The Netherfield ball
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the parties you’re most looking forward to seldom go quite as you’d hoped. Lizzie Bennet arrives at Netherfield, home of supremely eligible bachelor Mr Bingley, eager to renew her acquaintance with George Wickham. But he’s nowhere to be seen and she finds herself ambushed by her cousin Mr Collins, who, with his two left feet and total lack of social skills, is no fun at all. Then, she’s collared by Mr Bingley’s disdainful friend, Mr Darcy, who asks her to dance.

They bicker like Beatrice and Benedick and sparks fly. But Lizzie remains determined to loathe him and, as the evening wears on, things go from bad to worse. Mrs Bennet foghorns her hopes for eldest daughter Jane’s marriage around the dinner table, and Lizzie’s tone-deaf sister Mary has to be forcibly removed from the piano.

Tony and Jock’s big night out
A Handful of Dust (Evelyn Waugh)

The mild-mannered Tony Last has only ever wanted a quiet life. But his wife, Brenda, longs for London and drifts into an affair with wastrel John Beaver. Tony seeks refuge in Bratt’s Club, where he runs into old friend Jock Grant-Menzies, who’s just been stood up. United in dejection, they embark on a bender of Falstaffian magnitude, sinking about 20 units each during dinner alone.

Afterwards, they repair unsteadily to the Old Hundredth, a Soho dive where the staff, who draw no salaries, make their money by going through customers’ overcoats. There, the pair are persuaded to purchase dubious alcoholic preparations, tickets for a raffle and, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, a haddock. Long after midnight, they stagger out, desperately trying to convince themselves that they’ve had a wonderful time.
 

The March Hare’s tea party
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll)

Parties can be a test of character when everyone else is in a much sillier mood than you. Alice arrives at the March Hare’s house expecting a sophisticated soirée. Instead, she finds the host talking nonsense to a hatter at a gigantic table and a dormouse snoozing between them.

The latter, in the grand tradition of guests who’ve overindulged, pipes up occasionally to insist he isn’t actually asleep and has been following every word. They bombard Alice with riddles, drench her in milk and tell her she needs a haircut. Things take an alarming turn when she discovers that the guests are doomed to take tea together forever more, and the young adventuress escapes. ‘I’ll never go there again,’ she tells herself. ‘It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!’

The Capulets’ ball
Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare)

Groucho Marx famously insisted he wouldn’t want to join any club that would have him as a member, and it follows that the only parties worth attending are those from which you’ve been banned. Old Capulet, elder statesman of Verona, is having a ball that everyone who’s anyone will be at-except the Montagues, with whom he’s been feuding for years. But the younger Montagues decide to disguise themselves with masks and pitch up. Romeo, who’s been mooning after a girl called Rosaline, isn’t really entering into the spirit of things, but then he spies Juliet, the host’s beautiful daughter, who’s strictly off limits. He refuses to leave and is abandoned by Benvolio and Mercutio (who doubtless wish he’d stuck with Rosaline). Tiptoeing over to Juliet’s balcony, he calls up to her, and the rest is history. 

 

The Scoatney Hall dinner party
I Capture The Castle (Dodie Smith)

For the teenage Cassandra Mortmain, receiving an invitation to dinner from the Cotton brothers is a watershed moment. She and her bombshell sister, Rose, live in almost total isolation with their impoverished writer father and his former-artist’s-model wife, who’s retained her penchant for naturism. Their situation looks unpromising to say the least, so the prospect of a candlelit meal with two unattached young men sends the entire household into overdrive.

Rose, who’s set her cap at the disappointingly hirsute heir to the family fortune, is decked out in frills and flounces. Cassandra has to make do with hand-me-downs, but is over the moon to be allowed to tag along. It’s a night of thrilling firsts-cocktails, Champagne (‘like very good ginger ale without the ginger’) and complicated knives and forks. After dinner, the party slow-dances in the drawing room, and Cassandra drinks it all in. The enchanted evening may be coming to an end, but it seems to her that life is only just beginning.

Dick Hawk-Monitor’s 21st
Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)

When orphan Flora Poste goes to stay with her Starkadder cousins in the Sussex village of Howling, she finds a household where inbreeding is positively encouraged, dishes are cleaned with a twig and cows are called Feckless and Pointless. She feels compelled to straighten things out.

The relative whose plight exercises her most is her fey cousin Elfine, who’s been promised to Urk, a glowering introvert with an unhealthy interest in water voles. Her only hope of escape is marriage to local squire Dick Hawk-Monitor (‘easy on the eye but slow on the uptake’). As luck would have it, he’s having a birthday bash. Although Cold Comfort Farm was conceived as a futuristic novel, the party is every inch a 1930s function, with lashings of Champagne, crab mousse and guests waltzing gaily.

Elfine, resplendent in a new gown from Maison Solide, bowls over the birthday boy, and he proposes to her there and then. Flora is jubilant. Even an encounter with Aunt Ada Doom, wielding a copy of The Milk Producers’ Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers’ Guide, can’t dampen her spirits.


Bilbo Baggins’s birthday
The Fellowship of the Ring (J. R. R. Tolkien)

Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit equivalent of Bear Grylls, has, against all the odds, reached the venerable age of ‘eleventy-one’ and, to mark the occasion, teams up with nephew Frodo (celebrating his coming of age at 33) to throw a party The Shire will never forget. Gigantic marquees are put up in the field adjoining Bag End, and guests are presented with lavish party favours on arrival. Hobbits are ruled by their stomachs, and Bilbo, anxious no one should be troubled by hunger pangs, clears out every store, cellar and warehouse for miles around. Gandalf oversees the fireworks. As proceedings draw to a close, the host (perhaps in a bid to avoid the washing-up) slips on the ring he brought back from the Misty Mountains and vanishes.
 

Mrs. Tabitha Twitchit’s party
The Tale of Tom Kitten (Beatrix Potter)

Children can really let you down. Tabitha Twitchit, feline hostess extraordinaire, is looking forward to welcoming friends to her Lake District cottage for an afternoon of charming conversation and hot buttered toast. Naturally, she expects her kittens-Mittens, Moppet and the rascally Tom-to be on their best behaviour. Against considerable resistance, she scrubs their faces, brushes their fur and combs their tails and whiskers. Tom, however, has clearly been at the Kendal Mint Cake, and the buttons pop off his Sunday best.

A flustered Mrs. T banishes her unruly offspring to the garden, where they fall in the mud, trample the ferns and give their clothes to a passing family of ducks. With her guests due any minute, their mother sends them upstairs in disgrace, and decides to pretend they’ve gone down with measles. The ruse proves unsuccessful, however, when the kittens start a noisy shindig of their own overhead, bouncing on the bed and overturning the furniture.

The Weasels’ house party
The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame)

This is every property owner’s nightmare. You get home after escaping from prison to discover
that your historic country house has been trashed by a load of boozed-up varmints having a rave. Thus it is for poor old Toad, who finds Toad Hall occupied by hordes of creatures from the Wild Wood. One gets the feeling that if he’d only been invited, he wouldn’t have minded half as much. But as things stand, it won’t do, and he teams up with Mole, Badger and Ratty to send the squatters packing. They’re greeted by smashed windows and a deafening racket.

The stoats and weasels, in the manner of a furry Bullingdon Club, are singing, stamping and clinking glasses as they feast on chicken and trifle. Our four heroes charge-Badger, whiskers bristling, lays about them with a cudgel, and Ratty, clanking with weaponry, hurls himself into the fray. When the last interloper has scampered off into the night, the victors sit down to enjoy the leftovers, and Toad, true to form, immediately starts planning another party.

The Alconleigh coming-out ball
The Pursuit of Love (Nancy Mitford)

Fanny Logan spends holidays in eccentric seclusion with uncle Matthew Radlett (who hunts his offspring across the country with hounds), Aunt Sadie and their two daughters, Louisa and Linda. Preparations are under way for the former’s coming-out ball, but social death looms-although her mother has sent invitations to every fashionable address within a 100-mile radius, not a single young man has responded in the affirmative.

Uncle Matthew is dispatched to the House of Lords, where he coerces a handful of geriatric peers into attending, so rather than being enfolded in manly embraces, the girls spend the evening trying not to tread on arthritic toes. One is reduced to showing her elderly dancing partner the fossil cabinet. However, the ball succeeds in its unspoken aim-a few weeks later, Louisa is proposed to by Lord Fort William, one of Uncle Matthew’s finds. Leaving aside the fact his hair ‘seemed to be slipping off backwards’, the general consensus is that she could do a lot worse.

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