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This recent addition to the Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture series explores the cultural and textual uses of social dance in nineteenth-century Britain. If its author, Cheryl Wilson, had claimed only to bring the under-analyzed topic of dance to our attention, the study would have opened up new territory; the countless dance scenes in nineteenth-century fiction notwithstanding, ballroom and social dance has been largely overlooked in literary studies until quite recently. Wilson, however, aims to do more than merely fill a gap, proposing instead to “provide a model of intertextuality” (173) that enables new ways of reading nineteenth-century literature, primarily fiction. If it succeeds only partially in that goal, it is wholly successful in its mastery and use of an unfamiliar archive that will help us grasp the importance of social dance in nineteenth-century literature and culture.
Before turning to literary texts that feature dance in various ways, Wilson uses her first two chapters to discuss the culture of nineteenth-century social dance. Focusing first on the ubiquity of dancing instruction, Wilson considers the ambiguous role of dancing masters in polite society (Mr. Turveydrop from Bleak House is a memorably satiric example)—ambiguous, she argues, because they “destabilize[d] the gender norms of the ballroom” and because they “challenged class restrictions [by] embodying geographic and social mobility as they moved around the country and among social groups” (23). In an especially fascinating section of this initial chapter, Wilson analyzes a range of dancing manuals. By mid-century, she explains, when social dances had become less complicated, manuals began to supplant dancing masters as the most important source of instruction. Novices and experts alike had many choices—manuals with titles like Ballroom Dancing Without a Master (1872) and The Way to Dance: A Book which Teaches the Art of Dancing Without a Master (1890)—to teach themselves new dances. Some of these manuals were small enough—only two inches high in some cases—to tuck into a handbag or pocket, enabling novitiates to refresh their lessons even as a ball was in progress.
Wilson devotes her second chapter to a discussion of Almack’s, the prestigious, exclusive London dance club that was run by a board of aristocratic women called the “Lady Patronesses.” Although Almack’s endured for almost a century (1765-1863), its heyday was during the Regency, when the considerable power of the Lady Patronesses extended beyond the ballroom to highly influential social and political circles. As one of the Lady Patronesses, for example, Lady Palmerston exploited her close connections to two Prime Ministers—she was Palmerston’s wife and Melbourne’s sister—to inveigh on current events like the Reform Bill of 1832. Lady Sarah Jersey, another Almack’s Patroness, became a prominent supporter of Queen Caroline during the trial, an event that became something of a “woman’s cause” for her and other aristocratic women. According to Wilson, Almack’s became a site where fashionable women could wield an unusually strong degree of influence beyond traditionally feminine spheres, thus illuminating the significance of dance to the operations of nineteenth-century society on a wider scale.
Even as Wilson opens up new material in these initial chapters, she also begins to lay her methodological groundwork and to explain the principles that will drive her literary analysis in chapters to come. Her goals are ambitious. Wilson argues, first of all, for the centrality and importance of dance in nineteenth-century culture, a position that is reflected in the many dance scenes we all know from Regency and Victorian novels. If I am at all typical as a literate, twenty-first-century reader, I can recognize the topical importance of such scenes without perhaps fully understanding their significance—in large degree, I suspect, because I simply don’t know enough about the dances themselves or about ballroom culture. In this respect, Wilson’s study is invaluable, providing as it does useful new information and tools for probing and situating such scenes. In addition to providing a cultural study of dance and literature, however, Wilson also wants to offer a narrative study, one that posits an intertextual relationship between literature and dance. The authors she analyzes, Wilson says, “establish an intertextuality between the literature and the dance by treating social dances as texts themselves—texts that employ particular conventions and trace distinct narratives” (5-6). Another aspect of Wilson’s intertextual paradigm is that “dance assumes a physical place within the text” (3). As these initial methodological statements illustrate, she has a multi-pronged methodological framework for grasping the significance of dance in the nineteenth century.
The final three chapters of the volume are organized around specific dances—the English country dance, the quadrille, and the waltz, respectively—that appear prominently and frequently in nineteenth-century texts. In her analyses of these texts, Wilson aims to exemplify and apply the methodological premises she established earlier. Many of the “intertextual” parallels she draws between dance and literature, however, have a hasty, somewhat cursory feel to them. How “dance assumes a physical place within the text,” for example, is not clarified by Wilson’s analysis of her selected texts. When she argues about Adam Bede (1859) that “the trajectory of Hetty’s journey [from Hayslope] recalls her position within the dance” (96), she seems to be using dance as a trope that loosely parallels two events in the text, but doesn’t show how dance and novel work together intertextually or how the novel “incorporates the presence of the physical body” (132), as Wilson puts it elsewhere. Similarly, in her discussion of references to dance in Aurora Leigh (1857), Wilson argues that “the waltz is invoked by the repetition and doubling of scenes, which highlights the development of characters by calling attention to their distinct behaviors in each situation” (146)—but she doesn’t persuade me that such repetition is attributable to the influence of the waltz and not some other rhythmic or cultural source.
Another symptom of cursory argumentation is Wilson’s lack of exchange and engagement with other scholars. While some theorists are named and discussed—Mieke Bal and Hélène Cixous, for example—the work of many other scholars is represented only by floating quotations—that is, by quotations that do not name the scholars, introduce their words, or seriously engage with their arguments. I found myself frequently flipping back to the endnotes to find out the author and source of quotations and frequently wondering why Wilson had quoted them. Like many scholars, I conceive of academic work in part as a conversation so that a field of study may be advanced, modified, and sometimes even radically challenged and changed. I did not find that kind of extended engagement in this volume.
Literature and Dance in Nineteenth-Century Britain provides a good, clear overview of the most important social dances that appear in nineteenth-century literature. Wilson’s research is impressive, and I learned much about the significance of dance in nineteenth-century British culture. Her larger claims about the intertextuality of literature and dance, however, would benefit from deeper, further exploration. In short, I craved both more and less from this volume: more reflection, more depth, and more engagement with other scholarship; and less weight placed on dance as a multi-pronged methodological tool. Even so, Wilson’s work opens up the study of an important topic for our grasp of nineteenth-century British culture and literature, and I hope that she and others continue to pursue it.
Lynn Voskuil is Associate Professor of English at the University of Houston and the author of Acting Naturally: Victorian Theatricality and Authenticity (University of Virgina Press, 2004).