Dancing as a Common Custom

In London people apply the best costumes, wear wonderful clothes and attend the best social events. It was the heart of Europe. Since common customs in Europe were not similar, one must be prepared to live in such a place.

Our readings, Roxana and Evelina brought my attention to dancing as common costume.

When Roxana came to England she was put in an English school to learn the language, proper costumes, and to become an English young-lady (Roxana, p. 6). Later, Roxana did not struggle in public. Her knowledge of the costumes gave confidence and power. She danced at any time, and with anyone. These costumes were taught not given.

However, Evelina was not as lucky as Roxana. She came to England unprepared, and had limited understanding of the society. She did not know what to expect and what to learn. Mrs. Mirvan’s family who took care of Evelina was not aware of Evelina’s unpreparedness. They did not know much of her background education. They assumed, but never asked. They overestimated Evelina’s knowledge to common costumes, such as dancing because they assumed that she learned how in France. They were expecting her to be ready for a private ball. However, a private ball in London was not like the ball in France. “A private ball this was called, so I expected to have seen about four or five couple; but Lord! my dear Sir, I believe I saw half the world!” (page 31).

Dancing in a private ball was a skill that people in London considered as common, but it was not for Evelina who had never been to a dance. This atmosphere was all new to her. “He appeared to be surprised at my terror, …  for I did not chuse to tell him it was owing to my never before dancing but with a school-girl.” (p. 33).

Not only she was not experienced, she was not familiar to these events. The pressure she was in; she was expected to behave as an English lady, made things worse. Her friend, Maria tried to tell her briefly of some costumes when dancing, “But you must speak to your partner first.” (p. 33). In public dance, one must not dance with a stranger. “for she had told us it was highly improper for young women to dance with strangers, at any public assembly.” (Page 44)

Evelina knew she was not prepared to these occasions and lacked instructions. She was not pleased with herself, “I was quite ashamed of being so troublesome, and so much above myself as these seeming airs made me appear; but indeed I was too much confused to think or act with any consistency.” (Page 34). She knew her public image is not neat anymore.

There were times when she tried to recall the rules she learned at school, but it was too late.  She added, “A confused idea now for the first time entered my head, of something I had heard of the rules of an assembly, but I was never at one before,–I have only dance d at school,–and so giddy and heedless I was, that I had not once considered the impropriety of refusing one partner, and afterwards accepting another. I was thunderstruck at the recollection: while some warmth, said, ‘This lady, Sir, is incapable of meriting such an accusation!” (p. 36).

It was unfortunate and unfair to Evelina to be put in a public place in a metropolitan area and expect her to act like a native lady. Luckily though, when Evelina raised her concerns, Mrs. Mirvan was wise enough to take responsibility of this unhappy occasion. “I then told Mrs. Mirvan my disasters, and she good-naturedly blamed herself for not having better instructed me, but said she had taken it for granted that I must know such common customs.” (Page 37).

Roxana knew all that glory that surrounded London, even though she was very young when she went to England. Evelina on the other hand, was lost. She, not only had no proper training, she was not even aware or told of such costumes and lifestyle. No one told her of what to expect or what might go right or wrong. She was unfortunate to have lived with a family that had never observed people of other background.

5 thoughts on “Dancing as a Common Custom

  1. It is true that Evelina and Roxana differed greatly. I would say that Evelina’s situation was somewhat drastic from the beginning, which put her in uncomfortable situations when she grew older.

  2. I was under the impression that Evelina was raised in England, otherwise she would be more at ease in her conversations with Mon. Du Bois (which she adamantly avoids because she cannot speak French). Evelina’s amazement at a “private” ball is not because she’s used to different ones in France, but that she’s from the country and had no occasion to attend a ball of any sort. I do agree that she is confused at how to behave, her numerous goof ups throughout Volume I make that clear.

    It doesn’t seem fair to compare Roxana to Evelina. Roxana is an adult by the time we meet her, Evelina is merely 16/17. And Roxana was raised with money, where Evelina appears to be more accustomed to meager means. Moreover, Evelina’s growth through the first two volumes is vast! She realizes that the Branghton family behaves completely inappropriately, especially for a family of substantial means from the city.

  3. I agree that it must be tough for Evalina, showing up without the possibility of knowing how should she behave, as she mentioned, she hoped very much that there is a guide or something to tell her all about it before the embarrassment happened.

  4. I agree that Evelina’s struggles with assimilating to the culture in London make her a sympathetic character. I’m curious about what Burney’s intention was in writing a novel about a girl as unfamiliar with such customs as Evelina is. In my reading, I found that Evelina’s distance from such social norms gave Burney the freedom to explore their validity (perhaps absurdity?). The passage that comes to mind for me is from Letter XI. In relating her experience at the “private ball”, Evelina describes to Mr. Villars the behavior of the gentleman in attendance:

    “The gentlemen, as they passed and reposed, looked as if they thought we were quite at their disposal, and only waiting for the honor of their commands; and they sauntered about, in a careless indolent manner, as if with a view to keep us in suspense. I don’t speak of this in regard to Miss Mirvan and myself one, but to the ladies in general; and I thought it so provoking, that I determined, in my own mind, that, far from humoring such airs, I would rather not dance at all, than with any one who should seem to think me ready to accept the first partner who would condescend to take me.” (Burney 31)

    Because Evelina is an “outsider” (having grown up in a more rural part of England), it is perfectly understandable that she would find customs in London unusual (if not downright insulting). If she had been raised in London and grew up knowing about private balls and the social mores that are associated with them, then articulating such a negative opinion about them would have been much more transgressive and, likely, frowned upon. Of course, Evelina is young and impressionable, and it’s unsurprising that she ends up changing her mind and dancing with Lord Orville at this ball. In fact, there are numerous times in the novel when she make such determinations not to engage in particular social customs, only to change her mind and ultimately enjoy the very event she previously condemned. The fact that she ultimately comes to accept many of these customs (and her anxiety about embarrassing herself by failing to behave appropriately) seem appropriate for a young girl making her “Entrance into the world” (Burney 8), but I think that Burney uses Evelina’s naïveté to her advantage and takes the opportunity to call into question the merit of some of these social customs.

  5. While there are very evident differences between Roxana and Evelina, not to mention the cultural changes that accompany the 70 years or so that have passed between the publication of the two books, it is interesting to consider the way the legibility of this particular cultural act (note: “custom,” not “costume,” which is very different!)–dance–shifts. Both Roxana and Evelina participate in dance, but in very different contexts and with very different ends. Or are they? Roxana’s expert Turkish dance is the tool through which she gains another lover, and more money; Evelina’s inexpert dance and poor knowledge of the rules surrounding genteel behavior in this context gains her the attention of a variety of suitors. What makes Roxana’s dance different from Evelina’s? What can we learn from paralleling these two moments?

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