John Mullan puts on his dancing shoes

Roxana by Daniel Defoe

The high point for Defoe’s high-class courtesan is her “little ball” in her swanky London apartments. Even the king turns up, and she makes her grand entrance in Turkish dress, prompting all the Restoration beaux to chant “Roxana! Roxana!” (an exotic beauty popular from the Restoration stage). “My dress was the chat of the town for that week; and so the name of Roxana was the toast at and about the court”.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Fanny Price cannot bloom unseen for ever. Sir Thomas Bertram stages a ball at which she will come out into society. She gets to dance with Edmund, which is nice, but has Henry Crawford at her too, with all his sexy compliments. By three o’clock in the morning Fanny is all “knocked up”, as her brother delicately puts it.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron

“There was a sound of revelry by night”. Byron’s narrative poem re-enacts the famous Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels before the battle of Waterloo. But the party has to end. “Ah! then and there was hurrying to and fro, / And gathering tears, and tremblings of distress, / And cheeks all pale, which but an hour ago / Blushed at the praise of their own loveliness”.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Thackeray’s Napoleonic magnum opus stages the very same ball. Dance, flirt and be merry, for tomorrow you may well die. Soppy Amelia’s husband is beguiled by her sexy, manipulative friend Becky and invites her to elope with him. Amelia slinks away, heartbroken.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary loves a ball but it always makes her discontented. After she and her dull husband attend a glamorous ball given by the Marquis d’Andervilliers she begins to chafe at the restrictions of provincial married life. Her ambition to consort with toffs has been awakened.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Kitty goes to a ball prepared to perform the first quadrille with Vronsky. Tolstoy seems to know not only about her feelings of excitement, but also about the arrangement of her tulle dress over her pink slip and elaborate coiffure “surmounted by a rose and two small leaves”. Everyone wants to dance with her, naturellement.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The first great set-piece of Wharton’s society novel is Mrs Julius Beaufort’s annual ball. It is a magnificent affair, for the Beauforts have a ballroom, “used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness”. At this ball, Newland Archer feels the pull of the fascinating Countess Olenska.

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

Toni, a young cavalry officer, makes a mortifying blunder at a ball by inviting Edith to dance. He has not realised that she is lame and cannot walk. In the days that follow he calls on her to assuage his guilt and finds that she has fallen in love with him. But he does not love her; he only pities her.

Frederica by Georgette Heyer

There are more balls in Heyer’s oeuvre than in that of any other novelist. In this Regency romance, impecunious Frederica Merriville hopes to launch her beautiful younger sister into society and enlists the help of their louche relation the Marquis of Alverstoke. At a ball for his rich, stodgy niece, the Merriville girls shine and passions begin to boil.

Carrie by Stephen King

Carrie, the sexually repressed girl with telekinetic powers, is taken to the prom ball by nice, handsome Tommy. He and she are voted king and queen of the ball, but, at the crowning moment, Carrie is doused in pig’s blood by a nasty rival. She lives to regret it . . . © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds