Looking out of the Aoi Pavilion this morning I was shocked to see how bare the trees looked. Last week they were gloriously autumnal, but despite the mild weather we seem to have moved to winter (at least according to the trees) overnight. But it doesn’t need to be a gloomy time of year…
The end of October marked an important point in the social calendar of Regency times as it was the start of the social season leading up to Christmas. Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, opens in September-time; with the ball at Netherfield (when Elizabeth Bennet is confirmed in her worst opinion of Mr. Darcy) taking place around November 26th.
If you’ve ever wondered what Lizzie may have danced to, have a look at Nathaniel Gow’s Lady Matilda Bruce’s reel : to which is added, four favourite tunes as performed at all the fashionable meetings in Autumn 1810 (MR205.a.80.9).
The volume was available for sale both in Edinburgh and from Nathaniel Gow‘s younger brother, John, who had a publishing house in Carnaby Street, London, so aiming it at party-goers at both ends of the country. Gow’s annual ball had taken place in March 1810 at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, so it’s likely that the music printed for the “fashionable meetings” of October was premiered then, or they may have been freshly composed / arranged for the autumn/winter season.
There is a surprisingly modern approach to attracting sales. Although no waltzes are included, two of the dances are described as being in “Waltz-time”. This was presumably to encourage fashionable dancers to buy the music. The waltz was still considered to be rather shocking. In fact the waltz doesn’t seem to have been been danced in England until 1813 or 14, even Lord Byron disliked it (though this may have been because he waltzed badly). It wasn’t until 1816 that the dance was seen at court, The Times was outraged: “…we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion” (Tuesday, July 16th, 1816). So who were the pioneering dancers of Gow’s dance set?
Lady Matilda Bruce was the sister of Lord Elgin (of Elgin marbles fame), and was married to Admiral Philip Charles Durham, whose ship sank while in port killing 800 of its crew (Durham survived as he was fortuitously on deck at the time). He served at the Battle of Trafalgar, and by 1810 was serving in the Channel and the Mediterranean.
Michael Wiggan (or Wiggins), the only male dedicatee of the set, is probably apocryphal, as it appears that this was probably a much older tune, a jig that was especially popular in Ireland, with just the addition of two words to make it appear more up to date.
Lady Elgin’s Fancy is either dedicated to Lady Matilda Bruce’s sister-in-law, Mary, or, more likely, to her mother, the dowager Lady Elgin, who had died in June 1810 a few months after Gow’s Spring ball. Born Martha White, Lady Elgin, was the one-time governess of Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV.
Nathaniel Gow gained some notoriety for taking other composers’ works and claiming them as his own, Lady Elgin’s Fancy however is credited to Joseph Reinagle. Joseph, the brother of the more famous Alexander, was originally intended for a life in the navy, but became apprenticed to a jeweller in Edinburgh. He then turned to music, and, initially set on becoming a wind player, on medical advice took up the cello, then the violin; and was swiftly appointed leader of the Edinburgh Theatre band. Nathaniel Gow was one of his pupils, so it’s not surprising that he included this work as a homage to his old teacher. Reinagle later moved to London, where he met Haydn (he was principal cello at the Salomon concerts); and then moved to Oxford where he settled.
The second waltz in Gow’s dance selection is Lady Elphinston’s Favourite. Lady Elphinstone was probably Janet Hyndford Elliot, who was married to the 12th Lord Elphinstone. It’s also possible though that she was Margaret Mercer Elphinstone, who had been introduced to Princess Charlotte, and quickly became a friend. Princess Charlotte enjoyed waltzing, so perhaps she was inspired by her friend’s introduction to this early arrival of the waltz in England? Margaret became a society hostess, and was just the sort of influential person that Gow would hope to attract to his dance music.
Miss Gayton’s hornpipe was inspired by the dancer and actress, Esther Jane Gayton. Admired by both Byron and Sir Walter Scott, she gained respectability in 1809, in a manner in which Jane Austen would have approved, when she married a clergyman, the Reverend William Murray.
The dances, typically for their period, combined freshly composed works, and country dance favourites guaranteed to put an autumnal spring in your step. Some remain popular to this day.