Leila’s first ball began in a cab. Running her hand along the upholstery of her seat she imagine it was the sleeve of a young man’s dress suit. Sharing the cab with Leila were her cousins, the Sheridans: Meg, Jose, Laura, and their brother Laurie. She watched the siblings interact with one another and wished she had sisters and brothers but she was an only child and had spent most of her life in the country.
Leila was truly grateful for their company and yet she tried to hide her excitement from them, believing they would think her undignified if they knew just how excited she was to be attending her first ball. She wanted to remember everything about this night and even considered saving the tissue paper that came with Laurie’s new gloves as a keepsake but there was no time.
They had arrived at the hall and Leila held on to Meg who led the way through the crowds to the Ladies changing area. Leila was transfixed. She watched the other girls fix their elaborate dresses and arrange their hair. A basket of pink and silver programmes with pink pencils and tassels was passed around. Leila could hardly believe her luck. She and Meg took a programme each and then returned to the hall.
The band was preparing to play and the crowd was so loud and boisterous Leila forgot to be nervous. She hardly recalled how just hours before she had sat on her bed with only one shoe on and cried for her mother to call the Sheridans and say she could not attend the ball after all. Leila was glad she had come and watched the scene around her unfold with rapt attention.
All of the girls stood on one side of the room and the men another, the dance floor between them. The band began to play upon a stage and the chaperones, mostly mothers and fathers, were dressed in darker hues and walked past the dancers to take their places around the room. Meg introduced Leila to her friends and asked them help Leila find someone to dance with. The girls paid little attention to each other and gazed instead at the men across the room. By some unspoken agreement all of the men sauntered over toward the women and soon Leila’s dance programme had been signed by several of the young men. She was ecstatic until a fat older man came over and grabbed her programme. He took such a long time in choosing where to put his name that Leila became embarrassed and tried to persuade him not to sign but he did and promised to see her soon.
The first waltz of the evening began and Leila’s partner gently led her to the dance floor. He complimented the dance floor and Leila agreed and said, “I think it is most beautifully slippery” (118). Her partner was briefly taken aback by her answer but then asked if she had been to the Bells’ ball the week before and she answered that this was her very first ball and she explained that she had lived in the country until only recently and she never had an opportunity to attend a ball until tonight. Her partner seemed unimpressed and when the music ended he escorted her to sit with a group of other couples and ignored her, although Leila didn’t mind. She was having a wonderful time and thought of the many dance classes she attended at her all-girl boarding school and how different it felt to dance with a boy.
Jose danced past and asked if Leila was having a good time and before she could answer her second partner took her by the hand and they began to dance. He complemented the quality of the floor and Leila was beginning to wonder if this was how all of her dances would begin. He asked if she had ever been to one of the Neave’s dances and she replied that she had not. They danced well together and then, to Leila’s delight, they made their way into another room and had ice cream. When she returned to the dance hall the fat man was waiting for her.
He took her by the waist and expertly waltzed with her around the room. He asked if this was her first dance and told her he had been going to dance halls for thirty years. Leila did not know what to say other than she thought it was wonderful that he still danced. The fat man laughed at her and said nothing lasts forever and warned her that one day soon she would grow old and her slim arms would turn to fat. She would not be able to dance nor welcome to do so and instead she would sit with the chaperones and watch her own daughter dance and she would wonder where the time had gone and why no one wanted to kiss her anymore.
The fat man held Leila uncomfortably close and his words pierced her to the core. Somewhere inside of her a younger Leila threw her dress over her head and began to cry. “Was this first ball only the beginning of the last ball after all?” (121.) The ecstatic joy she felt earlier in the evening quickly faded and she told the fat man she needed to rest. They stopped dancing and Leila leaned against the wall and tried not to sob aloud.
Seeing her distress, the fat man told her not to take him seriously. She watched him leave and be replaced by her next dance partner but the thrill of the evening was gone. Leila wanted to find her cousins and go home. Everything was spoiled.
Yet as her new partner led her through the steps and the music swelled around her, Leila began to forget the fat man’s words and soon returned to an earlier state of bliss. Later, when she bumped into the fat man, she did not recognize him.
"Her First Ball," written by Katherine Mansfield, was first published on November 28, 1921 in the Weekly Westminster Gazette and later incorporated into The Garden Party and Other Stories. "Her First Ball" is the only story to significantly feature characters from another story within the collection. Leila, the protagonist, is cousins with the Sheridans who accompany her to the ball. The Sheridan siblings, Meg, Jose, Laura, and Laurie are from "The Garden Party," in which Laura, the middle sister, is the protagonist. In "Her First Ball" Meg and Jose play a more significant role as they escort Leila to the ball and help her find dance partners. The setting of "Her First Ball" is determined not by the text but by the mention of both the Sheridans and the Neaves, characters from "An Ideal Family" who live in Wellington, New Zealand. Leila, unlike her bourgeois cousins had lived in the country and was no accustomed to going to balls. She did, however; attend a boarding school and was taught how to dance and how to properly behave at a ball but her practical education seems to have stopped there. Leila, like Miss Brill, another of Mansfield’s imaginative characters in The Garden Party and Other Stories, suffers from excessive sentimentalism and she finds the reality of attending a ball very different from the fantasy she concocted while away at school.
Distorted reality, a key theme in the overall text, is prevalent in "Her First Ball" as Leila’s perspective illustrates the unconfident years of adolescence. Leila’s nervous and awkward nature hides an imaginative spirit. She fantasized about her first ball, building up the experience in her mind to such a grandiose degree that when the reality arrives she is at first transfixed, she then begins to question her experience before finally succumbing to self doubt once the “fat man” reveals the hurtful truth behind the ball’s illusion. Leila is startled by the idea that she will one day grow older and be unable to dance or worse yet, to be unwelcome to do so. The “fat man,” who himself seems to live in his own distorted reality, has continued to dance at the balls long after it was appropriate but he refuses to stop. His suggestion that Leila will not be allowed to dance once she gets older and rounder is sexist and hypocritical. His remarks briefly shatter Lelia’s illusions. Were her partners really that wonderful? Was the floor really so “beautifully slippery?” Poor Leila. Then the music lifts her spirits, another dance partner appears, and she is transfixed once more by her distorted if not lovely illusion.
Mansfield’s portrayal of Leila is very realistic, especially in illustrating the resilience of youth. For the time period, however, authors (especially female authors) did not often write realistic women so well or so artfully. Mansfield is special amongst modernists for her preference for the female perspective. Other modernists, like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, excelled in their development of the internal monologue, the inner thoughts of a character which were often written using stream of consciousness, having little connection from one thought to another while simultaneously creating a realistic and overarching character sketch. Mansfield often used this technique and Leila’s thoughts, vapid at times, clearly illustrate not only her genuine fascination with her surroundings but an accurate look into the past.
Dances, balls, and the social practices of early twentieth century upper class adolescents may confuse contemporary readers. In New Zealand at the turn of the century, young men and women often gathered for balls or dances to meet and mingle. The adolescents of the upper classes, like the Sheridans often hosted balls in their homes, making use of ballrooms. They invited their friends and other local youths to attend. Dress was formal, note Laurie’s gloves and the girls’ extravagant dresses. Decorum and etiquette were extremely important, as was tradition. Meg was kind enough to help Leila by asking her friends to in turn ask their brothers or acquaintances to dance with Leila who could not approach a member of the opposite sex unchaperoned. It would have been very unbecoming of a lady to ask a man to dance at this time. Instead the men signed a lady’s programme and more or less reserved a timeslot for them to dance together. Dance programmes were usually small and tasseled so a lady may hang her program from her wrist. Depending on the type of programme it may have listed when certain dances would take place so those who knew how to dance, for example, the waltz would be able to do so with the partner of their choice. The dances were usually very choreographed, involving a series of steps or sequences with little room for personalization.
Most if not all of the young men and women in attendance would have been schooled, like Leila, in the art of dance. The conversation between dancing partners was usually formal and they kept a respectable distance between them while they danced. The “fat man’s” closeness to Leila and his rude remarks were completely inappropriate, adding to his distasteful characterization. Chaperones lined the room, observing the dancers but rarely dancing themselves. Chaperones were usually the parents or family members of the dancers. Each dance followed another unless there was a noted break or switch from one form of dance to the next. The other rooms of the house were usually filled with various entertainments or food sometimes even full course meals, or ice cream bars. They served as a stopping ground for dance partners to get to know one another better in a clearly visible capacity. Balls of the early twentieth century were more or less the equivalent of the modern high school dance or prom.
The ending to "Her First Ball" is, as per Mansfield’s style, very ambiguous. Leila’s change in demeanor, her willingness to accept that she will one day grown older, is suddenly unimportant in comparison to the novelty of the next dance. Interestingly she does not recognize the “fat man” when she sees him again. Perhaps she has forgiven him or she is having so much fun that she does not register that he is the man who upset her earlier. Perhaps too she has returned to her comfortable yet distorted reality.