On Dancing and Marriage

For many of us dancing has become almost a free-for-all activity with dance floors just a few steps removed from being mosh pits. The idea of having a designated dance partner is relegated to the slow dances where a girl’s arms are around a guy’s neck and his arms are around her waist. If it is a chaperoned event then hands are on shoulders and hips and the couple is to hold their partner firmly at arms length. I wish we had dances like the assemblies Austen describes in her novels.

In Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen during one of the assemblies where Catherine Morland is to dance with Henry Tilney she is momentarily held up by John Thorpe who upon being denied a dance with Catherine launches into an asinine monologue about a horse for sale and hunting before being drawn away “by the resistless pressure of a long string of passing ladies.” Every time I read that scene I laugh.

John Thorpe is the most absurd man in the Austen canon aside from Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice. Actually I believe Thorpe trumps Collins, because at least Mr. Collins could only be accused of over esteeming Lady Catherine and what is to be expected of a lady during a proposal. John Thorpe actually goes off on a completely unrelated tangent of absurdity when talking.

Thorpe basically walks up to Catherine, asks her to dance, and when she refuses saying she’s already engaged to dance with Henry Tilney Thorpe’s response amounts to, “But I told everyone I was going to dance with you. Do you think Tilney wants to buy a horse? My friend has one. We’re going hunting again next season. Oh, look! Pretty girls.” And walks away.

It is then that Henry Tilney comes to claim his dance, and it has not escaped his notice that Thorpe was talking too much with Catherine, though he clearly didn’t hear a word Thorpe was saying or he might have felt differently about it. Tilney has his own thoughts on the issue of dancing with a lady, and though they are flattering they seem a bit extreme.

We have entered into a contract of mutual agreeableness for the space of an evening, and all our agreeableness belongs solely to each other for that time. Nobody can fasten themselves on the notice of one, without injuring the rights of the other. I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not choose to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours.

That last bit about “partners or wives” I also find funny every time I read it.

Now Henry establishes himself as a bit of a playful speaker the first time he and Catherine are introduced, so it may be that he is speaking a bit tongue-in-cheek here. But he goes on to compare dancing and marriage, which seems provoking, if not suggestive.

You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with any one else.

Put that way would you agree that dancing and marriage are comparable? I’m not sure how I feel about it, but I can tell you dancing and marriage today are nothing like that.

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