I spent this last weekend at West Point. No, I didn’t have my head shaved or suffer through “beast barracks.” I was visiting, as part of a fabulous excursion organized by the fabulous ladies who coordinate the programs for the Jane Austen Society of North America.
But why? What do Austen and the United States Military Academy have to do with each other?
Only this: Austen lived her entire short life (or most of it) during a time when England was at war. From December 1775 (her birth) through June of 1815 (Waterloo) England was at war with somebody, usually France, sometimes us, almost continuously. Two of Austen’s six brothers joined the Royal Navy and ended up as admirals. We know Austen’s high opinion of the navy--just read Persuasion--and if you’re not persuaded by that, well, you’re probably an army slut, like me.
I’ve been enamored of the Duke of Wellington since I visited his London home when I was nineteen, back in … ha! That would be telling. But I’d gotten some dreadful bug on the flight over, and the first place I was well enough to totter to was Apsley House, down the street from my hotel. I was dazzled by the trophies of the brilliant career, the story of the man who, dismissed by his mother as good for nothing except to be “food for powder,” rose to become, in many people’s opinions, England’s greatest military commander.
Of course, if you're familiar with my tastes, you’ll know that Wellington’s high, hooked nose jutting out from the arrogant, steely gaze in the portraits didn’t hurt, either. And I very much appreciated the sense of humor that had installed the marble statue of Napoleon, three times life size and completely naked, made by the artist Canova for the Emperor but given later to Wellington in thanks for his victory, in the downstairs entrance.
At West Point, we heard from two military men, one navy, one army, both of them authors as well, who spoke of the warfare and the military of Austen’s time. During the last years of Napoleon’s career, America started the War of 1812, a war that was cursed at its beginning and end by errors of communication that would be laughable if they didn’t lead, as all wars do, to so much death and pain and suffering.
President Madison declared war and the conflict began after the British had agreed to our terms. But it took three weeks for messages to cross the Atlantic and American troops were already busy invading Canada, getting captured, and losing Detroit. Similarly, the final battle of the war, New Orleans (Jan. 8, 1815), was fought after the peace accord, the Treaty of Ghent, had been signed. In this battle, a number of the heroes of the Peninsular Wars, men who had fought under Wellington in the superb campaign from 1809-1814 that forced the French out of Portugal and Spain, were killed, including Wellington’s brother-in-law, Major-General Edward Pakenham.
But we Janeites were there in a festive spirit. A surprising number wore costumes to the “ball” on Saturday evening, some quite elaborate, all displaying superior workmanship and care in their creation. And whether in uniform or mufti, we learned the steps and danced to the tunes of Austen’s time, the English country dances, in their last heyday before being displaced by the more intimate couples’ dances like the waltz. These are line dances, something like reels, and, since there were about 3 men to over 60 women in this gathering, it was fun lining up in two rows and discovering which of us were the gentlemen, which the ladies.
Over the course of the evening, switching partners--and genders--became surprisingly easy. And after a dirty martini or two, quite enjoyable.
No, it was the progressing that was hard. In Austen’s day, couples danced in groups of two couples (the square, as in square dancing) or even three. In each square, the No 1. couple “progresses” down the line, dancing in turn with each No. 2 couple, until it’s “popped out” at the end. Meanwhile, the No. 2 couples are, naturally, progressing up the line, until they too (two?) are popped out at the top. The popped-out couple must wait out a figure of the dance until reversing course, the former No. 1 couple now a No. 2, and the former No. 2 couple now a No. 1--until the music stops or everybody’s hopelessly confused. (And that’s genuinely confused--not bisexual!)
Dirty martinis didn’t improve my disorderly progress, but they did make it more enjoyable--for me, if not for my hapless lady partner (or was that a gent?)
Attempting this style of dancing does help a modern reader understand some of the scenes in the novels. Couples who were in that “popped out” position had nothing to do except talk while they waited for the next couple to progress up or down the line and form a new square. In Austen’s time, there were three couples in the formation, and couple No. 3 spent most of its time waiting, not dancing. All the more reason to polish one’s conversational skills as well as one’s dancing slippers.
We see how Elizabeth had to work at conversation with the taciturn Mr. Darcy, who had been heard to say, with a sneer, that “any savage can dance,” and who did not seem to be laboring under any sense of obligation to civilize the process. And we realize how Mr. Bingley was free, no doubt waiting for his and Jane’s turn to re-enter the square, to scold his friend for being so “stupid” as not to dance, and to point out Elizabeth as a pretty partner, although not, of course, up to the standards of his own.
All in all, it was probably a good thing for the U.S. military that the cadets were away on spring break. Or perhaps they had prudently dug themselves into foxholes at the first hint of this invasion. Like Mrs. Bennet and her two younger daughters in Pride and Prejudice, most of us have a fondness for a red coat--and if there are none of those in sight, dress gray will do very well. The Iron Duke wouldn’t have stood a chance against a regiment of Janeites.