In Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, set in the Regency Period, dance performs several important functions. Dance patterns emulate courtship rituals, marking dance as a microcosm for courtship and marriage – two main themes of the novel. The Regency period propagated the belief that no ingredient was more essential to a courtship than dancing: “To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love…”
Austen’s characters typically reveal their inner selves through their manners. Austen was concerned with the behavior patterns exhibited by her characters, especially upon the dance floor. Therefore, Austen’s depictions of her characters’ dancing capabilities serve a definite purpose; these depictions foreshadow the final matches that dance assists in bringing about.
Some examples of negative manifestations of character include Lydia and Kitty Bennet and Mr. Collins. Lydia and Kitty exhibit an extreme irreverence and total lack of societal understanding; from their shameless soldier-chasing to Lydia’s scandalous affair with Wickham, these two exemplify social behaviours to be avoided. They reveal their weak natures on the dance floor through excessive giggling, cavorting, and tipsiness. Mr. Collins’s behavior marks him as a comic figure. As Elizabeth, his partner for those dances, recalls, “… they were dances of mortification.”
As Darcy and Elizabeth deal with their initial bouts of pride and prejudice, their relationship quickly assumes a pattern of approach and rejection, evident in four separate instances involving proposals to dance. The first is at the Meryton Ball, when Bingley attempts to persuade Darcy to dance with Elizabeth; Darcy adamantly voices his objections to Bingley’s suggestion. Darcy either does not realize, or does not care, that Elizabeth overhears his tirade, but Elizabeth cares very much. She is determined never to allow Darcy to gain the advantage - “… I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine”. The second incident is at one party at Lucas house, when Sir William places Darcy in the position of asking Elizabeth to dance; but this time the once-spurned Elizabeth is determined to rebuff Darcy, to avoid giving him yet another vantage point from which to judge her. During the third episode, Darcy’s invitation to dance is augmented by his growing interest in Elizabeth. During Jane’s convalescence at Netherfield, Darcy takes the initiative to request the dancing of a reel with Elizabeth. Once again, Darcy is rebuffed. However, rather than despising Elizabeth, Darcy is more intrigued than ever. Darcy’s final dance proposal takes place during the ball at Netherfield. Dancing with Darcy, Elizabeth is “amazed at the dignity to which she was arrived in being allowed to stand opposite to Mr. Darcy, (and reading in her neighbours’ looks their equal amazement in beholding it)”. The dignity of her standing with Darcy sharply contrasts with her embarrassment of dancing with Collins.
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, dance underscores the theme of courtship and marriage. Only after forming initial matches on the dance floor can Elizabeth and Darcy and Jane and Bingley progress to the next stage—courtship—which may then culminate in marriage. Thus, dance fulfills its primary function in the novel, as it did in Austen’s society.
In Austen’s England, marriage was necessary and a good match was considered essential, yet occasions to meet eligible men and women were limited. Assemblies and balls provided an arena for introductions, thereby facilitating the opportunity for courtships to be pursued. The decorum of the participants at a dance determined their worth as individuals. This display of individual worth was evaluated not only by potential partners, but also by the spectators in the room, which included family and neighbors, and married couples. Once an individual was acknowledged a suitable dance partner by a member of the opposite sex, that identification is carried over into the individual’s suitability as a marital partner. The relationships of Jane and Bingley, and Elizabeth and Darcy exemplify the formula of first establishing themselves as suitable dance partners, paving the way for courtship, and triumphing in marriage.