The New Year is a good time to read about parties – most of us celebrate the beginning of another year at a party, in the company of our friends. Parties in literature tend to come at the high point of the story: the guests are gathered, the drinks are poured, the celebrations begin, then …. wham! Something changes dramatically: there’s a sinister knock at the door, a twist in the plot, an unexpected shift in a character’s fate. And nothing is ever the same again.
The birthday party in Agatha Christie‘s Sparkling Cyanide is a classic example of this. A group of people is sitting around a table in an expensive London restaurant ; they listen to the jazz band, drink a champagne toast to one of the guests and then suddenly, as the dimmed lights come back up, discover ‘a dead body slumped across the table.’ Similarly, in Three Act Tragedy, one of the guests at a private cocktail party, the Reverend Stephen Babbington, sips his drink and falls down dead. And then there’s the house party from hell in And Then There Were None, where each of the guests is slowly killed off, one by one.
Death also stalks the guests at the masked ball in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842). Prince Prospero is desperate to escape the plague which is sweeping his country so he retreats with his court to an isolated castle; one night, he holds a magnificent masked ball. Amid the revelry and music, a sinister unnamed guest suddenly appears: the figure of Death itself. ‘He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls.’
Of course the dramas at literary parties are not always as deadly as these. Jane Austen’s novels are full of parties and social gatherings where ‘moments of truth’ hinge on small, seemingly unimportant incidents. At a country ball in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett meets Fitzwilliam Darcy and quickly forms an entirely negative opinion of him. In Emma, a young woman is humiliated by a former suitor’s refusal to dance with her at a neighbour’s party, and, in Sense and Sensibility, Marianne collapses after her lover shuns her at an elegant London soirée. Austen’s novels of manners revolve around the minutiae of English social life and customs, and, after a party, her characters’ lives rarely remain unchanged.
Lastly, I’d recommend that you read – or re-read – F. Scott Fitzgerld’s The Great Gatsby (1925), the ultimate party novel.
There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whispering and the champagne and the stars … The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath…