Her First Ball by Katherine Mansfield

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BBC Radio 3, 26 May 2011
Read with breathless energy by Fenella Woolgar, "Her First Ball" told of the experiences of Leila, a country girl making her debut at a society ball. As the reading unfolded, I had visions of the kind of sequences beloved of so many television and film adaptations of nineteenth and twentieth century novels, where couples waltz around the dance-floor to orchestral music played by a moustachioed orchestra. As we watch, we take note of the pretty costumes and the formal atmosphere in which men and women fill up their dance-cards. Those who achieve this task are deemed socially successful; those who fail are considered outcasts. Sometimes the sheer effort of dancing can prove an exhausting experience: I remember the scene from Jane Campion's version of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady (1994), in which young women were carried out like exhausted prize-fighters.
"Her First Ball" takes an equally jaundiced view of a ball, where the guests routinely dance without taking the trouble to get to know one another, spouting platitudes as they do so. Those who cannot fill their cards are routinely consigned to the sidelines, enviously watching their friends whose social success seemed assured. The whole event is a curiously passionless one: people dance just for the sake of it, so as to sustain a polite facade. This is extremely important, especially for young men and women; by the time they reach their forties, they are often not fit enough to continue dancing, and have to spend their time on the sidelines, or watch their children continue the family tradition.
Leila gradually discovers these uncomfortable details as she moves from partner to partner. However help is at hand, as a young partner whisks her away, giving her the chance to experience the thrill of the moment, the joy of being young (but definitely not free).
This Twenty Minutes story took a jaundiced view of the life of the so-called 'Bright Young Things' of the early 1920s. The producer was Justine Willett.

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