their own. They like researching the period, refining the dance steps and going back into a gentler age.”
David’s group started specialising in Regency period music after being captivated, like millions of others, by the romantic dances portrayed in the BBC series.
The dances Austen and her characters performed, at the balls that spiced up the monotony of middle-class country life, were refined versions of the dancing practiced at village festivals for centuries.
OVER the years they became, in refined society, what the young people performed when the royalty and older people had left the room – there was more movement and raciness than in the stilted Elizabethan minuets.
Interested in finding out exactly what the music might have sounded like, David travelled to the British Library to study the original music scores and dance moves.
A mine of information was contained in the Playford Book of English Dance of 1661, containing 103 English country dances that were back in fashion after the grey sobriety of Cromwellian England.
On average 24 new dances were being published every year, at a press near St Paul’s in London. A travelling dance master visited the homes of society folk to teach the new steps, and the books were used as a reference tool.
With music arranged for each instrument in the band – which includes talents such as London-based Jonathan Cohen, former pianist from children’s favourite Playaway – they have recorded two Pride and Prejudice CDs and played at all the places where Austen was likely to have danced herself, such as the York Assembly rooms and the Bath Pumphouse.
There’s a ball a month for the dedicated, and the day after some people sometimes parade in the town as they might have 200 years ago.Š
As Reg Battle, one half of a couple forming part of the East Cheshire’s Adlington regency dancing display team and MC at this year’s Pride and Prejudice ball, points out, such dances were one of the few times young people had the chance to independently interact with those they were attracted to.
Participants danced with a partner in groups of four, six or eight, facing each other, and made the appropriate “figures” or movements.
By the end of the 18th century, they were dancing in long lines in specially constructed galleries. People would wait in their rows until the most important guest had made their way past them, which provided a chance to discreetly chat.
“There wasn’t a lot of physical contact in the modern ballroom sense, but the dance was the chance to be with someone without a chaperone,” says Reg, 67. “You could make eye contact and talk to each other and flirt and there was a fair amount of that sort of thing in the figures. You would give your partner your hand and walk round them, so it was a chance to look at each other properly and make some physical contact.”
Reg started English country dancing more than 40 years ago when a mathematics apprentice for Avro, now British Aerospace. Just as it did 200 years ago, it presented an opportunity to socialise and meet the opposite sex, and he subsequently met his wife, Norma at a dance.
Again, it was the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice that set the ball rolling for their Regency dancing, because Lyme Park, which was used as Darcey’s Pemberley home, was just up the road from where they live in Poynton.
Ladies might like to note it was here that a dripping Colin Firth emerged from that garden lake with his shirt clinging to his skin, causing a mass reaching for the smelling salts among women up and down the country.
“We saw Pride and Prejudice and we thought they are the costumes we would like for our display team,” says Norma Battle.
The eight couples got a £4,500 Lottery grant to make their Regency costumes and put on a Regency dancing display at the National Property to a rapturous reception by the invited general public.
They now have an assortment of Regency costumes for their displays, employed to good use recently in two festivals in Belgium in the summer. December will see them dancing at Sudbury Hall.
Reg wears breeches, a long coat, a waistcoat and shirt and a stock around his neck tied in a bow. Norma describes her Regency ball costume as cream with a slight stripe running through it and dotted with rose buds, topped by a short, long-sleeved Spencer jacket and long elegant gloves.
The costumes give their performances the “wow” factor, Norma says. “It makes me feel striking. We tend not to show our costumes until we’re ready. When you come on stage to do a performance there’s an intake of breath from the audience.”
She explains the attraction of the hobby, which besides keeping them fit can inject life into a relationship.
“I feel as though I’m in the period itself. The nice thing is our men try to be very polite and attentive, they try to treat you like a lady, as they would have done during Regency times.
“You’re not just dragged up to the floor, they take your hand. When it’s finished they take you in to supper, as you tended to go with someone then, and then back out to the second part of the dance. For a bit you are living in a gentler, more courteous age.”