Top 10 Parties in Fiction
From Bridget Jones’s curry calamity to Vanity Fair’s historic ball, these social dramas have inspired many novelists. You are invited to enjoy 10 favourites.
By Elizabeth Day
I’ve always loved a good party. When I was a child, I started planning for my birthday party in July. By August, I’d sent out hand-drawn invitations. By September, I was impatiently dreaming of cake, balloons and pass-the-parcel. I was born in November.
I continue to find them alluring. At a good party, there’s a sense that normal behavioural constraints are relaxed; a feeling that anything goes and that anything could happen. It’s why they make such perfect backdrops for fiction: you see the constant tension between who someone is and who someone wants to be. In life, as in novels, they are the perfect place to people-watch.
That’s why I chose to set my new novel at a party. The story takes place over one evening at a glamorous 40th birthday in a stately home in the English countryside, where two best friends are brought together and reveal dark truths about each other.
A lot of my real-life experiences went into in the scene-setting (I used to be a newspaper diarist—essentially getting paid to party every night). But I was also influenced by great festivities in fiction. Here are 10 of my favourites.
1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Oblonsky’s ball in Anna Karenina is perhaps not as famous as the scene in War and Peace when Andrei and Natasha waltz for the first time, but its impact is as quietly devastating. Kitty (the unwitting rival for Count Vronsky’s affections) has earlier urged Anna to wear a flashy lilac dress. But Tolstoy puts his heroine in a modest black velvet gown. Kitty notes sadly that Anna’s charm “consisted precisely in the fact that she always stood out from what she wore”. Vronsky notices it too and swiftly falls in love. The rest is (doomed) history.
2. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
2. F. 斯科特·菲茨杰拉德的《了不起的盖茨比》
All parties in fiction have a neo-Platonic ideal of the perfect occasion to which they aspire. In my case, it was Jay Gatsby’s parties during the long, hot summer of 1922. Gatsby’s gatherings epitomise the spirit of prohibition-era decadence: endless champagne, chorus girls, flappers and bootleggers. And Fitzgerald writes them like a dream.
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Austen’s books are liberally scattered with wonderfully observed balls and dances. But for my money, the most memorable is the one at Meryton where Mr Darcy refuses to dance with glorious Lizzy Bennet, dismissing her as “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me”. He sees the error of his ways before long.
7. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
Not strictly a fictional party, but a fictional rendering of a real-life event, namely the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, held in 1815 as a celebration for the Duke of Wellington’s officers in Brussels. It was here that Wellington received word that Napoleon’s forces were on the march. As a result, the story goes, many of the guests ended up fighting in evening dress. Amelia Sedley’s husband, George Osborne (no relation to the former chancellor), is one of those called to battle: “Away went George, his nerves quivering with excitement…”
8. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
Another Darcy, but this time dressed in a horrible golfing jumper (“what seemed from the back like a harmless navy sweater was actually a V-neck diamond-patterned in shades of yellow and blue”) and a guest at Geoffrey and Una Alconbury’s horrific New Year turkey curry buffet. Poor old Bridget is hungover and late because she got lost on the motorway and can’t think of anything to say when Mark Darcy asks her what books she’s read lately.