The clipped, rich sound of a harpsichord fills the air, while 200 guests in Regency attire float through an elegant ballroom awaiting the next dance of “Mister Beveridge’s Maggot.” A game of whist takes place in one corner, while a couple introduced as “Earl and Countess Darcy” turn about the room. Not a single guest is looking at a cellphone.
It’s a scene straight out of a Jane Austen novel, and it’s an experience that Melanie Kerr re-creates right here in Edmonton at her Pride and Prejudice Ball.
A self-proclaimed “Janeite,” Kerr travelled to attend the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England, for years before starting a family and settling in Edmonton. Still wanting to experience such an elaborate re-creation of the author’s stories, Kerr decided to plan her own version of the balls she attended during the festival.
“I just felt that there must be other people like me who wanted to experience that history in a first-hand way,” Kerr says.
In 2014, Kerr organized the first Pride and Prejudice Ball at Fairmont Hotel Macdonald, and, when it quickly sold out, she rented out a larger room in the hotel to accommodate more guests.
Kerr now hosts the balls once a year in Calgary and Edmonton. In April, she hosted her first out-of-province event in Victoria, which guests from across Canada and the United States attended.
One of the things Kerr wanted to do differently from the events in England was to focus more on the dancing. “I wanted guests to feel what it was like to do dances at an event like that,” Kerr says. “We really take our time making sure that everybody is included. We spend lots of time on the dancing because that’s really the heart and soul of the event.”
Dancing is what convinced Sabrina Thievin to give the ball a try. She hadn’t really got into the works of Jane Austen when she attended her first Pride and Prejudice Ball, but, as a ballroom dance instructor, she was interested in dancing and dressing up. Her husband accompanied her with the intention not to dance the whole way through, but, by the end of their first ball, he had participated in every dance and she was keen to learn more about Austen. “I came to Jane Austen through dance and costume,” Thievin says. “Now I love the stories and the characters. Through [these events] I’m always meeting new people — theatre people, book geeks, people who love to sew, and people who just like to try something new.”
Thievin now teaches regency dance classes in St. Albert that guests can attend prior to the ball to familiarize themselves with the format. She says it’s a great way for guests to meet other people before attending the ball, and helps solo guests feel more at ease. “What I love about dancing is when it connects people, it doesn’t have to be a romantic connection, just people coming together because they love to dance.”
Nicole and Trevor Duley found out about the Pride and Prejudice Ball from Thievin, when they were taking dance lessons from her for their wedding. Nicole was already a fan of Austen’s work, with two bookshelves dedicated to books by or related to Austen. After the first ball, on their honeymoon they visited various sites in England related to Austen.
They’ve been to three balls since 2017, and Nicole has sewn two outfits for herself and one for Trevor. While a lot of guests rent or commission costumes, Nicole admires the handiwork of guests. “The balls showcase the creativity of Edmontonians. You can’t just walk into a department store and buy a regency dress. There’s this really cool community of makers that’s starting to form.”
Everyone is insistent that it’s not an event for couples only, that it works as a solo guest or in an odd-numbered group of friends. “It’s a really welcoming community,” Kerr says. “I’ve never seen anyone not able to find a dance partner. You end up with this amazing, great feeling you didn’t even know you were coming for.”
And dancing Janeites aren’t the only ones maintaining the popularity of these stories. “Dipping into the Jane Austen repertoire is considered a pretty safe box-office bet,” says Ken Davis, Citadel Theatre’s strategic lead marketing and communications. When the Citadel produced Sense and Sensibility in 2017, each show had an average capacity of 89 per cent. In November 2018, the theatre produced Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley — an imagined sequel to Pride and Prejudice — that Davis says exceeded sales targets. During its run, Citadel Theatre hosted its first ever Dickens Fest and fans of both Charles Dickens’s Victorian-era stories and Austen’s Regency-era stories flocked to the teas and dinners. “There was considerable participation by patrons in period costume,” Davis says.
In 2015, Kerr organized a marathon screening of the six-hour BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries (aka the Colin Firth one) at Fort Edmonton Park. In less than a minute, the 400 tickets were snapped up and crashed the Park’s ticketing system. Kerr now hosts the event annually in January, complete with carriage rides and afternoon tea.
As for Austen’s enduring popularity, Kerr says “Jane Austen is just a genius. Her sentences sparkle. And she was just writing about ordinary life. Beyond the books, the love of re-enactment comes from our love of fantasy. The Regency era is just far [enough] removed that you can still relate to it, but it’s a pastoral kind of fantasy of a time when we didn’t have technology.
“As human beings, we love stories, and Austen wrote really good ones.”