I came across Margaret Hosmer's novel, The Morrisons: a story of domestic life (1863), in my endless quest for dance references in nineteenth-century fiction. Almost four hundred pages later, I have a few new citations, the highlight of which is a mention of two women waltzing together, and a growing distaste for storylines that treat dying of consumption (tuberculosis) as a character-building experience.
According to Deidre Johnson's useful website 19th-Century Girls' Series, which catalogues said series and their authors, only basic biographical facts about Hosmer's life are known: she was born Margaret Kerr in 1830, raised in Philadelphia, married Granville Hosmer and had at least one child, bounced back and forth between Philadelphia and California several times, worked in schools, published novels and short fiction for both children and adults, and died in 1897. The website's full biographical listing for her, from which these details are taken, may be found here. I am not enough of a fan of her writing to have done any further research on her life.
The Morrisons was Hosmer's first novel. It is generally listed as having been published in 1863 while she was living in Philadelphia. I didn't look hard for an 1863 edition; the one I read was from 1864. An 1868 edition is available online as well. The setting is vague, both in place and time. The city where the Morrisons live is somewhere between New York and the South. Given the author's roots, I suppose it to be Philadelphia; the neighborhood names (West Park, Oak Hill) would make sense for that city. There is no mention of the Civil War. Characters visit "the South" without incident and temporarily-hired black servants make brief appearances. The dresses are not described in detail, other than being bulky enough to make loading the women into carriages a chore. My best guess is that it is meant to take place in the late 1850s.
The Morrisons are an Irish-American family, a widowed mother with two daughters, a son, and an elderly uncle, all living on the charity of the mother's relatively wealthy niece, Bess Saunders, whom all expect to marry the son and thus solidify their position. It's a twisted sort of Cinderella story, since the Morrisons themselves are, for the most part, lazy spendthrifts, while the saintly Bess not only supports them (to the point of mortgaging her house and selling her jewelry) but also does all the housework as well. It's clear from the novel that the Morrisons are not the best of society, but Bess, heiress of her successful father, is wealthy enough that they have servants and need not work for a living. The uncle has been in business and traveled extensively, but lost most of his money and now lives modestly with his family.
I suspect that the family being explicitly Irish would have signaled much more strongly to the nineteenth-century reader than it does to me, but the idea that most of the Morrisons are stereotypically charming and somewhat disreputable wastrels comes through pretty clearly.
As the novel opens, a cousin, Berkely Morrison, who is much more successful than the other Morrisons, returns from an extended stay in China and a brief stop in New York with the unwelcome news that the ne'er-do-well son, Lawrence (Larry), is jilting Bess in favor of a wealthy heiress. Bess, being saintly, hides her crushing disappointment (and all mention of the huge sum of money she had loaned him). Berkely becomes interested in Bess, and doesn't much approve of how the rest of the family takes advantage of her. Soon enough, Larry and his new bride, Juliet, turn up on the doorstep, along with Larry's pleasant new in-laws, Juliet's aunt Charlotte and uncle Joe. One of the Morrison daughters, Kate, mounts a calculating, and successful, campaign to marry Joe and thereby catapult herself into better society. That takes us about halfway through the book. The last two hundred or so pages are occupied with a series of tragedies: the uncle dying, the other daughter (Nell) dying of consumption, Juliet dying, and Larry losing his wits. All of this, incidentally, happens in the space of about two years. Bess continues to be saintly and eventually marries Berkely and presumably is going to live more-or-less happily ever after.
The dancing references come primarily in the first half of the novel and, other than one glancing reference to the famous resort town of Saratoga, are entirely about dancing in people's homes rather than at formal balls.
The Morrisons are a fun-loving, social family who often invite friends over for an informal evening party. Berkely's first experience of such an evening:
After a while Berkely went down stairs and found the parlor full of company. The expected Daceys had arrived, and were a very pretty pair of young ladies with a fine looking mother; there were besides another young lady, two or three gentlemen, one of whom was twirling round on the piano-stool preparatory to commence playing a waltz, as Berkely entered. His cousins had been talking of him evidently, for the company were expecting him, and received his introduction with a reflection of the pleasure felt by his relations. Perhaps he might have preferred a quiet evening, but he was in no mood to cavil, and seating himself by his aunt, looked round with delight on the graceful forms that began to fly by him in a waltz.
“Sure, Berkely, it’s not what I was used to myself when I was young, such spinning round like tops till you’re too weak and giddy to stand on your feet," said Mrs. Morrison, censoriously ; “ but the girls is just daft about it.” (p. 24)
I'm impressed with the implied size of the parlor, if it's big enough for even one couple to "fly by" in a waltz, and also interested to see that it was a male guest, who played for the dancing, rather than one of the daughters of the house or female guests. This is reiterated on the next page:
There was a young gentleman present, (it was he who had discovered the musical turn and played waltzes) who, on receiving a glass of wine said, “ ’Tis not so sweet as woman’s lip, but ah! ’tis more sincere.” (p. 25)
The piano-playing guest turns out to be one Mr. Little, whose sister will be mentioned below.
The daughters are implied to be in their very late teens or early twenties, which would put Mrs. Morrison's youth in the 1830s, where a poor rural girl's dancing might well not extend to waltz.
The girls do play the piano, however, as their elderly uncle states the next morning that:
“When Katie sets to thumping on the piano, and the rest get their heels going, I just take a candle in my hand and slip off to my own room where I can have a smoke and my book in peace.” (p. 32)
The family plans a welcome for Larry's new bride, including the magnificently tone-deaf suggestion that Bess and Larry perform together:
“...Bess, do you know what I’m thinking of? why, just this, that Berkely would go off laughing if he saw you and Larry dance the Shugo-shoo reel, that you went through with on Uncle Terry’s birth-night, when old Dr. Dacey and the Littles’ grandfather were here. Berkely, of all the dancing you ever saw, that beats it, and so you’ll say if we can only persuade Bess to do it.”
“I’m ready enough, aunt, if Larry isn’t too grand to help me. But we’ll surely frighten the bride with our jigs.” (p. 104)
Irish dance is out of my area of expertise, so I've no idea exactly what a "Shugo-shoo" reel might be. Soft shoe, perhaps? But it's interesting that this was apparently a performance piece for two dancers.
And here is the reference I read this book for: a rare mid-nineteenth-century mention of two ladies waltzing together! The setting is once again the parlor, where the family and friends have gathered to welcome Larry and his bride Juliet. Nelly, not yet consumptive, waltzes with one of the female guests:
The measure of the music changed, and suddenly she saw the bride whirl by her in a waltz with Mr. Harrington ; Larry followed with Adah Parker, and then came Nelly and Miss Little, making that most deplorable spectacle of two ladies waltzing together. (p. 121)
Miss Little is the sister of the waltz-playing Mr. Little from the earlier party.
I think the "deplorable spectacle" comment represents the author's opinion, as Bess does not at this stage offer opinions on her female cousins' conduct. I may be reading too much into the phrasing, but I find the use of "that", as in "that deplorable spectacle", to be an interesting choice of pronoun. It suggests to me that the sight was common enough for there to be a general opinion of it to which one might refer. That it excites no comment from any of the guests also suggests that it is just one of those things that happens sometimes at parties -- not in good taste but not completely shocking or unheard of.
What I can't quite decide is whether, or to what degree, it is meant to signal that Nelly, and by extension the rest of her family, is not quite respectable, or whether I am once again over-reading.
She found, short as her absence had been, that it had done much for the back parlor; platform, back-ground, and curtain, were removed, the chandelier was lighted, and the piano rolled into place, and all ready for the dancing to commence. (p. 157)
She was very, very weary, tonight; and, after supper, sank back in a corner of the sofa. While the dancers whirled by her, Miss Waters left her niece, and came and joined her. (p. 158)
While Bess, with an anxious eye watching for Katie’s reappearance, answered him abruptly, the dancing recommenced, and part of the company began to leave. (pp.161-162)
Katie came, and evidently apologized to the departing guests, for Mrs. Larry’s absence; there was a set still dancing, and a few lingering round the pictures and over the piano, but the greater portion of the company were cloaked and hooded, or on their way to the dressing-room. (p. 162)
These four excerpts are all about the same evening gathering, which began with tableaux vivants and ended with singing and piano-playing by the female guests, dancing, dinner, and more dancing. From the references to "whirled by" and "a set still dancing" I would guess that the dancing included both waltzes and quadrilles.
After Kate's marriage to Joe Waters, Nell accompanies her to Saratoga Springs, New York, for the summer season. Saratoga was (and remains) a prominent summer resort town and was famous for its dancing.
“You and Katie lived so hard with your balls and routs among the Southern gentry at Saratoga, that you’re likely to pay up for it for some time to come.” (p. 239)
I looked at news coverage of a summer fancy dress ball in Saratoga in 1847 here. Nell took ill on this trip and will spend the next fifty pages slowly dying. Kate, having married Joe Waters, spends the rest of the novel social climbing, but unbends a bit while visiting her family and is lured into a game of forfeits, with the feats invented by Nelly, who by then is too ill to participate more actively:
Katie was obliged, by the rules of the game, to give the opening steps of an Irish jig in company with Dr. Dacey, and as she was a thoroughly good dancer, it was really charming to see her queenly dignity unbend with the enjoyment of the moment.
“Ha, ha, ha !” laughed Mr. Waters, uproariously, “ that is worth seeing. O Katie, finish it, do; I’d rather look at such figures, than all the waltzing and quadrilling we have at our house.” (p. 254)
Once again, a glancing reference to a two-person performance piece (the Irish jig), and then the telling comment that Mr. Waters enjoys watching it more than the more respectable (and less Irish?) waltz and quadrille that are danced at their own little house parties.
There are no fresh and exciting conclusions to be drawn about mid-nineteenth-century dance here. The evidence mostly suggests that in Philadelphia, comfortably-off families had parlors big enough for a piano and dancing; that dancing included waltzes and quadrilles, and perhaps, among Irish families (but not in better society), two-person performance reels or jigs; and that young women dancing together was considered by the author at least to be "deplorable".