“I Consider A Country-Dance As An Emblem Of Marriage”

Morgan Elizabeth

I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. (Northanger Abbey)

Inevitably, this is when female readers in persona Catherine Morland swoon as they dance with Mr. Henry Tilney–dashingly adorable, witty and amiable gentleman of Jane Austen’s debut novel, Northanger Abbey.

Rife with lovable heroines and admirable heroes, Jane Austen’s novels naturally include lots of dancing. Aware that dance developed as a form of courtship throughout the Middle Ages and beyond the Regency period, in Northanger Abbey Austen expresses her views on dance and matrimony through the mouth of our dear Mr. Henry Tilney.

Mr. Tilney illustrates various similarities between dancing and marriage. Firstly, he points out the necessity of fidelity in dancing as well as in marriage; two dance partners pledge “mutual agreeableness” which “belongs solely to each other” throughout the dance. Few social faux-pas are more discourteous than a dancer ignoring his or her partner and interacting with another. Again drawing a comparison between dancing and marriage, Tilney says, “Those men who do not choose to dance or marry themselves have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbors.”

Concerning the initiation and duration of dancing and matrimony, Tilney notes that in both dance and marriage the man has choice of a partner, while the woman has only power of refusing a proposal. Partners in either a contra-dance or marriage belong exclusively to each other until the dance’s or marriage’s dissolution. A good dancing partner or spouse does his best to please the other and perform his obligations to the best of his ability, despite leg cramps from skipping about or an aching head brought on by stressful work.

While dancing and marriage bring enjoyment to oneself, the priority is to gratify one’s partner even at the cost of one’s own comfort. Who would wish to dance with a flagging, listless man or to be married to a crabby, eternally complaining woman? The obvious answer is no one—when in a good dance or a good marriage, the thought that one would be better off elsewhere should never enter one’s head.

However, Tilney makes one observation which personal experience compels me to dissent. He says:

In one respect, there certainly is a difference. In marriage, the man is supposed to provide for the support of the woman, the woman to make the home agreeable to the man; he is to purvey, and she is to smile. But in dancing, their duties are exactly changed; the agreeableness, the compliance are expected from him, while she furnishes the fan and the lavender water.

While a husband’s duty is to support his wife and the wife’s duty is to encourage her husband, in dancing these obligations do not differ. When dancing, the man ensures that he and his partner do not collide with another couple, a sofa, a wall, or a table laden with food. He dances forward on his left foot, guiding, while the woman dances backwards on her right foot, submitting to the judgment of her partner.

Similarly, in marriage the husband and wife are equals, yet the man is the family’s head and guide.

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Ephesians 5: 22-25)

Overall, Jane Austen’s befitting comparison between dancing and matrimony (via charming Mr. Tilney) is very insightful, calling to mind the “fidelity and complaisance” which are “the principle duties of both.” These observations allow us to understand more fully, through the light-hearted pleasures of dance, the sacrosanct joy and mutual responsibilities of marriage.

Here are some English country dances from film adaptions of Jane Austen’s novel. Grimstock and Shrewsbury Lasses require three couples per set, while Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot and Ship’s Cook are to be danced with two couples per set. Enjoy! 🙂

Morgan’s best friends are God, Chesterton, Tolkien,  and Aquinas. Currently she working on her debut novel, Color Within a Flame. When she is not polluting the air due to her profligate consumption of electricity necessary to run a computer, she either runs around outside breathing the said polluted air, learning Quenya, or simply thinking.

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