It's sex and sensibility! Don't wear knickers and get a killer WMD (White Muslin Dress). 200 years after her classic book, a TV show analyses Jane Austen's delicate dating etiquette

It is one of the most famous opening lines in British literature: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’

But, as Jane Austen made clear in Pride And Prejudice, snaring such a beau took much more than a chance meeting by the duck pond.

The gentlewomen of the Regency period set upon the task with the calculating strategy of a general.

Suitors meeting at the Regency ball on Pride And Prejudice: Having A Ball. The show explores the dating practices of the period

The clothes you wore, whether you laughed and how you danced at society functions such as Austen’s Netherfield Ball, where Elizabeth Bennet first danced with Mr Darcy, could make or break your marriage chances.

Now, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Pride And Prejudice, the BBC is to explore the era’s courtship rituals and their hidden codes by recreating the Netherfield Ball in its entirety.

Here, the film’s advisers reveal how girls of the era would charm the breeches off would-be suitors – while we update the advice to reflect  modern courtship manners.


1813 The Netherfield Ball, held by the Bingley family is a private affair, and invitations were highly coveted. ‘Everybody knows everything about everybody in Pride and Prejudice,’ says Professor John Mullan, author of What Matters In Jane Austen?

‘And everybody would have been looking at who else had been invited, so it was very important.’

2013 Ensure you are Facebook friends with the host, then turn up with 500 pals to trash the joint.

1813 Regency frocks were very low-cut, but their purpose was not to display a heaving bosom. ‘It was a way of showing off a woman’s lovely pale skin,’ says costume expert Professor Hilary Davidson, who made all the dresses for the BBC film. 

Regency women also went knickerless. ‘Even when knickers came in, the legs were still open at the crotch,’ says Professor Davidson.

‘Crotchless knickers were the norm until the early 20th Century.’ Clothes were powerful social signifiers and at that time it was all about the WMD (white muslin dress).

2013 Substitute ‘lovely pale skin’ for Tango-orange fake tan. But ‘knickerless’ still seems popular.

1813 Everyone in Austen’s world knew that to maintain a carriage, you had to be earning at least £1,000 a year, a princely sum. 

Professor Mullan points out that the Bennets had their own carriage, but their horses also worked in the field – and other guests would have known that. ‘If you had your own carriage, you had control of what time you arrived and left.

At the Netherfield Ball, Mrs Bennet ensures her family are the last to leave as she’s keen on eldest daughter Jane getting together with the wealthy Mr Bingley.’

2013 Arrive in a pink stretch Hummer with blacked-out windows and purple neon illuminating the underside. Announce your arrival with a blast of Lady Gaga.

1813 An event on the scale of Netherfield might have been lit by up to 300 beeswax candles at a cost of £15 – a year’s wages for a manservant. 

At the time, candles were sold by length, burning for either four or six hours. Establishing what type of candles your host was using would tell you how long you had to find your man. 

Lisa White, who advises the National Trust on accurate period illumination, says: ‘If you were one of the young Miss Bennets and arrived for a party and there were four-hour candles you’d think, “Oh no, I want to stay longer than that”’.

2013 With 24-hour drinking, timing is less of an issue; though the length of the evening may affect the quality of your beau.

The length of the party could affect whether a woman would capture a Colin Firth-esque Mr Darcy or not

1813 If a woman declined one invitation to dance, she had to decline them all, says Professor Mullan.

‘At Netherfield, Elizabeth Bennet is first asked to dance by Mr Collins, who is beyond hopeless.

But Elizabeth has to say yes because if she says no to him she’d have to say no to everyone. But, of course, she’s mortified because if he’s rubbish, then she’s seen as rubbish too.’

2013 Should a suitor ‘bump’ a lady, it is considered polite for her to ‘grind’ in return. And remember: booty should be shaken in a counter-clockwise direction

...And be a dancing queen

1813 If a Regency lady wanted to be married by the age of 25, then clumsiness on the dancefloor was courtship suicide. Both women and men were taught to dance from a very young age, and the moves were sensual, even by today’s standards. 

Expert Stuart Marsden taught the dances to a group of students from Surrey University for the programme – and said they found the routines rather steamy.

‘All the dances were about entering each other’s space,’ he  says ‘They were quite intimate: you can look into each other’s eyes, lock arms and twirl around.  You had to be good at dancing, but were never allowed to out-dance your host. It was considered quite bad, even if the host had two left feet.’

2013 Two words: Gangnam Style

1813 ‘A decorous woman should never lose control,’ says Amanda Vickery, the programme’s co-presenter and professor of history at Queen Mary, University of London. 

‘Laughing and showing teeth were signs of vulgarity, being a peasant and sexual availability.  

‘You’re not supposed to relax too much or lounge on the sofa, either, and don’t draw attention to bodily functions. Don’t say, “I’ve got stomach ache” or cramp. You shouldn’t let on about any of that; you’re supposed to be a stately swan.’

2013 Do look up occasionally from texting your friends on your smartphone. And check for broccoli on your teeth.

1813 The ball suppers were lavish affairs designed to show guests just how much cash their host had. 

Leading food historian Ivan Day, who painstakingly created a 63-dish meal for the programme, estimates the spread with ice-creams – still exotic in the early 19th Century – great hunks of meat and flummeries (impressive blancmanges) would have cost tens of thousands of pounds in today’s money. 

The half-time supper also gave guests the opportunity to be introduced to potential suitors.

Day says: ‘It was an icebreaker. For example, an officer with a twinkle in his eye may have asked the lady sitting next to him if she’d like a slice of tart, then they would talk.’ 

2013 A gentleman should always buy a lady’s kebab. And hold it should she become ‘unwell’ behind the bins.

The food one served at a dinner party was a symbol of how wealthy the hosts were

1813 Polite women were not expected to eat much. Any expression of greed was to be avoided and those who needed to snare a husband were expected to remain slender.

‘Anyone who asks for a second  helping at a modern dinner party might raise an eyebrow, and it was the same in the Regency period,’ Day says. 

The empire line dresses of the day didn’t work if you were fat – you just looked pregnant.

Women could eat what they liked, but the crispy ears of a roasted hare – a favourite dish of the era – were a no-no. ‘The ears made a crunching sound when you ate them and were to be avoided. Crunching was deemed very unseemly for a woman.’

2013 Remember it’s kebab OR chips; it’s considered declassé to have both. Crispy hare ears are still out.

1813 ‘The men would have been quite drunk by the end of the ball, but not the women,’ Day says. ‘Women who got drunk were frowned upon; it wasn’t like Newcastle on a Saturday night then. 

‘A lady might have had a glass of wine, but then stuck to soft drinks. There was nothing worse than a young woman making a fool of herself. That was a real black mark.’

2013 Try to keep the Jägerbombs in single figures.

sensibility 03.jpg

1813 The grandest balls were often all-night affairs and keeping up was essential to show off your physical prowess. Each dance could last half an hour and there could be up to 14 dances a night. 

The Surrey University dancers all suffered cramp in their calves, but for the young people of 1813, dancing all night was a cinch. ‘They were fit: they walked everywhere, they rode and their diets were basically Atkins,’ Marsden says.

2013 Never, ever Google the phrase  ‘Go all night.’

…And always stay for breakfast

1813 ‘Guests were often offered coffee, chocolate and tea – ie breakfast – at the end of the night, at

around 5am,’ Day says.

2013 Suggest a McDonalds bacon and egg McMuffin on the way back to your place. 

Pride And Prejudice: Having A Ball is on BBC2 at 9pm on May 10.

Additional reporting: Steve Bennett. Illustrations: Curtis Tappenden

The comments below have not been moderated.

The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now