The fire throws its warmth across the room and one of the guests has stretched out on the sofa to sleep. Though Miss Bingley has a book in her lap her attention is on Darcy as he reads his own. Every time she makes some inquiry of him, he responds, but quickly returns to his page. Miss Bingley stifles a yawn at her book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, and declares that there is no enjoyment like reading, watching Darcy for his reaction.
He makes none. Nobody speaks. She throws the book aside.
Now, her brother begins talking of a ball he plans on hosting at Netherfield.
Charles! she says, wanting to know if he is quite serious. She is certain there are many to whom a ball would be rather a punishment than a pleasure.
I was 12 when I went to my first ball. I had recently broken my wrist. My unease at going to this ball – aside from concerns about not being pretty enough, and fancying boys that weren’t interested in me – was the cast on my arm.
My best friend suggested I try my dress on to see how it looked. The crushed velvet, elasticised fabric did fit over the cast, but the arm appeared chunky; my hand seemed to be a claw, set in the fibreglass as it was.
We decide to cut it off.
I’ve been in plaster for three weeks and with only one more to go I’m certain it will be fine. After we manage to hack everything away, and I spend a few moments inspecting my pale, sweaty wrist, it begins to throb.
Crap, that was definitely a bad idea, I say.
I end up back at the hospital, getting another cast fitted. The doctor acts solemn – a deep crease at the bridge of his nose, implying that what I did was galactically irresponsible.
At this age, anything serious makes me think of murder. I feel an awful heaviness. Despite this, I am unable to stop giggling, when no one is looking. Perhaps this is my defence against the solemnity of death – laughing away the cloud that keeps swelling above me.
There, the doctor says – triumphant – adding one final hunk to the palm of my hand, which I cannot close my fingers around.
This cast is nothing like the first one. Originally, it had only gone halfway up my arm – a knitted fibreglass bandage impregnated with polyurethane, which was light and compact. Now I have a plaster of paris club, which weighs a great deal. The cast reaches my elbow, all lumpy and misshapen. I’m certain the doctor has done this on purpose.
The dress still stretches over, but I look like something out of a zombie movie. Even if someone did want to dance with me, I’m not sure I could with this anvil hanging off my body.
Catherine longed to dance, but she had no acquaintance in the room. Mrs. Allen did all she could do by saying: I wish you could dance, my dear—I wish you could get a partner.
Catherine felt obliged to her for these wishes; but they were repeated so often, and proved so ineffectual, that she eventually grew tired.
My friends and I had the same concerns – not being able to approach boys and ask them to dance. At least my two girlfriends were pretty. I knew it would take a stranger the courage of a lion to cross the room and make an offer, and my looks were never going to inspire that. This didn’t stop me, dreaming of having the kind of face that might encourage such an act, searching for the boy who would be the one to roar, bound to my side and offer his paw.
We were dependent on our dates: three boys from school. I was in love with all of them in some way. But my best friend was only in love with one of them, so he had to be hers – not that I had to concede anything to her, beautiful as she was. It was a bit heartbreaking because this boy was the most intriguing of the three, though, I was terrified of him, of passion. The second boy was a mystery. He was sporty and, even though he was a total pin up, he didn’t seem interested in girls yet. But who knew?
Certainly not us.
And then there was the lad I’d grown up with who was always fun to be around.
We wondered if the boys would dance. We were scared they wouldn’t want to, or how it was all going to happen. Would we dance in a group? Or would we all pair up? And who would pair up with whom?
We came up with every scenario: all the boys wanting to dance with the same girl, the wrong boys wanting to dance with the wrong girls. What to do if certain songs came on. What to do if we saw each other dancing with a boy – which song to quickly request. For me it was No Woman No Cry.
How would we slow dance?
How would we dance in general?
We planned humorous things to say, secret signals to make if we needed to be interrupted, or rescued; a time schedule, including moments we would convene, go to the toilet, check in, update.
This is how we wiled away the time. It was our consolation for the agony of waiting; our substitute for the real. Just as it had been for Jane Austen: I hope we shall meet next week to talk this over, she writes to her intimate friend Martha – till we have tired ourselves with the very idea of my visit before my visit begins.
I grew up before the advances of social media. There were no mobiles at school, just a noticeboard outside the dining room where you could leave and receive notes. At home, with my friends in the school holiday, talking about boys, we couldn’t go online and stalk their facebook page, we simply had to console ourselves with words, stories, dreams. News was everything.
I shall be extremely anxious to hear the event of your ball, and shall hope to receive so long and minute an account of every particular that I shall be tired of reading it, Jane Austen writes to her sister.
There has been much debate at the quote (‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading’), which will accompany Jane Austen’s portrait on our £10 because it comes from a devious character – said falsely, merely to impress. But the scene from which it is taken reveals so much. Writers seek ways of showing characters – their temperament, their idiosyncrasies. For Jane, reading was a way to experience a world she couldn’t in person. To be disingenuous about the importance books was a folly she wished to attribute to Miss Bingley. Truly loving a book was a sign of authenticity.
But even Jane recognised that they were not to replace the real thing when the real thing could be got.
You distress me cruelly by your request about books, she writes to Martha. I cannot think of any to bring with me, nor have I any idea of our wanting them. I come to you to be talked to, not to read or hear reading; I can do that at home; and indeed I am now laying in a stock of intelligence to pour out on you as my share of the conversation.
Some have accused her work as superficial, even dull, but although the world of her stories is limited, I cannot fault her meticulous observation. As a young girl, reading her books made me feel less alone.
Catherine began to feel something of disappointment – she was tired of being continually pressed against by people…all of whom she was so wholly unacquainted that she could not relieve the irksomeness of imprisonment by the exchange of a syllable with any of her fellow captives…
…when at last arrived in the tea-room, she felt yet more the awkwardness of having no party to join, no acquaintance to claim…
At some point in the ball, we wonder where the boys are. We’ve arrived, come into the main room where disco lights panic across the floor in various colours. A few people dance at the edges – lucky girls with boys. Soft drinks sit in paper cups on the bar. People lounge at tables, talking. Others stand in nonchalant poses in the hallways.
We decide to see if the boys are outside. No. We search the shadows of the large room. We even look on the dancefloor, thinking: well we’ve been everywhere else, so this is the only place they can be.
We ask boys coming out of the toilets if they’ve seen them, make another circuit, take in the corridors, the entrance hall, and then we say quietly to each other: maybe they’ve…gone?
We gather at the payphone and ring them.
The lad I grew up with answers the phone. Nothing in his voice suggests there’s anything amiss – the casual way he says, yes? when I blurt out his name.
But you’re at home! I say.
You’re supposed to be here with us at the ball!
Oh, yeah, he says.
Well…it was boring.
But you only gave it half an hour, and you just left, and you didn’t tell us.
Yeah, well, we didn’t want to bother you.
Hang on, I tell him, consulting my friends. We decide that we have to persuade them to come back.
When I get back on the line it’s the sporty boy.
Who’s this? he asks.
It’s me – Gabs!
Surprisingly, something about the telephone begins a new energy in motion. We all take turns talking to each other, going through all the combinations. We grow bold.
We tell them how dumb they were to leave, because now it’s really got going.
It’s gone insanely wild, I say, suggesting various things that are happening in a vague way so that they’ll just have to come and see for themselves, won’t they?
The company began to disperse when the dancing was over – enough to leave space for the remainder to walk about in some comfort; and now was the time for a heroine, who had not yet played a very distinguished part in the events of the evening, to be noticed and admired.
Every five minutes, by removing some of the crowd, gave greater openings for Catherine’s charms. She was now seen by many young men who had not been near her before.
Not one, however, started with rapturous wonder on beholding her, no whisper of eager inquiry ran round the room…
We ended up going home early when the boys didn’t materialise, feeling bad for not seeing the ball through; we’d only managed to dance for a few songs – the three of us in a small, self-conscious circle. When I explained what had happened to my mother, she was outraged. The boys were in big trouble.
Although this was pleasing to me, it didn’t resolve anything, or undo anything. Yes, they would be told off, but this didn’t supply me with what I’d wanted.
With all my heart I had longed to dance with a boy under the ruby glow of disco lights.
Catherine Morland is the heroine of Northanger Abbey - a useful book to read for Jane Austen’s earlier style, showing more of the self-conscious writer than later works.
For more of my thoughts on characterisation.
My best friend now runs a rather beautiful online shop for bespoke, vintage and antique furniture, which is certainly worth a peek.