“I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.
Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 3
Oh, dear…the unreconstructed Darcy at his worst. He didn’t make many friends that evening at the Meryton Assembly did he?
But, do you ever wonder about the nature of pubic assemblies and how they began? Assembly Rooms epitomise , for me at least, certain aspects of Georgian life which have disappeared for ever: public assemblies of the company, where local people -often of differing social classes- could socialise, dance ( in the Ballroom), gamble ( in the Card Room) and take fashionable refreshments ( in the Tea Room). If the intricacies of this type of entertainment has ever intrigued you while reading Jane Austen, then this next short series of posts is for you. Let’s look at how they began, developed, the sort of rooms they begat, their rules and the personnel involved, and the ones Jane Austen knew.(Well, that should keep us busy for the next few days….)
The fashion for public assemblies- balls where people from the genteel or trade classes in an area could meet together to socialise in an elegant environment -began in the early 18th century. The first assemblies were where genteel people met for conversation, taking tea and playing cards. Dancing was added to the agenda soon after, and during the 1720s this type of assembly became very, very popular. These first public assemblies were held in any large room or building which could accommodate a great gathering of people who wanted to dance country dances. The very nature of these dances called for a long room, that is longer than it was wide. An example of an existing building being adapted for use for assemblies, is the Guildhall in Boston, Lincolnshire. In early 18th century Boston assemblies were held not in a specially built set of assembly rooms but in “The Big Room” in the Guildhall, a building which was originally built in the 14th century. The room was newly fitted out with sash windows, it had a first floor gallery for the musicians and it had benches fitted around the walls to accommodate those not dancing. This was to become the pattern for ballrooms in sets of assembly rooms all over the country. Here, below, is an illustration by Rowlandson from my copy of The Poetical Sketches of Scarborough,(1813) and it contains many elements with which we are familiar from reading Jane Austen’s descriptions of balls. Let’s look at the print in some detail. You can see that the ballroom is separated from the tea room and the card room by arches; the musicians are above the company in a gallery, just visible to the right of the picture:
You can also see that those not dancing are promenading about, and some are sitting on benches arranged around the walls, to the rear of the picture , under the curtained windows. There are chaperones, older men and couples. Note the presence of a clergyman -dressed in black, centre front- dancing, just like Mr Collins would do at the Netherfield Ball. And also note the presence of children, to the right of the picture, exactly as Jane Austen describes in this scene from her unfinished fragment, The Watsons. The assembly scene in this fragment is full of exquisite details, and confirms that the presence of young children was a usual thing. In this scene, quoted below, the young boy, Charles, is disappointed when Miss Osbourne quite unfeelingly fails to dance with him preferring instead to dance with Colonel Beresford, despite having previously promised Charles a dance:
If the poor little boy’s face had in its happiness been interesting to Emma, it was infinitely more so under this sudden reverse; he stood the picture of disappointment, with crimsoned cheeks, quivering lips, and eyes bent on the floor. His mother, stifling her own mortification, tried to soothe his with the prospect of Miss Osborne’s second promise; but though he contrived to utter, with an effort of boyish bravery, “Oh, I do not mind it!” it was very evident, by the unceasing agitation of his features, that he minded it as much as ever.
Emma did not think or reflect; she felt and acted. “I shall be very happy to dance with you, sir, if you like it,” said she, holding out her hand with the most unaffected good-humour. The boy, in one moment restored to all his first delight, looked joyfully at his mother; and stepping forwards with an honest and simple “Thank you, ma’am,” was instantly ready to attend his new acquaintance. The thankfulness of Mrs. Blake was more diffuse; with a look most expressive of unexpected pleasure and lively gratitude, she turned to her neighbour with repeated and fervent acknowledgments of so great and condescending a kindness to her boy. Emma, with perfect truth, could assure her that she could not be giving greater pleasure than she felt herself; and Charles being provided with his gloves and charged to keep them on, they joined the set which was now rapidly forming, with nearly equal complacency…
It is very apparent that Jane Austen knew, from her descriptions of balls and assemblies in her novels, that people not only found happiness, but sometimes humiliations in these places.
Back to assemblies…It soon became clear that these assemblies were an ideal place for a marriage market to thrive. Daniel Defoe in his Tour of Great Britain (1727) was appalled by this aspect of assembly balls. In his withering comments made on the Winchester and the Dorset assemblies, you can clearly see that he was not at all impressed. With regard to the assemblies in Winchester, where the gentry and wealthy clergy mixed, he dourly and ironically noted that:
As there is such good company, so they are gotten into that new-fashioned way of conversing by Assemblies. I shall do no more than mention them here: they are pleasant and agreeable to the young people,and sometime fatal to them, of which in its place Winchester has its share of the mirth: may it escape the ill consequences…
In Dorset he noted that the ladies:
…do not want the Help of Assemblies to assist in match-making; or half pay officer to run away with their daughters…
Mrs Bennet ought, perhaps,to have taken note.
These assemblies became, quite understandably, very popular, despite Defoe’s misgivings, and soon they developed from being held in rooms in existing buildings or inns(as in the Crown in Emma) to being put on in purpose-built sets of Assembly Rooms, and these began to spring up in towns all over the country. The earliest purpose-built rooms to survive are those in Stamford in Lincolnshire, which I wrote about, here .
You can see , in the picture of the ballroom, above, the raised dais for the musicians,( a development of the late 18th century), the benches set around the walls, the fireplaces to keep people warm and the magnificent chandeliers to provide an expensive and beautiful illumination to the room. Compare it to the Scarborough picture above, and you will find many common elements. This set was first built in 1726.
Lord Burlington designed the Assembly Rooms in York, and they were built between 1728-30, but sadly they were a triumph of form over function.
The ballroom was a beautiful but rather impractical design: a recreation of an “Egyptian Hall”, which you can see here, below, hosting a modern “Georgian Ball”:
The room, though stunningly beautiful, originally had no gallery for the musicians and no heating. Chaperones and spectators had to view the dancing through the colums which lined the area for dancing, and when benches were eventually introduced to make their watch more comfortable, they made the space rather cramped. The area for dancing also disappointed: at 28 feet wide it was rather too narrow for the two parallel sets of dancers which was the norm for large assemblies.
The purpose-built assembly rooms nearly always followed a similar pattern: here is the floor-plan of the Upper Rooms at Bath, as designed by John Wood, and you can clearly see the large ballroom with its musicians gallery, the separate card room (which also had a musicians gallery),where Mr Allen in Northanger Abbey took refuge from the dancing and talk of muslins, and the tea room where refreshments could be taken. Note also the colonnade for the sedan chairs used so profusely in the Bath terrain, and the separate entrance for carriages.
Similar smaller sets of rooms were found in many provincial towns and many had impressive features, for their object was to promote not only the impression that the rooms were a place of enjoyment but, importantly, were also an elegant place for “the company” to gather together. Hertford, which we have seen was most probably the inspiration for Jane Austen’s Meryton, had the impressive Shire Hall, below:
This large building, designed by the architect, Robert Adam’s brother, James, was multi-purpose. It not only houses a ballroom where dances took place, but the courts where criminal and civil cases were (and are) heard. Very handy for Sir William Lucas,as we shall see later in this series;)
Next, how these rooms were used.