A slightly later post this weekend, because I spent most of yesterday getting ready for and then attending the Merola Opera Program’s Spring Benefit (you can see a cell phone snapshot of me and my friend Michelle, Merola’s Director of Membership and Marketing, here). In the midst of a long, fun day of setting up auction items, scrambling into my evening dress, greeting friends and bidding on auction items, and then listening to a wonderful concert and dancing into the morning, 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 Penny 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 when characters can’t make cell phone calls or send texts and emails or tweets and where it’s difficult for unmarried men and women to interact unchaperoned, balls, receptions, and other social occasions 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). 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 left the dance floor to join their regiments. 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 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.
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 and the ripples in that world caused by Ellen’s return from the Continent come through vividly.
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.
Do you have some favorite scenes from balls or other parties in books? 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?
In keeping with the theme, in this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition, Mélanie gives Gisèle (newly married and in Scotland) an account of a ball Lady Frances has given.