Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: Party like it’s 1813

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Drink

  • Drinking

    Portuguese wine and punch were popular, but to keep the guests energised, a stimulant drink of punch a la Romaine was served.

  • Punch

    The punch consisted of rum or brandy, lemon, water, whipped egg whites, hot sugar syrup and champagne.

Fashion

  • Fashion

    The cut and quality of the fabric revealed your status, but underneath, men would tuck the tails of their shirt between their legs as underwear.

  • Ladies with fans

    Women wore petticoats underneath their dresses, but were knickerless.

Food

  • Food

    Dinner was served a la Francaise where all the courses were put on the table at the same time.

  • Food

    Dishes included white soup, partridge pie and jelly desserts or flummeries.

Dancing

  • Steps were intricate and difficult to learn and many families employed dance teachers at a cost of five shillings and sixpence a lesson.

  • The entire ball is described as hard work, with "physical, social and emotional investment".

The BBC has recreated the Netherfield ball from Jane Austen's classic, Pride and Prejudice. What would this occasion really have been like?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that many of us harbour a secret desire to wear a bonnet and dance a reel with Mr Darcy at the Netherfield ball.

The event in Austen's 1813 novel was a key turning point in the romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, and was a familiar environment for Austen's original readers in which to network, socialise and flirt with potential partners.

The invitations

The excitement would begin with the arrival of an invitation, but just like today, printing bespoke stationery, especially party invitations, was very expensive.

Mr Bingley's invites would have been produced in bulk, with blank spaces to add in the name of the guest, date and time of the ball.

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As an invitation-only event, the guest list would have had a higher level of prestige says John Mullan, professor of English at University College London and an expert on the novels of Jane Austen.

Anyone in the neighbourhood who could afford to buy a ticket would have been able to attend a public assembly or dance, but a party like the Netherfield ball was reserved for the genteel.

Men and women who had reached the age where they were looking for a marriage partner would have been invited.

The lighting

On arrival, one way of finding out how long the ball was going to last was by looking at the length of the candles. The longer the candle, the longer the room would be lit and the longer the ball would last - candles were calibrated to burn for four or six hours, or longer.

Candles at the ball

Candles were not just a necessity but also a sign of wealth and social status as they were an expensive commodity, says Lisa White, who works for the National Trust and is an adviser on authentic illumination.

Start Quote

Ability to dance was the key to romantic success... clumsiness was sexual suicide”

End Quote Prof Amanda Vickery

"If Mr Bingley was out to impress he would have lots of light, especially wax candles, not just in the chandeliers but all around the room, and he would increase the light with beautiful mirrors to reflect the light as well."

Reflecting light from a mirrored surface sounds familiar - could this have been the early origins of the modern disco ball?

Beeswax candles were the deluxe choice of the rich, whereas poorer people had to make do with tallow candles.

Made out of pig or beef fat, tallow candles gave off a foul smell.

Music and dance

Awkwardness on the dance floor at a party is always embarrassing and can often deter any would-be partners, but in Austen's time it meant social disaster.

The first dance was a cotillion, a social dance that originated in France

"The ability to dance was key to romantic success and the movements of the dance mimicked the to and fro of courtship," says Amanda Vickery, professor of early modern history at Queen Mary, University of London. "Clumsiness was sexual suicide."

How to cheat at Regency dancing

For those women with a bad memory, a fan could be purchased with the music and dance steps listed on the back.

Few of these fans survive today because of the flimsiness of the paper.

Men had no such cheat sheet however, and were therefore much more exposed on the dance floor.

Whatever your financial situation, a dance tutor was a must as steps were highly complex. If you could not display your athleticism on the dance floor you limited your exposure to the opposite sex.

Dances would take place in longways sets, facing your partner in a long line, and the highest-ranking person in the room - probably Mr Darcy - would have danced nearest to the orchestra.

Some of the dances were influenced by popular trends at the time. The Savage Dance, for instance, was based on a routine from a musical about Robinson Crusoe.

Popular tunes of the time were re-versioned for the piano and would have included classical music and folk songs.

Fashion and cosmetics

In 1813 you would not have been able to buy a ready-made party dress from a shop. Dresses for the ball would have been handmade - or handed down from an older sister - and this meant they could be personalised or adapted to suit the woman's style.

A woman in regency dress Puff sleeves were popular on dresses at the time

The popular fabric of the time was muslin and there were wild rumours that women would have wet the sheer fabric so that the outline of their figure could be seen beneath the dress, although in reality this would probably only have happened at very private gatherings.

The staple party outfit for many women today is the little black dress, but in 1813, it was the little white dress that was a particular favourite.

For men the fashion was for high-waisted, tailored jackets, which meant that the area below the waist was more on show for the first time in more than 100 years. The breeches, or trousers, held up by braces would have made it very difficult to slouch, giving Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley the upright stance we associate with men in the Regency period.

Women would have worn small amounts of make-up using materials found locally and in the kitchen. For rosy cheeks, alkanet and cochineal were used as the basis for rouge. Men were also partial to a hint of blusher to give them a healthy glow, particularly officers such as Mr Wickham.

Fine dining

"The food combined with the extraordinary decorative arts of the table in this period was really quite excellent," says Ivan Day, an expert on historical food.

Dishes at the ball

Flummery
  • White soup: Contained veal stock, pudding rice, powdered almonds, bacon, anchovies and cream
  • Ragu of veal: Shredded slow roasted veal, hard boiled egg yolks, mushrooms, meatballs and sweet breads
  • Cold fowl: Garnished with crayfish, olives and black truffles
  • Sturgeon: Stewed in lemon, vinegar and horseradish stock
  • Water ices: Flavoured with orange oil

The cuisine was grand, theatrical and designed to make a visual statement in a similar way a Heston Blumenthal banquet would today. Guests would sit down at the table and help themselves to the array of delicacies.

The partridge pie would have included four whole birds plus liver, bacon, herbs and mushrooms. Dining was not for the squeamish and guests would even have eaten the cooked head of a chicken and sucked the eyes and brain out through the beak.

We like to think a love of Italian restaurants is a modern trend, but there was a fashion for Italian food at the start of the 19th Century. For instance, a recipe for Parmesan cheese ice cream featured in Frederic Nutt's The Imperial and Royal Cookbook of 1809 and would have been a popular dish on the table.

London was home to approximately 700 confectioners by 1794 and the table at the ball would not have disappointed those with a sweet tooth. It would have been filled with fruit, flummeries or blancmanges, biscuits, gateaux, jellies and ice cream.

Transport

Travelling in the dark to and from the ball was not entirely safe for 19th Century partygoers, and moonlight would have been important to light the way.

A horse-drawn carriage in a BBC production of Pride and Prejudice Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley might have owned a carriage like this

"The last highwayman to be hanged for his felonies was only a couple of years after Pride and Prejudice was published," says White.

Men and women would have arrived in their boots and then changed into their dancing shoes, which resembled ballet shoes. It would have been impossible to dance in boots and have made so much noise on the wooden floor of the ballroom that you would not have been able to hear the musicians.

Travelling by carriage was a luxury as it was an expensive mode of transportation, just like a car today. Only the privileged could have afforded the upkeep of the carriage, horses and footmen at a cost of around £1,000 a year.

If you could not afford your own carriage, you might have had to seek a lift with a neighbour, but this came with its disadvantages, such as having to leave the ball at the same time as the carriage's owner, not an ideal situation for any 19th Century party animal.

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