I have what seems like an endless collection of works of nineteenth-century women's fiction that I plow through for the dance references whenever I have the chance. Most of them are overly sentimental and laden with heavy-handed moral messages. "Reminiscences", which was serialized in the American women's periodical Godey's Lady's Book from February to June, 1865, was no exception to this, alas, but at least it was relatively short.
The background of the piece is a bit of a mystery. The author is the same "Ethelstone" credited with "Dancing the Schottische" (Godey's, July 1862), which I discussed a few years ago. I've never been able to locate any information about this author. And "Reminiscences" adds a new element of confusion because it is written in first person and purports to be the story of one Ethel Stone. Was "Ethelstone" actually a woman named Ethel Stone? Is this fiction masquerading as memoir? Or part of an actual memoir of a life that oh-so-conveniently included the elements of a mid-nineteenth-century morality tale? That seems unlikely, so I assume that it's fiction. But I may never know for certain.
The setting of "Reminiscences" is equally unclear; it takes place in a nameless village and nearby city, and the only clues to the time in the text are that it is before the era of hundreds of people attending "stand-up" parties and dancing the polka and schottische (dances which became popular in the 1840s), instead taking place back in the days when parties were smaller gatherings where some people would sit around the edges of the room while others danced cotillons and contra dances. That doesn't help much; "cotillons" was used for decades in America to refer to what the rest of the world thought of as quadrilles, so the tale could take place any time from the late eighteenth century to the 1830s, or even early 1840s.
The plot is typical of the women's fiction of mid-nineteenth century. A quick summary: Ethel ("Ettie") Stone meets a Mr. Morton at her very first adult party. Despite the rivalry of local beauty Helen Leland for his affections, she wins his heart by her innocence. Morton has a tragic past involving being abandoned by a mother who was corrupted by society, so his and Ettie's engagement is jeopardized when she visits the big city and enjoys its gaieties and flirtations. After overhearing Morton's plans to break their engagement, Ettie reforms herself, returns to her village, and marries Morton. At the end, Morton's mother, diseased and dying, shows up on their doorstep and is taken in due to Ettie's kind heart. She reconciles with Morton's father, though perhaps not with Morton, and dies, penitent and forgiven.
The message is not exactly subtle.
For once, however, dancing is not presented as part of society's corruption, perhaps because in comparison with the polka and schottisch of 1865, with their close ballroom hold and tendency toward romping, the set dances of the unspecified earlier era had come to seem quite innocent.
Part I of "Reminiscences" opens with young Ettie preparing to attend her very first party: an adult dress, her hair supposed to be braided up (though in the end she leaves it down in "childish" curls), her mother's pearls. She is shy at the party, clinging to her mother, and accidentally spills coffee on herself during supper. Helen is patronizing. Morton is charming.
The first dance-related text is the description of the party:
My first appearance in social life, dear reader, was before “stand-up” parties were in fashion. They did not assemble in hundreds at parties then; nor was a hostess compelled to entertain a stranger escort for every lady guest. Then, too, the polka and the schottisch had not banished the furniture from the reception-rooms; but the guests were demurely seated around the room.
This actually says more about the dancing of the 1860s than it does of its ambiguous bygone era: the parties are large, every lady must have an escort, and the rooms must be emptied of furniture to provide space for dancing. The first point is misplaced nostalgia; there were balls for hundreds long before the introduction of the polka. The second and third speak to the requirements of balls at which the focus has shifted to couple dancing. A good balance of ladies and gentlemen is more important for partnering, and the dances are more chaotic and potentially cover more ground at greater speed than the square or longways sets of a quadrille, cotillon, or country (contra-) dance.
After supper, Morton asks Ettie to dance, but she is too shy and refuses him:
“Will you join the dancers?”
“Oh, no! I could not think of dancing here,” I exclaimed, all alarmed again at the idea of standing up in the middle of the room.
“We shall see, by-and-by,” he replied. “I will not urge it now.” And when we reached mamma, he left us. A few moments after I saw him standing beside Helen in a cotillon. How handsome she was! and how gracefully she moved through the dance!…”
Morton is not easily discouraged and returns to Ettie for the next dance:
“Come, Miss Stone, I claim your promise for the contra-dance; quick, or we shall lose our places.”
Before I had a chance to say “No,” I was standing in the dance. How I trembled when my turn came! But the pleasure of dancing and the inspiring strains of the violin overcame my fears, and I had almost reached the foot of the set without accident, when the words, “She dances well,” startled me. Involuntarily I paused; fortunately the next move was to turn my partner; he had heard it too, for he whispered, “Wait till you hear the answer before you become embarrassed.” Just then I heard Helen say, “Yes, quite well, for one who has had no advantages but such as can be met with here.” Now I was indignant, for we had been taught by the same masters, and the only advantage she possessed was the confidence acquired by conscious admiration — and so the dance ended.
How the contra-dance worked is not overly explained, but it is nonetheless implied by the description of Ettie's experience. She stands in the dance and must wait for her turn, meaning the moment when she and Morton reach the top of the set and begin to dance down it. That's the time of most pressure, when she is actually dancing, in historical terms, rather than moving up the set in support of the couples dancing down. Reaching the foot is the goal; after that, she can relax. The dance itself is nameless.
This is all perfectly in keeping with the country dance practice in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It tells us nothing new, but it adds to the general accumulation of evidence for historical practice.
I also noted, in passing, that the single cotillon is danced right after supper in keeping with, for example, the rules of the Amicable Society of Baltimore (1791):
XIV Not more than one Cottilion [sic] to be danced during an Evening, without the Consent of the Managers, and that immediately after Supper.
There isn't enough description of the party to determine whether this is anything but a coincidence, however.
A year later, young Ettie has more social polish and confidence and has been spending a great deal of time with Morton. In Part II, her family hosts a woodland picnic ("pic-nic"). Afterward, when they and their guests have returned to her home, Morton disappears for quite a long time and she entertains the company in the parlor:
More to divert attention than for any other reason, I proposed music; it was readily acceded to, and we were nearly all assembled around the piano, when Mr. Morton returned to the parlor. I was seated at the instrument, but that magnetism that tells us of the presence of friend or foe, without our seeing them, told me that he was near me ere I heard his voice. Shortly after dancing was proposed, and the space around me was soon cleared, as the feet of the guests kept time to the music.
The long contra-dance was ended; I had not once raised my eyes to meet his, although he had declined dancing and stood at my side while I played. He thought, doubtless, that when the dance was ended I would leave the piano; and believing that he thought so, I, thoroughly vexed at his desertion of me for so long a time, and fully resolved that I would not be trifled with, continued playing, without knowing very well what I played.
Once again, this is nothing new, simply further evidence for what is considered normal practice for informal country dancing in a home setting: the furnishings are pushed back to make space, a young lady plays the piano, and the contra-dance is "long".
"Reminiscences" may be read online in Godey's Lady's Book, Volume 70, 1865. The four parts are:
Part I - My First Party
Part II - The Pic-Nic
Part III - A Wedding
Part IV - Wrong and Right
The dance references are found primarily in the first part, with the mention of playing for a contra dance in the second part.
It's not actually clear that Part IV is the end of the story, but there appear to be no further parts of it published in 1865 or 1866, and the arc of the morality tale is complete.