By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
To transpose for a moment people’s personas onto those of long-dead British authors, some of us are Brontës (as in Charlotte, Emily and Anne) — all stormy, dark and moody, like psychotic divas on a bender. Others are light, well-mannered, impeccable and wry, just a bit flirty, perpetually trying to make things come out just so. They detest imbalance and there are no crazy wives trapped in their attics (none, at least, that they would admit to). These people are Austens. As in Jane. As in the much-celebrated authoress of such endlessly film-adapted novels as Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park. For those unfortunate Brontës who wish they were Austens — or for those partial, prejudiced and ignorant few who have yet to adopt a literary persona — I offer the following field guide, of sorts, to Jane Austen’s world in our times.
On a recent November evening, one that sends chilly shivers across bare, unshawled shoulders, the two dozen or so members of the Friends of the English Regency society stroll into the Lindberg Park Hall in Culver City, where they meet once a month to dance in the manner of 19th-century aristocrats. When not co-opted for period dancing, which begins promptly at half past 7 and lasts until midnight most first Saturdays, the modest, slightly dilapidated hall serves as a children’s rec room, and it takes a talented imagination and a bit of squinting past crayoned drawings to picture the place as a grand ballroom. But as the FOTER society Web site puts it, “The floor is good, there is a kitchen we can use, and room for period card games, books to buy, and similar ornaments.” As would never occur in Austen’s time, the gathering cuts through almost every social stratum: women and men over 50 and under 30, dark skin and light, heavyset and slender, avid dancers and beginners, a lady leaning precariously against a cane, a 12-year-old boy in ill-fitting boots, and several obviously dedicated couples in graceful empire-line gowns and gentlemen’s coats with tails.
We line up in two rows for a “longways” dance called Childgrove, men on one side, women on the other. “Cultivate a relaxed comportment,” says choreographer and dance historian John Hertz, who calls out the movements. “For those who are more experienced dancers, try to be better. ‘Better’ means ‘more effortless.’ It means the right steps, at the right place, at the right time. A maximum of effect with a minimum of effort. A lady is in charge of all social situations. If something goes wrong, it is instantly the gentleman’s fault.” When Hertz declares that women of the English Regency are placed upon a pedestal and that men polish the pedestal, he is received with a sea of bemused smiles, nods and chuckles.
The Regency friends have done other things besides dancing — taking lessons in quill cutting, for example — but dancing is their main joy. The Regency style of dance is a floaty set of movements, its complex patterns a seeming metaphor for the mating dance itself, for the holding close and casting off of partners until you find your one perfect match. We begin with a bow and a curtsy. From there, it is all upper torso, squirrelly footwork, arms held aloft and pelvis in check. We are, for whatever reason — the charming Mozart playing on the portable stereo, maybe, or the headiness of our collective Austen fantasy — more gallant, more proper, more delicate and deliberate with our movements, with the carriage of our bodies, than we are in our everyday lives.
“Members of the aristocracy had dance masters, riding masters, writing masters,” says host Alice Massoglia. “From the time you could walk, you took lessons in comportment and manners. These people were obsessed with appearances. Were your horses evenly matched? Is your dress au courant? Are the vegetables at your supper parties imported? If you were the Countess of something, you could expect to be invited out to society every night.”
In between sets, Hertz, who is a lawyer by trade, slips a small blue pamphlet into my hands, a miniguide to the Regency period he’s assembled. Napoleon was at large in Europe. George IV, before becoming king, was running things as Prince Regent while his father, King George III, was busy going insane. “It was the last time when a man was expected to dance as well as he could duel — or better,” Hertz says. “One could be forgiven for not dueling.”
But there’s no excuse for not writing if you are a true Austen. This city is full of shops with a plenitude of writing accouterments. If you are desperate for a fresh notebook from the complete Russell and Hazel line and a fountain pen with green ink to write your own novel of manners, and even a lavender candle to place inside a Moroccan lantern to keep the cold night at bay as you scribble, not to mention a silk pillow to sit upon, a porcelain tea set to sip Darjeeling, a dollop of honey to swirl into said tea, and a tiny terra cotta pot of moss or even a bouquet of flowers to place in a glass vase on your desk for inspiration, you really should head to our city’s stationery mecca, Soolip Paperie & Press, on Melrose.