History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

16 May 2007

From the Ballroom to Hell

Hello, all you hoydens out there! It’s a beautiful spring day here in the mountains where I live, and that translates into slim research pickings. I’m having trouble finding a blog topic out in my back yard. They didn’t drink margaritas in Victorian England, did they?

Another reason my mind isn’t on research. . . I’ve just finished writing my first contemporary romantic comedy. So aside from a few quick Google queries on lock-picking and S&M (don’t ask), I haven’t spent much time on picking up new knowledge.

When I realized it was my turn to post, I grabbed a book I hadn’t spent much time with and started thumbing through it, looking for interesting tidbits. The book is titled From the Ballroom to Hell: Grace and Folly in Nineteenth-Century Dance. Pretty enticing, huh? It’s a collection of advice from dance and etiquette manuals published during the nineteenth century. The vast majority of these were published for Americans, but there are some snippets from British books as well.

Americans were a uniquely hungry audience for this type of advice. There was no rigid hierarchy here in the new country, and people moved (slowly) up through the different strata of society. But once you moved up, how to be sure you understood the myriad rules of the polite world? Talk about stress! Add to that, there was no ton, no permanent group of fashionable people to set the standards. So where did they get them? From England, of course. And I daresay the upper-crust Americans followed these British "rules" more closely than the British did.

There were hundreds of etiquette books published for Americans in the nineteenth-century, and From the Ballroom to Hell brings many of them together for our reading pleasure. Here are a few of my favorite snippets:

"Whatever the fashions may be, never be induced by them to violate the strictest modesty. No woman can strip her arms to her shoulders and show her back and bosom without injuring her mind and losing some of her refinement; if such would consult their brothers, they would tell them how men regard it." –The Young Lady’s Friend, 1836

"A man who would marry a woman who wore a dirty stocking, or one with a hole in it, would be very likely to beat her in a month, and run away from her before a year was over. It is the mark of a lady to be always well shod. . ." –The Art of Good Behaviour, 1845

Wow. I had no idea.

"As heels are of more importance to men than heads . . .When you are perfected in the art, you cannot do better than spend the rest of your time dancing. Fail not to convince a lady that your real existence is in the ballroom, and that during all the intervening time your godlike faculties are simply taking their natural sleep. You must not dance as a mere pastime and as a occasional amusement, but you must devote yourself to it as a business and a religion. . ." –The Arts of Beauty, 1858
I just love that men were supposed to be just as simple and depthless as women, at least out in society. No talk of your industrial empire, please. Dance, you fool! Dance!

"[In waltzing]. . . When she raises her eyes, timidly at first, to that handsome but deceitful face, now so close to her own, the look that is in his eyes as they meet hers, seems to burn into her very soul. A strange, sweet thrill shakes her very being and leaves her weak and powerless. . . but the sensation is a pleasant one and grows to be the very essence of her life. . . She is now in the vile embrace of the Apollo of the evening. . . her partly nude swelling breast heaves tumultuously against his. . . She is filled with the rapture of sin in its intensity; her spirit is inflamed with passion and lust is gratified in thought. With a last low wail, the music ceases, and the dance for the night is ended, but not the evil work of the night." –From the Ballroom to Hell, 1892.
Well, I don’t know about you ladies, but I feel like going waltzing, that’s for damn sure.

Do any of you have any period etiquette manuals that just make your day? I know it’s been done before, but I’m sure I could base an entire romance on these rules. (And I apologize for the quicky nature of my last few posts. The next book is another historical, so I’ll be deep in the research again by my next topic!!!)


Blogger Camilla said...

Good grief--those manuals make it seem as though people are animals only constrained by their sound advice!

11:49 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Which is exactly how they saw them! There's a reason why a girl was not to be left alone with a man (supposedly men could not be counted upon to restrain themselves under such circumstances; and they call us the weaker sex!). I’ll have to think if I own any etiquette books . . .

12:18 PM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

I'm pretty sure I once spent several hours laughing my way through From the Ballroom to Hell. Is that the one where it's a former dance teacher who found fundamentalist religion but is obviously kind of getting off on describing the error of his former ways?

4:15 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Sorry, I should have been clearer in my original post. The book pubbed in 1991 is a compilation by Elizabeth Aldrich. The original From the Ballroom to Hell written by T. A. Faulkner was published in 1892. Here's the awesome description of him from the bibliography of Ms. Aldrich's book:

Thomas Faulkner was a former proprietor of the Los Angeles Dancing Academy. . . This damning criticism of the waltz, a narrative that reads like a Victorian novel, contains six chapters: "First and Last Step," "From the Ball-Room to the Grave," "Parlor Dancing," "Abandoned Women the Best Dancers," "Equally a Sin for both Sexes," and "The Approval of Society is no Proof Against the Degradation." Faulkner was also the author or another critical analysis of ballroom dancing called The Gates of Death; or, the Ball Room Unmasked.

That rocks so hard. HA!

5:26 PM  
Blogger Susan Wilbanks said...

I should've read the original post more carefully, and I would've realized that there are two From the Ballroom to Hells. Anyway, I did a little googling, so if anyone would like to read the 1892 book online....


5:33 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Thank you! That's awesome, Susan. Talk about some fun reading!

7:08 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...


9:48 PM  
Blogger Caffey said...

Hi all! I'm Cathie and found this group by having found an upcoming Zebra debut author (Victoria-And yes its a fab cover!)

I dearly love historicals so this is so perfect here! I'm not one who knows much about the culture and rules and history from historical romance books but I like to learn more, so I was looking into something that would be good for the beginner I am, but too a good one? Any ideas? I love many time periods (but not sure of all the time period names, but I know a few) Regency, Victorian, Medieval, Western :)
I know i'm babbling but great to be here!

12:37 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I have a marvelous Edwardian etiquette manual, which I cribbed from years ago when I was creating a cookbook as a fundraiser for my nonprofit theatre company. The company's artistic mission was to produce neglected classics of the 19th c. English stage, and so I point-shaved a bit with the Edwardian book, but some of the entries were just too delicious.

Here's one goodie: "WHAT TO TOLERATE: the whims and caprices of women in society should of course be tolerated by men, who themselves require toleration for greater inconveniences. But this must not be carried too far. There are certain limits to empire which, if they themselves forget, should be pointed out to them with delicacy and politeness. You should be the slave of women, but not all their fancies."

Oh, heck -- why not?

The "pomade against baldness" is a hoot as well; and rather a complicated recipe not too far removed from eye of newt and wool of bat, etc.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I love this post! So very "there" in that period of history.

And glad I'm not . . .!

4:25 PM  
Blogger Camilla said...

Caffey, if you go to Google Books and type in "etiquette" and make sure you're browsing "Full View", you'll find a ton of them. I've grabbed etiquette books for 19th century Washington D.C., New York, and of course, Britain. My favorite has to be the dancing manual put out by Vernon and Irene Castle, wherein they "tame" such scandalous dances like the tango and the fox-trot in the 1910s.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Aha! This explains why my grandmother insisted that my hairbrush was always clean: "what would a man think of you if he saw a dirty hairbrush!"

And that leads into the 100 brush strokes each night, clean underwear, and handwritten wedding invitation RSVPs.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Hi Cathie! I'm thrilled you found me here!

As far as a general feel for a time period, I love the sort of scandalous books that offer a lot in the way of story and titillation. Books like Courtesans by Katie Hickman or My Lady Scandalous by Jo Manning.

Kalen is one of the true book experts here. I think she made a list of her favorite research books on an earlier post. I'll be back with a link if I find it!

10:22 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Free Web Site Counter
Kennedy Western University Online