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Book Review: Elite Dancing and Dining in London and Paris

2012 June 1
by lucinda matthews-jones

Society Dancing: Fashionable Bodies in England, 1870-1920, by Theresa Jill Buckland, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, x + 200 pp., £50.00 (hardback) ISBN 978-0-230-27714-4

Bourgeois Consumption: Food, Space and Identity in London and Paris, 1850-1914, by Rachel Rich, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011, ix + 213 pp., £55.00 (hardback) ISBN 978-0-7190-8112-5

Reviewed by Dr Kelly Boyd, Institute of Historical Research, University of London

k.boyd@blueyonder.co.uk

As Leonore Davidoff showed us in The Best Circles, one of the most difficult tasks in nineteenth-century English high society was the maintenance of one’s place in the hierarchy.[1] As the upper middle class expanded, this came to be more and more the province of women who monitored class status and reinforced it.  In both the books here, the way this happened is teased out through two ubiquitous–but little studied–parts of middle-class life: dancing and eating.  Theresa Jill Buckland demonstrates how dancing was rejuvenated from a rather tedious set of rote movements to include more socially alluring forms, how Society dancing became popular down the social ladder, and how it eventually escaped the eyes of chaperones and allowed independence to modern young people in the early twentieth century.  Rachel Rich’s study examines the social settings of dining inside and outside the home in London and Paris, allowing the reader to witness the stresses of home entertaining, the arrival of restaurant dining, and the flight of men to their clubs in London, while providing an illuminating contrast with how things were done in Paris, the capital of the gastronomic world.  Each investigation enhances our understanding of class and gender in this period, and the ways social rituals evolved in response to the need for society to define proper middle-class behaviour.

Dancing was ubiquitous in depictions of the nineteenth century.  Contemporary novels were certain to include a ballroom scene and few films or television dramas about the period miss the opportunity to have a scene set on the dance floor.  Military men reminisce about it, young women and their mothers fetishise its importance in their lives, and it serves as the analogue to the battlefield for heroines.  The animating events for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice derive from opinions formed in the ballroom and Buckland demonstrates that social dancing was an integral part of elite culture in the early nineteenth century.  She shows its roots in court culture where intricately patterned dances allowed a certain amount of social discourse between men and women.  In the course of her book, Buckland traces the way dance cemented the social standing of the rising upper middle class as part of a new elite, but also incorporated the lower middle class in new venues by the end of the century.

Dancing and ballrooms were an important facet of upper-class life.  They allowed efficient networking, reinforcing ties between notable families while permitting them to display their social and cultural capital.  Dances in London during the season were not public events, but mostly took place in the ballrooms of private homes.  In fact, Buckland notes that, until the Savoy opened in 1889, there were no large public rooms for dancing in the capital.  The end of the century saw an escalation in the building of new venues (mostly in hotels).  Guest lists were carefully vetted and those who aspired to join the elite rightly perceived an invitation to a ball as a stamp of approval.  This is unsurprising and Buckland wants to take us deeper into the event.  What was the shape of the evening?  To what extent was a ball fixed in terms of the programme?  Which dances were popular?  How intricate were they?  How did people learn them?  Perhaps more important, how successful was society dancing in maintaining its role as an arbiter of social rank?

Buckland reveals that, as central as dancing was to the elite’s ability to replicate itself, there were serious challenges to it.  The most important one by far was the growing male disenchantment with both acquiring the skill of dancing and having to attend events, which required surrendering themselves to an evening of indifferent companions and judgmental matrons.   This should be seen in the context of new ideas about manliness, which stressed the athleticism of the playing field as part of the rise of the public school.  Prowess on the dance floor never could match running on the rugby field.  Therefore many young men never mastered the skills and knowledge which allowed them to do more than a passable waltz, and Buckland suggests that even this dance challenged most of them.  Skill at dancing was also glossed as an indicator of lower social standing, because it revealed that one had had tuition, and only the socially insecure were believed to do this.  But another important factor was that men were no longer as leisured as they had once been.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century men attending balls derived their income from inherited wealth which generally was managed by someone else.  By mid-century this had changed and many of the men who attended balls in London were part of the new upper middle class.  Perhaps their wealth derived from being ‘something in the city’, but many of the young men had employment that required them to be in the office during the day.  Balls paid little recognition to this change and often stretched far into the night when men had to work the next day.  They were tired and, Buckland suggests, somewhat resentful of surrendering their free time to rituals they did not enjoy.  This only began to change at the turn of the century with the introduction of new dances and new venues for dancing.

The new dances arrived from the U.S. in the form of the Barn Dance (a form of Schottische), the Washington Post, the Two-Step and the Cake Walk.  They would later be joined by syncopated ragtime dances, the Tango (from Argentina), and a quicker version of the waltz that had evolved.  Dancing also began to escape the intensely-monitored ballroom for the more relaxed atmosphere of the restaurant or public ballroom.  No longer would the rules of only one or two dances with the same partner each evening be enforced, nor would the intimacy of many of the new steps be curtailed.  The increased leisure time of the lower middle and upper working classes also meant that dancing had reached into new populations.

This rejuvenation of social dancing also saw the creation of a new type of worker, the professional dancing teacher.  While dancing masters had existed for a long time, these new practitioners professionalized what they did and combined it with the new commercialisation of culture to become arbiters of dancing fashions.  They taught all levels of society and adroitly moved where people had the leisure to dance.  The most successful spent part of the year in Paris, learning the latest steps and taking on the polish of the city that stood for cultured modernity.  London became a centre of the formalization of society dancing, which a century later can still be seen in the type of competitive dancing on show in Strictly Come Dancing on the BBC.  My only regret about this book is that there is no attached website where one could see the different dances demonstrated.  Buckland has achieved something marvellous here, an academic monograph which takes what might be seen as a very minor part of life and demonstrates its significance for class position, social and cultural capital, gender definitions, professionalisation, and modern leisure culture.

Rachel Rich has a rather different tale to tell in her study of the role of dining in the creation of social relations in London and Paris between 1850 and 1914.  She sees it in the context of the creation of a transnational bourgeois culture.  Dining became a crucial signifier of class status as more families sought to establish and maintain their improved place in society.  That said, Rich also admits that the evidence of how eating in the home actually worked is very sketchy, with more evidence from the prescriptive literature than from primary sources.  Still, she can show that in London it was common for the middle classes to have a separate dining room in their houses, while in Paris this was a rarer occurrence with more people living in flats.  In the French capital, dining in the sitting room was a frequent event, perhaps because there were more restaurants from early on where one could entertain.

In both countries dining rooms were decorated with the man of the family in mind.  The rooms were masculinised with husbands controlling the overall décor while wives might be more concerned with the look of the table.  When guests were  expected, men expected to advise on the menu as entertaining was often in aid of his work.  It is in Paris that Rich finds further evidence of more informal entertaining at home, particularly of a man’s business colleagues when wives might be excluded and a meal arranged with less ceremony.  But the picture Rich paints is really only a sketch and the varieties of dining in Paris seem less well established.

The evidence about London is richer and reveals a world, if not full of snobs, then full of people keen to maintain any class advantage they had managed to acquire.  Dinner parties at home in the metropolis seem far more worrisome than their counterparts elsewhere.  One small error and a family’s social standing might never recover.  Rich reveals that the rise of the restaurant helped to ease this a bit as it transferred dining outside the intimacy of one’s home—where one might be judged on so many different levels—and made it far easier to entertain.  All one had to do was choose an evening’s menu and the restaurant would do the rest.  Entertaining at home could wait until one was truly established and had the proper setting and servants to bring it off.  Meanwhile, one demonstrated social success by entertaining at the fastest-growing sector of London’s leisure sector, the restaurant.  These establishments (which could be in hotels like the Savoy) offered fine dining in an elegant setting, served by a trained staff.

Rich also explores the role of the club as a setting for dining.  Gentlemen’s clubs had, of course, been around for much of the century, but by the end of the century more and more men used them as substitutes for what they saw as the feminised domesticity of the home.  The masculinised domesticity of London clubs resided not only in their décor, dominated by wood panelling, books and leather armchairs, but in the menu they served.  They were convenient places both to lunch and to dine and Rich examines in some detail the way clubs were run so they could provide these services.  There was no analogous set of institutions in Paris, although some dining clubs did emerge late in the century.

To what extent do these two studies help us to understand how dancing and dining constituted bits of cultural capital?  After all, these two activities seem to be mainly leisure activities once the basic need for sustenance is taken into account.  To engage in Buckland’s kind of dancing in Britain was to be drawn into the practices of the elite.   She traces the path of widening social inclusivity and sensitively explores why the experience of society dancing was so different for men and women.  Rich’s study also gives a crucial insight into men’s roles vis-à-vis dining.  While this might seem to be the quintessential responsibility of women, she argues that, for men, dining as entertaining had a significance, helping them in their careers, establishing them as men of importance, and, occasionally, making it clear that they had mastered this bit of cultural capital.  Whether entertaining at home, inviting guests for a meal at a restaurant, or withdrawing to the peace of their club, men understood that food was only one aspect a social ritual.  Rich’s book is stronger on the British side, but her French comparisons do serve to throw those practices into relief.  Dining customs were not replicated on both sides of the channel.  Rich’s work is somewhat marred by repetition and her focus on the prescriptive literature.  France remained the acknowledged capital of world cuisine, but the reason so many top chefs made the move to Britain was that political instability in France was trumped by expanding British wealth, making their skills a valuable commodity there.  In Britain, French chefs were highly valued and they figured out how to profit from that.  The restaurant culture which they encouraged as well as the fame they garnered in cooking for the wealthiest members of the elite helped to make the consumption of food an element of the cultural capital one needed to move up the social ladder.  By the 1920s eating and dancing would be aligning with each other as one ate a divine meal, then moved to the dance floor to demonstrate one’s flair at the latest craze.

Kelly Boyd has been a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London since 2006.  Her research interests have focused on two main areas: masculinity in Britain from the Victorian period to the Second World War and, more recently, the early history of television in Britain, especially its responses to Americanisation.  Her major publications include: Manliness and the Boys’ Story Paper in Britain: A Cultural History, 1855 – 1940 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003);  The Victorian Studies Reader, edited with Rohan McWilliam (Routledge, 2007); (as editor) Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing (Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999).  In 2011 with Mark Hampton, she edited and contributed to a themed issue of Media History, which focused on Television and Cultural History in the Anglophone World.


[1] Leonore Davidoff, The Best Circles: Society, Etiquette and the Season (London: Croom Helm, 1973).

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