- Dance in the Nineteenth Century
Cheryl Wilson’S Literature and Dance in Nineteenth-Century Britain sets out to be the first full-length study of its kind, and to that extent the book succeeds in its purpose. Wilson demonstrates what readers of Jane Austen may already have learned: dance in the nineteenth century was imbued with gender politics. More broadly, Wilson argues that dance served numerous social and cultural functions associated with ideas of class and nationhood as well as gender. Wilson, however, refuses to make any generalizations based on her research, arguing that such attempts would be “both grandiose and fruitless” (17); her argument is that dance is important because it was a widespread, “lived experience” (3), but she does not attempt to explain why dance was such a widespread experience, nor does she consider how such issues as class and gender, or gender and nationhood, might be related. As a result, many opportunities for a more in-depth, nuanced consideration of the social significance of dance are missed in favor of a collection of close readings placed in the context of nineteenth-century ideas about dance that set out to prove, and do prove, that dance was an activity filled with significance to people in the nineteenth century.
The book’s greatest strength is its chapter on the history of nineteenth- century ideas about dance. Here Wilson discusses and summarizes numerous dance manuals, and the chapter draws together much information not readily available elsewhere. Critics of dance scenes in novels will find the information useful—as Wilson points out, knowing that the waltz was often considered risqué because of the closeness with which the man held his partner adds nuance to scenes such as [End Page 498] that in Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? in which Plantagenet Palliser is angry with his wife for dancing the waltz repeatedly with a former lover.
Wilson’s close readings are often interesting and show an eye for detail, and she is always careful to argue for not only the significance of an individual scene, but that scene’s importance to the text as a whole. She discusses a range of texts (primarily novels), from the beginning of the century (Jane Austen) to the end (Ella Hepworth Dixon), from canonical and noncanonical writers alike. Students of the silver-fork novel, in particular, will find Wilson’s book useful, as over a third of the texts she discusses are in this subgenre. In these close readings, she succeeds in demonstrating that nineteenth-century authors used representations of dance to bolster or nuance their thematic ends. These readings impress one with the thoroughness of, for example, Austen, in ensuring that every moment in the text serves a purpose; while Wilson’s close readings illuminate the technique of the authors she discusses, though, it is not always clear whether the representation of dance in these texts adds anything to the discussion of a given text’s social or cultural functions. This is not because Wilson does not have original points to make; rather, the originality of her points is not always clear because she rarely refers to any previous scholarship of any given text. Some reference to the body of work that surrounds many of the novels—Emma, Aurora Leigh, or Vanity Fair—would have been helpful in aiding the reader’s understanding not only of what Wilson brings to the discussion, but of what a consideration of dance adds to it.
The close readings are organized by dance types—one chapter is on the quadrille, for instance, and another on the waltz. This arrangement means that Wilson, for the most part, forgoes discussion of how ideas about dance or representations of dance might change over the century; in general, the book makes little distinction between texts from the Romantic era and those from the fin de siècle. In keeping with this lack of concern for chronology, Wilson too often cites texts from the seventeenth, eighteenth, or early twentieth centuries to bolster or make...