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08 April 2009

I Could Have Danced All Night

As I've mentioned in prior blogs, a lot of my nonwriting time is spent working as a board member of the Merola Opera Program, a training program for opera singers, coach accompanists, and stage directors. On March 28, we had our annual Spring Benefit fundraiser. This event is about as close I get to the parties and balls that are so important in many of our novels. I got my hair done (with a ceramic curling iron rather than metal tongs heated in an Agrand lamp); I helped with decorations (laying out Silent Auction items rather than arranging flowers and lighting wax tapers); I scrambled into my dress and helped do up the hooks on friends' dresses (in a hotel room not a boudoir in someone's Mayfair town house); sipped champagne (some things never change); filled a supper plate from a buffet (artichoke ravioli rather than lobster patties); listened to a wonderful concert (some of which, Mozart, might have actually been performed at an entertainment in one of my books); and danced in to the morning (to decidedly different music from that at Regency ball).

The next day, I found myself thinking about parties and balls in novels. A number of memorable ones spring to mind, beginning with the assembly ball in Pride and Prejudice. In fact, Pride and Prejudice has a number of ball and party scenes, including the memorable the Netherfield ball. When the A&E adaptation first aired, my friend and fellow writer Penny Williamson commented on how often the characters went to parties. She said she could imagine Jane Austen as a writer thinking “how am I going to get these characters together? I have to have another party scene.”

In an era before cell phones, texts, emails, and tweets, where it was difficult for unmarried men and women to interact unchaperoned, balls, receptions, and other social occasions were hubs of social interaction. Whether it's a provincial assembly ball, a subscription night at Almack's, a convivial evening at Mrs. Phillips', or a ball at Netherfield Park, these entertainments provided the opportunity for everything from flirtation (not to mention and out and assignations) to gossip to catching up with an old friend or an old lover to mustering support for a Parliamentary bill. For the novelist, balls provide rich opportunities for the characters to interact. There’s the chance for private conversation during a dance (Darcy and Elizabeth at the Netherfield ball) and the opportunity for one character to observe another (Darcy makes a disastrous impression on Lizzy at the assembly ball and the Netherfield ball confirms Darcy’s negatives of the entire Bennet family). The chance to advance multiple story lines in one scene (both the Darcy/Elizabeth and Jane/Bingley relationships move forward in these various party scenes, and the ball early on in Anna Karenina not only showcases Anna and Vronsky's meeting it moves forward the Lenin/Kitty storyline and the story of Anna's brother and his wife). A ball can be the occasion of an unexpected meeting (Marianne encountering Willoughby and his wife in Sense and Sensibility). It can be spun-sugar covering for scenes of intrigue and drama (the Grenville ball in The Scarlet Pimpernel).

One of the more dramatic real historical entertainments is the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels at which Wellington learned that Napoleon had stolen a march on him. Soldiers in ball dress left the dance floor to join their regiments and marched out of Brussels that night. The duchess’s ball has been brought to vivid life in a number of novels–by Thackery in Vanity Fair, by Georgette Heyer in An Infamous Army, by Bernard Cornwell in Waterloo. I had the fun of writing about it myself in Shores of Desire (what could be a better setting for drama? all the major characters together as they receive news that will change all their lives in myriad ways). I’d love to use the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in a Charles & Mélanie book some day, either in flashback or in another prequel.

The public nature of a ball can create a wonderful tension with the intimacy of an exchange between two people. Imagine if Romeo and Juliet's first meeting had occurred with the two of them alone rather than in the fraught setting of a ball in her parents' house, at which he is an interloper. There's the added tension of the fact that even if it isn't a masquerade ball, everyone to a certain extent wears a mask in a very public social setting.

Balls and parties an also be a way for a writer to introduce the reader to an array of characters and to their world. Edith Wharton does this brilliantly in the opening The Age of Innocence. You get a sense of the world of the Archers and Wellands in a way you wouldn’t in small scenes. The ripples in that world caused by Ellen’s return from the Continent come through vividly.

I love to read ball scenes, and I enjoy writing them, but they can be a challenge. There are multiple characters to juggle and an elaborate scene to set, all without confusing the reader. There's the challenge of deciding whose pov to start in, when to switch povs, and how to give the reader the sense of a large, crowded entertainment, when the character in whose pov one is may be entirely focused on his or her personal problems. Secrets of a Lady opens with Charles and Mel returning from a ball, but after that has no scenes set at social gathering. I deliberately wanted to pull Charles and Mélanie out of the jewel box world represented by the Esterhazy ball they’ve attended before the book opens. Beneath a Silent Moon, on the other hand, opens with the Glenister House ball. Inspired by a number of memorable book openings (notably the one from The Age of Innocence) I wanted to set up the various characters and the world of the Glenister House set. And I wanted to show the difficulties both Charles and Mel are having adjusting to London society and the strain that that’s putting on their marriage. And seeing all the major characters react to the news of Kenneth Fraser and Honoria Talbot's betrothal seemed the perfect way to set up the mystery that is about to unfold. I reworked those chapters a number of times, deciding where to start, who to focus in on (how to move the camera in a sense), and what to show from whose perspective.

Do you have some favorite scenes at balls or other parties in books? What makes them memorable? Writers, do you like writing scenes set at parties? What are some of the challenging of writing scenes in which one has to juggle a number of characters and plotlines?


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7 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Oh, dear. I just caught my (rather funny) typo of calling Levin in "Anna Karenina," Lenin. That's what comes of typing too late at night (though putting Lenin into the cast of "Anna Karenina" sounds like a Tom Stoppard play...)

4:56 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Great post, Tracy! I love ball scenes because they're like peeling onions. You get to see so many layers of a society, from the shiny veneer sometimes all the way down to the core. I used to take an Engligh Country Dance workshop here in Manhattan and the callers and instructors always reminded the dancers that a dance or ball was one of the rare opportunities for the sexes to mingle and it was where one honed one's flirtation skills. I opened with a workshop scene in my time travel historical, BY A LADY, and it sets up the 20th/21st-century heroine's knowledge of some of the dances, which gets its payoff in a pair of scenes at the Upper Rooms in Bath in 1801 after she ends up going back in time.

Your unintentional typo is amusing! I may be dating myself but I saw the production of the Stoppard play featuring Lenin (Travesties) when it had its Broadway debut.

4:40 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Love the "peeling onions" metaphor, Amanda! Ball scenes are incredibly layered and rich (you can even show the less fortunate members of society, the servants, the linkboys lighting the carriages outside, hangers on in the street). Social armor is in full display, and yet, as you say, it's one of the fewer places where men and women can interact physically in public.

I'm jealous you saw the Broadyway debut of "Travesties"! I read it in college, but just saw it recently at A.C.T. in San Francisco.

8:40 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I've got 2 ballroom scenes in Almost a Gentleman -- 3 if you count the epilogue, where the hero and heroine waltz in an open field (and I do count it).

When I wrote it, I had a very historically inaccurate version of the waltz -- from much later in the century. And truth is, I still do: when I reread those scenes I hear waltz music from Swan Lake, or from Bernstein's score for Candide, or sometimes the Embassy Waltz from My Fair Lady. But then, for me writing romance is always partly a recapitulation of swoony imaginings from pre and early adolescence... hopefully filtered through more grownup syntax and sensibility.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

"for me writing romance is always partly a recapitulation of swoony imaginings from pre and early adolescence... hopefully filtered through more grownup syntax and sensibility."

I love this quote, Pam! I think for me it's much the same, and I too sometimes hear later 19th century waltzes when writing. But then Richard Strauss wrote a whole opera in waltz time, with the waltz presented as something nostalgic, and yet set in the pre-waltz 18th century. And yet hearing the final trio from "Der Rosenkavalier" it's hard to complain.

9:05 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Tracy,

I have a ball in my historical YA. The juniors are having a dance with one of the men's colleges, and my heroine and her friends are watching from the gallery, since freshmen and sophomores weren't allowed to have dances with men at college, even in 1895!

7:50 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's fascinating (and sad!) about freshmen and sophomores not being able to have co-ed dances, Elizabeth! Especially since those girls were older than the age where it was common for a young woman to start going out in society. But what a great piece of research to incorporate in your book.

11:34 AM  

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