In Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley is required to plan the Netherfield ball in something on the order of two weeks. What did planning a ball really require?
Planning a Ball
Most of us have, at some time or another been called upon to host an event. The frenzy, stress and excitement are familiar to us all, as is the way they all increase with the size and importance of the event–which helps explain the modern bridezilla phenomenon, but I digress.
An event like the Netherfield Ball would have been the biggest, most important event of the social season. Obviously, it would have taken a great deal to pull it off. But what does that really look like?
Join me for a whirlwind course in planning a ball, regency style !
Time and Place
As in event planning today, hostesses had to decide on a time and place for the event. Typically a ball would begin at 8pm and continue to the wee hours of the morning, sometimes even until sunrise. So that convention made that choice rather easy. Picking a date though involved some considerations that modern event planners would not recognize.
Since guests would have to travel to the event, a hostess needed to make certain that it was scheduled during the week of the full moon. Since roadways were not otherwise lit, sufficient moonlight was necessary to permit travel to the ball. Often torches were placed outside the front doors and perhaps even on the drive up to the house, but beyond that, the roads were entirely dark.
A ball also required an appropriate location. Based on my own experience, a group of twenty couples dancing plus musicians would require at least a 20×60 foot space (roughly 7×20 meters.) In addition to the ballroom, a proper formal event called for a supper room, two retiring (dressings) rooms for ladies and gentlemen to change their shoes and remove their wraps, and ideally a card room.
Lucky for Caroline Bingley, Netherfield Park, a large country house, could accommodate the event quite easily. In Emma, the Weston’s had to rent space at the Crown Inn to accommodate their ball.
If guests had long distances to travel, they might require overnight accommodations. Sufficient guest rooms would need to be prepared to accommodate planned guests and the inevitable one or two who, by the end of the evening, managed to get themselves too drunk to send home safely.
Once a date and location are set, invitations must be issued. Typically these would be printed by the local printer, with the date and time of the event. Alternately, invitations could be handwritten–remember this would be with a quill and ink, no ball point pens! The host and hostess would then hand deliver the invitations, a task that would require a least a full day to deliver.
Consider, the Bennets dined with four and twenty families. For argument’s sake, let us assume that the two dozen families are the extent of the guest list for the ball. Each family would require a call paid to deliver the invitation. That sort of social call required a visit of one quarter hour. That means at least six hours of social calls to deliver the invitations, not including travel time. So maybe it’s best to plan for two days (at least) to deliver all the invitations.
That done, it is time to plan the venue arrangements. First up, lighting.
Electricity makes that pretty simple and straightforward today. (Ok, I’m ducking because I know enough sound and lighting engineers to know that it isn’t really that simple, but seriously, guys, electricity makes all the difference.) Full moon might help with the outdoor lighting issues, but inside is another matter altogether. For that, we need candles, lots and lots of candles.
And naturally, candles are expensive, especially wax candles. Tallow (rendered animal fat–which is now a source for biodiesel) might be good enough at other times, but the smell rendered it undesirable for a high class events. Beeswax candles would be the prefered lighting method.
Candles were produced in 4, 6, and 8 hour lengths. So a hostess would purchase candles designed to last for the entire event rather than ones which would need to be replaced during the evening. An event like the Netherfield ball could require up to 300 candles, costing upwards of 15 pounds—a year’s wages for a maid!
Mirrors usually filled rooms used for formal events. Though attractive, their use was more practical than stylistic. Mirrors multiplied candlelight, so did shiny glass, crystal and polished metals, making them ideal for decorating. The problem with shiny things is, of course, that they don’t stay shiny on their own. So lots of polishing and cleaning would have to be done in preparation for an event. That often meant hiring additional maids to help in the process.
Flowers, from the garden or hot house made up the primary decorations for an event. Not only did they bring in lots of color, but their fragrance could help mask some of the less pleasant aromas of a great number of people exerting themselves in dance in a relatively small space.
In addition, an artist would be hired to decorate the dance floor with chalked images. Though the dancers would destroy the images dancing over them, their purpose was more significant than mere decoration. The chalk helped provide the dancers with much needed traction on the slippery dance floors.
Since recorded music and a DJ was definitely not an option, a ball required musicians. How many would largely depend on the depth of a hostess’ pockets.
In some houses and assembly rooms, musicians might be situated in balconies, stair landings or niches, out of the path of the dancers. In less noble settings, they might share a crowded floor with the dancers.
Unlike dance music today which might last as long as maybe 10 minutes (maybe), dance sets at a regency era ball would last up to an hour each. Not surprisingly, both dancers and musicians took much needed breaks between the sets.
Between the dances, servants would circulate among the dancers with trays of ices and iced punch to help them cool down and fortify themselves for the next dance of the evening. Keep in mind though, punch was no child’s drink in the era, it was heavily fortified with rum, brandy and wine. A hostess would have to lay in a stout supply of both ice and alcohol to make it through the evening.
In the middle of the ball, dancers would break for supper. Typically this was served sometime between 11 pm and 1 am. Soup, especially white soup (made from veal or chicken stock, egg yolks, ground almonds and cream) served with negus (sugar mixed with water and wine, served hot) were staples and ball suppers. But that was far from the complete menu.
Today we think of meals as an entree and a couple of side dishes, maybe with a starter salad or soup, and a dessert. Maybe five dishes and we call it done. A couple more than that and we would feel like it was a pretty high class meal. That would never fly in the regency era.
Meals, particularly formal meals were enormous affairs with many, many dishes required for each course. A ball could easily require sixty–no that’s no mistake, I really did mean 60–different dishes, both sweet and savory.
If that’s not enough to wrap your head around, think about this. How difficult is it to manage getting a big holiday meal out to the family, with all the dishes ready (and hot) at the same time? I love to cook holiday meals, and typically for Thanksgiving I will make three meats, three starches, six vegetables and a couple of deserts. Call it fourteen dishes.
You can ask my family, every year, everything is done and on the table at the same time. They will also tell you, that the entire thing is planned out with the precision of a military exercise, down to what appliances and serving dishes will be used, a detailed time table, broken down in fifteen minute increments specifying exactly what should be done–and by whom–during that time, and, yes, back-up plans in case something goes sideways. The family laughs at me–after they enjoy their dinner.
Insane as all that is, now imagine doing that without refrigeration, gas or electric stoves and ovens, and electric appliances. Let that sink in just a moment. What kind of planning would have to go into the menu to manage not to overtax one kitchen resource or another, and get it all out in time. The mind simply boggles.
If you ask me, Caroline Bingley and her housekeeper Nicholls deserve a medal for managing this feat alone. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this recipe for White Soup, just one of the some sixty recipes the kitchen would be managing for that ball.
Put a knuckle of veal into six quarts of water, with a large fowl, and a pound of lean bacon; half a pound of rice, two anchovies, a few peppercorns,a bundle of sweet herbs, two or three onion, and three or four heads of celery cut in slices.
Stew them all together, till the soup be as strong as you would have it, and strain it through a hair sieve into a clean earthen pot.
Having let it stand all night, the next day take off the scum, and pour it clear off into a tossing-pan.
Put in half a pound of Jordan almonds beat fine, boil it a little, and run it through a lawn sieve. Then put in a pint of cream, and the yolk of an egg, and send it up hot.
John Farley, The London Art of Cookery, 1783.
After being tasked with putting such an event together in just a couple of weeks, who could blame Caroline if she were just a little put out about it all?
Read about my take on her reaction, coming up in ‘Caroline Bingley Plans a Ball.’