Country House Pursuits

Bohea teaNicola here. Today I'm talking about some of the things people in the 18th and 19th centuries did when they stayed in the the country (the respectable activities, I mean, rather than the complicated business of creeping in and out of bedrooms in the dead of night. I'm talking here about the leisured classes, of course, the ones who didn't distinguish between a week day and the weekend. This may be a Wench re-post; because of stuff I have going on at the moment I've had to dust down and add to a piece I'd written a while ago, but even if it is I hope you enjoy it!

One of the questions I’m often asked when I am showing visitors around Ashdown House on guided tours is what did visitors to country houses do all day? Life in London or Bath was exciting, with plays, concerts, opera, shopping and many more entertainments. In contrast the country lifestyle was sometimes mocked as slow and boring, especially on a rainy day. “Morning walks, prayers three times a day and bohea tea” was how the poet Alexander Pope described it.

It was a pleasantly relaxing, of course, at least for the visitors, unlike the servants who attended to their every need. They were free to pursue whatever activity and interests they wished and, mostly, had the money to indulge those interests.

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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About … The Waltz.

Let's start at the very beginning.

Wenches breugel-wedding-dancer

Actually this looks like fun

Where did the waltz come from?
Back to pretty much the dawn of history, Rural folk frolicked in their traditional folk revelries with pair dances and circle dances and line dances  of all kinds. This stuff that doesn't get into the archeological record. Literate folk saw no reason to record the details.
But we have pictures.

Wenches laendler_allemande_fig

A Contre Dance Allemande

Polite ballroom dances like the waltz evolved out of this madness.

So did "country dancing", which was what they were doing in English assembly halls and ballrooms in late Eighteenth Century to early 1800s. These were not so much "country" as in 'I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool' but "Contre". Contre-dance — highly mannered French group dance. Kinda like . . . well . . . square dancing.

Here's an example of a country dance. See Darcy and Elizabeth talk while they dance. That's a conversation all snipped up and intermittent, isn't it?

But country dances were also somewhat like this on the right.
Touching goes on. Arms around waists. Side to side touching. Emotion. "All the feels", so to speak. Hubba hubba.
Dancing madness in a contre-dance.

Wenches waltz_rowlanson-1806_2

In 1806 Waltzing sneaks in

Anyhow, those wild and crazy Europeans waltzed in their ballrooms long before the dance leapt the Channel. Ye Staid Old English considered waltzing risqué in 1790 and 1800. A man touching a woman's body with only four layers of clothing in between? His hand resting on her back! Horrors!

Many a waltz sneaked in under the radar in the early years of the century.Not quite quite dancing. Vulgar dancing.


But so much fun. By 1810 to 1812, social leaders like the Countess of Shaftesbury and the Duchess of Devonshire played the waltz at their balls.  The waltz had arrived.

In 1810 a man could write,  

"To see so many lovely and elegant young women moving with grace and activity, their charming faces light up with pleasure, and their eyes sparkling at the admiration they excited, was, to an old fellow like me, a sight truly delightful, though I could not help agreeing with Werter, who said, his wife should never dance a waltz."
                                   the Royal Cornwall Gazette (17th November 1810).

Wenches waltz 1

The wild, wild waltz

In 1811,

". . . he passes his arms along hers, and holds her by the elbows; she does the same to him; and when the dance begins, he dances round with her, turning towards the left . . . , If there be room enough, the Gentleman holds his partner by the tips of the fingers. Certainly the dance now in question is danced in a far different way among the inferior orders of society, as they hold each other tight by the middle, and thus in each others embrace go round like whirligigs."
         Morning Post in 1811

Elbow holding. What is the world coming to?

So why was the waltz so shocking to contemporaries?  Maybe not so much what managed to get touched . . . but for how long.  I think, the uneasiness was about extended physical connection. Long eye contact. Maybe even the chance to hold an uninterrupted conversation.  Radical idea, men and women talking.


The somewhat less wild waltz

A contemporary said, "it is susceptible of degrees of personal familiarity which render it liable to gross abuse."
Who shall disagree?

What's your favorite dance to do or to watch? English Country Dancing? American Square? Clogging? Irish Dance?
One lucky commenter takes home their choice of one of my books.


Let’s Dance!

StrictlyNicola here. Here in the UK the hit TV series Strictly Come Dancing is down to
its final few couples and the competition is really hotting up. The show pairs
celebrities with professional dancers who each week compete against each other
in front of a panel of judges and the viewing public. The format of the show
has been exported to 40 other countries around the world (I think it’s called
Dancing with the Stars in the US and Canada) and is hugely popular. It has
spawned dance classes across the country and created an upsurge of interest in
the “old-fashioned” Ballroom and Latin dances. It reminded me that when I was
in my teens my grandfather taught me how to dance and I used to attend
old-fashioned “tea dances” and waltz around the room in the arms of various elderly
gentlemen! There never seemed to be anyone of my own age there, least of all

All this has led me to wonder about those dances that were
popular in the Regency era – the country dances, cotillons and waltzes, amongst
others – where they were danced, which were the most popular and what people were saying about them at the time. It’s a huge topic but here are a few of the interesting
nuggets of information I picked up from my researches.

Where did the dances come from originally?

Dancing is a social pastime and it has been influenced over
the centuries by changes in the habits and customs of society. In some
countries, dances have started as folk dances and worked their way up through
society. In others cases the well-travelled aristocracy have introduced a new
dance into their ballrooms and from there it spread to the public assemblies.
One thing of which I was completely unaware was that in the Regency period
there was a big difference between the programmes favoured by the upper classes
and those in vogue at the popular assemblies. Often a dance would become fashionable in London and would then be picked up in the regional assembly rooms and at country balls, where it would be seen as very dashing and cutting edge!

The Assembly Rooms

The earliest assembly rooms developed in places such as Bath
and Epsom, in association with the
Assembly rooms medicinal waters. They added social
attractions such as ballrooms and card rooms to the pump rooms that provided
“the cure.” Balls at Bath in the 18th century began at 6pm and ended
at 11pm precisely. They started with the minuets, which lasted two hours, and
ended with country dancing. They were very closely governed by social status.
The first minuet was danced by two persons "of the highest distinction present". Similarly
ladies of quality stood up first for the country dance according to rank. Pity the poor person deemed lowest in rank who had to wait until the end to take the floor!

AlmacksDuring the second half of the 18th century a
number of very sumptuous assembly rooms opened in the centre of London in
addition to those at Vauxhall, Ranelagh, Hampstead Wells and others. Of these
only Almacks (pictured) lasted into the 19th century. Twelve balls a season
were held at Almacks of which four were masked balls. Tickets for Almacks balls were
notoriously difficult to obtain. It was said that of the 300 officers in the
Foot Guards, only six were ever granted admission and of course the Duke of Wellington himself was turned away – twice – once for turning up late and a second time for wearing the wrong evening dress!

By the early years of the 19th century many of
the provincial assembly rooms were bringing in draconian attendance rules. At
Cheltenham the rules stated: “No clerk, hired or otherwise, in this town or
neighbourhood; no person concerned in retail trade, no theatrical or other
public performers by profession be admitted.” The provincial assemblies copied
the fashionable dances from London; it was at Almacks that both the Quadrille
and the Waltz were introduced to England. By this time the dances started
later, at 8pm, and finished at midnight.

There were also other balls, also known as “Assemblies”
which were held in hotels and inns. (The picture below is of a ballroom at an inn in the small Dorset town of Bridport). These balls were
Regency-ballroom never as exclusive as the events
held in the formal Assembly Rooms and whilst some of them attempted to vet the attendees, others were unashamedly popular and open to anyone who bought a
ticket. They would have been just the place for an aristocratic lady or gentleman to dance with someone quite unsuitable!

The Popular Dances

At the beginning of the 19th century the dances
in vogue were the Minuet, the Country Dance, the Contredanse and the Cotillon.
The country dances were most popular but the old-fashioned Minuet was still the ceremonial
dance at court and was also danced at Almacks and the more prestigious regional
Assemblies. The Contredanse was the
forerunner of the Waltz. The Waltz in an earlier form was almost certainly
known in English ballrooms before 1812 but without the “close hold.” Even in
its more staid form it incurred disapproval from those who deplored its
whirling action. Some of the clergy denounced it, saying the Waltz “assails
both the honour and the health of the lady.”

By the time of the Carlton House Ball of 1813, given by the
Prince Regent to celebrate the victory at Vittoria and also the come out ball
for Princess Charlotte, Scottish dances were all the rage. The influence of Sir
Walter Scott combined with the success of Scottish troops in the Peninsular
Wars led to a revival of interest in the Ecossaise and in Scottish reels. The Prince Regent was said to be mad for all things Scottish, often appearing at balls in full highland dress.

The_First_QuadrilleMeanwhile the Contredanse had developed into the Quadrille in the early years of the 19th century. Apparently it was Lady Jersey who saw the Quadrille danced in Paris
and introduced it to Almacks, after which it became all the rage. Captain Gronow wrote of one famous occasion when it was danced: “The late Lord Graves, who
was extremely fat but who danced well for his size, engaged the beautiful Lady
Harriet Butler one evening as his partner in the Quadrille. Her ladyship had
just arrived from Paris… She electrified the English with the graceful ease
with which she made her entrechats… Lord Graves, desirous of doing his utmost
to please his fair partner, ventured on imitating the lady’s entrechat but fell
heavily to the floor. Sir John Clarke in a sarcastic manner said “What could
have induced you at your age and in your state to make so great a fool of
youself?” Poor Lord Graves! The Quadrille was the sort of dance that allowed
accomplished dancers to show off their skill with difficult steps but could also be modified for the less skilled.

Of course the most scandalous dance of them all was the “new” Waltz. When it stormed the ballrooms in 1812 it caused
an outcry for its indelicacy. Lord Byron wrote: “Judge my surprise on entering
the ballroom to see poor dear Mrs Hornem with her arms half round the loins of
a hussar-looking gentleman… turning round and round to a damned see-saw up and
down tune until it made me quite giddy.”

MAtters were going downhill. By 1830 the Waltz had developed an
even more indecorous cousin, the Galop, where partners held each other in a
hold similar to the waltz and galloped down the room. It was, as one
disapproving commentator noted, “an outright romp, as destitute of figure or
variety as the motion of a horse in a mill.” One wonders what they would have
made of the some of the risqué movements and holds in the modern ballroom

Are you a fan of Strictly Come Dancing or Dancing with the
Stars? Are you a ballroom dancer yourself? 
Which are your favourite dances and do you think you would have enjoyed
the waltzes and country dances of the Regency period?