The assembly is used as a major plot point in a lot of Pride & Prejudice variations. It seems to be an important part of most stories in this genre, and why not? Jane Austen used it to introduce us to Mr.Bingley and his friend, Mr. Darcy, and to set in motion pretty much everything that followed. We see in Mr. Darcy a taciturn man who seems a little too proud and full of himself and in Mr. Bingley a man who wants to be everybody’s best friend. The way he is written makes him an easy fellow to like.
So what was an assembly, and how important was it in the late 18th and on into 19th-century society? As it turns out, this was a vital part of English country life and a high point, especially in English society.
Based on what happens in P&P, I had the impression that these gatherings were mainly marriage markets and to a certain extent, they were. That was not their saving grace, as they served a number of important functions besides finding (or trapping) your future husband or wife.
The season began in London after Christmas and ran until midsummer which, coincidentally, was also when parliament was sitting. I suppose after a difficult day debating proposed laws and instituting new ones that mostly benefitted the wealthy and powerful, the Lords needed an establishment where they could party hearty if you’ll forgive the expression. For clarity’s sake, I want it known that I am not denigrating the wealthy; this was a fact of life all over the world, and to be honest, it still is. But to each his own.
In London, one of the first and best-known establishments was founded as Almack’s Assembly Rooms. It was a mixed-sex public house, meaning it admitted both men and women. That ladies and gentlemen could mingle was a unique feature when it opened, but there were restrictions. Attendance was not limited to the upper class although one’s status did not hurt, but an invitation in the form of a ticket was required for admittance. If you didn’t have a ticket you weren’t getting in, no matter who you might be.
Outside London, the season ran from about mid-October until spring, although it was common in other months to hold an assembly on holidays or other occasions, such as marking spring’s planting or the success of the autumn harvest. The assembly hall was more than a single large room for dancing. Three separate rooms were the norm: one large ballroom with musicians or an orchestra for dancing, a card room for what else but various games of cards, and a supper room for refreshments. The layout was fairly standard but there were differences depending on which community you were in. The Bath assembly rooms were on the first floor whereas in York they were on the ground floor. Some buildings also included billiard rooms.
The Master of Ceremonies was the most important man at an assembly. He was in charge of everything, from room arrangements to engaging the services of musicians. He even set the order of the dances. While dress codes were not as stringent as they were in London, there were standards, and the Master of Ceremonies enforced them. I found it amusing to see some of the differences between communities. In Weymouth it was forbidden for ladies to dance in colored gloves, while at Bath, men could not wear ‘trowsers or colored pantaloons’, boots or half-boots. One common rule for all of these events was that gentlemen were required to leave their swords at the door.
Because introductions were so important, the Master of Ceremonies also had the authority to introduce attendees to each other without fear of breaking the rules governing such things. He was the person counted on to provide the introductions that allowed young people to talk and dance with each other without fear of damaging their respectability.
While dancers normally arranged themselves in order of precedence, what about those assemblies where lesser gentility, members of various professions, or the genteel trades made up most of those attending? Here the Master of Ceremonies arranged to have ladies presented with a number when they entered the hall, the numbers representing their place in the dances. Before each dance, he would call out a number and the lady holding it, together with her partner, would be the lead couple.
While most of the people were there to dance, flirt, or look for possible marriage partners, there were those, like Mr. Darcy, who came to meet friends, talk, play cards, or enjoy other activities. For them, chairs and benches were provided at the edge of the dance floor and in the card room. For the people whose primary reason for attending was to share(or create) the latest gossip, and there were definitely a lot of those, a stroll around the room with a favorite rumormonger met their purposes.
In some ways, descriptions of these gatherings remind me of the dances I attended as a youth. There were the obligatory cliques of popular kids, who tended not to socialize much with those they considered too far below them on the social ladder to merit notice. The adults in the room took on the role of the MCs and tried to get us mingling, both on and off the dance floor. Sometimes they were successful, more often not so much. And gossip? What was a dance if you couldn’t share the latest dirt, or laugh at the dancing ability, or lack, of others? Of course, most of us who made fun of people on the dance floor did so out of jealousy or spite, and that would have been a big reason it was done in the regency era as well.
Some things never change.