I Almost Lost My Shit in Austenland 

In Depth

Take it from me: You haven’t known true awkwardness until you’ve completely botched an English country dance at a masquerade ball at a Jane Austen Festival, disrupting the steps of Regency costume-clad people on both sides, finding yourself suddenly consumed with sympathy for the odious Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice.

When I set out to attend the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, I knew to expect the costumes. But I discovered that attendees were perhaps equally enthusiastic about dancing, with this particular Regency pastime heavily represented on the program. (Another manifestation of the long shadow cast by all those Pride and Prejudice adaptations.) There was a country dance, workshops for beginners and intermediates, a class dedicated to the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball held on the eve of Waterloo, and at the end of the week, a masquerade ball.

In hopes of not making an ass out of myself at the ball, I stopped by the beginners’ class. Oddly enough, I found myself partnered with a woman from Georgia, near where I grew up. Not a Janeite, she’d happened to be in town and thought why not? If you were expecting nostalgic elegance, you should probably know that some of the moves reminded her of square dancing.

The room was sprinkled with people who actually knew what they were doing, interspersed among those of us who were clueless. Which is how I found myself being prompted and prodded (and occasionally pushed) into doing the steps correctly by people in Regency-era attire. Though not everybody was deadly serious—during one brisk practice round I was slightly thrown by a jocular German man who clapped slightly off-beat while yelling “Faster! Faster!”

It was an energetic good time, and what’s more, I would say it did broaden my understanding of all that dancing in Austen’s work. For one thing, it’s a weirdly social activity. No one-on-one waist-grasping—couples might dance in sets of four or six, or as part of long lines stretching down the room. And yet there’s a strange intimacy about it—all the studied handholding, the eye contact necessary to make sure you move in time with one another. So you’re attuned, but always surrounded by others. It’s a complex and specific dynamic.

Despite the Austenland stereotype—crazy ladies just want to bone Mr. Darcy in some romanticized, sanitized faux-Regency theme park!!!!—the festival wasn’t limited to cosplay, dancing and Georgian meals. There was plenty of acknowledgement that the reality was often gross as hell. At a talk on “Rummaging Through the Reticule,” we were informed that ladies might carry around a gravy-boat-like dish to urinate on the go, and if you needed the facilities during a dinner party, you’d use a chamber pot behind a screen in the dining room. (A Gawker Media editor offered $100 if I’d shit in a bucket on this trip, which I refused, because $100 wouldn’t have covered the cost of finding another Airbnb.) Let’s not even get into the stomach-churning details regarding the state of the waters so many people were there to take, discussed at the talk “The Discomforts of Bath.”

But of course nobody ponies up £90—the cost of tickets to the Masquerade Ball in the historic Pump Room—to hear about chamber pots.

The festivities opened with a cocktail reception in the adjoining Great Bath. Each guest was announced to the crowd by a man with a beribboned staff and a booming voice. Women in gowns picked their way carefully over the uneven flagstones, minding that their trains didn’t go into the water (which you are firmly warned not to touch). I spoke to a young man from the Netherlands, one of a number of historical reenactors in attendance. Earlier this summer, he’d been to the bicentennial festivities at Waterloo. He likes the change of pace from going out to a noisy club, for instance, and relishes the opportunity to leave his cellphone at home. And while women were the majority, he was one of a fair few men.

At the appointed hour, we were all ushered into the Georgian surroundings of the Pump Room for dancing, then dinner, then another round of dancing. Turns out this particular style of dancing will leave you sweating and breathless—the fans aren’t purely decorative or flirty, by any means. And despite my practice, I got the real-deal Regency experience of fucking up completely. I partnered with another novice, and together we threw the entire line into disarray, fellow dancers scattering around us like ants when you’ve smudged their chemical trail. Some were more willing to laugh our mistakes off than others. No wonder Darcy hesitates to dance.

Sitting down to eat, I finally got my real Austen enthusiast experience. To my left, a trio of lively young American women chattered away with a white-haired man in a cravat about various film adaptations and theater more generally. Meanwhile, I discussed with a woman to my right what precisely Elinor Dashwood saw in Edward Ferrars. (The book version, without Hugh Grant smiling floppily at her.) My companion was of the opinion that he was the one person who wasn’t exhaustingly demanding. Sitting as we were in Regency attire, I asked her what drew her to the dress-up. “It looks good, and it feels good, and it’s fun,” she replied.

It was a surreal scene. And frankly, as a onetime teen geek who’s still got Ren Faire costumes lying around somewhere, it felt a little like I was one of those kids never allowed sugar, suddenly confronted with Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. I just wanted to gorge myself.

Hiking up my skirts to climb onto a public bus to return home for the night, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels, attended by Wellington and many of his officers, held the night before Quatre Bras, disrupted when word came that the French were advancing. What a scene, right? I didn’t even fully process how strung out on history I’d gotten until I returned to London and found myself nearly shouting “Oh my God, Bow Street! Like the Bow Street Runners!” before happily forking over the money to wander around the Aspley House, Wellington’s trophy-packed home. I was starting to resemble one of Austen’s more easily carried-away characters, like Marianne Dashwood or Catherine Moreland. If somebody had sidled up to me coming out of that party and told me I could go to Mars or be transported to the Waterloo victory celebrations just long enough to dance an incompetent quadrille with the Iron Duke, I would have happily picked the time-traveling.

This, despite the fact that I find much of what he stood for politically to be repulsive, and I’d probably gnaw my own arm off to escape the period if I was actually stuck there. Plus you’d want to make your exit before you were forced to hear somebody tinkling while you lingered over the soup course. The trick would be getting back to 2015 before you got too close to the fire and your skirt ignited, or you caught some slight cold that festered into a fatal crisis. Not to mention that until relatively recently in history, it wouldn’t have been quite the done thing to cross the Atlantic without husband, father or chaperone and wander England spending my own money as I chose, even if I chose a coffee cup featuring a painting of Colin Firth in character as Mr. Darcy.

And riding the bus, fiddling with my silk skirts in the glare of the fluorescent lights, what I really wanted to do was go home and read. I wanted to reread Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion; I wanted to read good biographies of Fanny Burney and Ann Radcliffe, two of Austen’s influences; I wanted to read my newly acquired Jane Austen in Context and my satin-covered secondhand copy of the memoirs of Harriette Wilson, Regency courtesan.

Dressing like Jane is fun and all, but I just want to read until my eyeballs fall right out of my head. No stays and no chamber pots necessary.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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