Why Going Speed Dating Made Me Feel Like I Was In A Jane Austen Novel

I sat down to write this today because I went speed dating the other night (yes, really) and I thought it could be fun to write down the many, many, MANY thoughts I had about it.

But now that I’m sitting here, I genuinely don’t know where to start.

So I’ll start by setting the scene. I crashed into the basement bar in Clapham where this auspicious event was taking place, running late after leading sexual consent workshops at a university all afternoon (needless to say, I did not intimate to my students that I was going speed dating that evening). My friends were already there and had a white wine ready and waiting for me, because they’re nice like that. I stuffed my plastic folder full of powerpoint materials into my already overflowing handbag, swept my windblown hair off my face and collapsed into the booth, only to be told I had to go and sign in.

Duly chastened, I went to report my attendance and received my note card, which was reminiscent of a dance card from the Jane Austen-esque balls of the 19th century. I can fairly safely be relied on to bring Jane Austen into pretty much anything, but there were a lot of similarities between the lavish affairs thrown at Netherfield Park in Pride and Prejudice, or at the famous dance halls of Bath in Northanger Abbey, and this particular evening in Clapham. More on this later.

The evening went as follows: the women stayed in their seats (which ran along the walls of the bar in a sort of L shape), and the men moved up one seat every four minutes. Which meant you had four minutes with each person – but at least 20 seconds was taken up at the start of each meeting with swapping “ID numbers” – something we were told we ABSOLUTELY HAD TO DO if we wanted to be in with ANY CHANCE OF EVER COMMUNICATING WITH THAT PERSON EVER AGAIN, EVER (I have no idea why, seeing as none of us otherwise used those deific ID numbers before, during or after the event. Weird.).

I’m not going to do an in-depth analysis of every person I met that night. For one thing, there were a lot of them, and for another thing it just wouldn’t be that interesting, seeing as they were all pretty normal. One thing I will say, though, is that there are a lot of brave people out there. Several of the guys I met had only recently moved to the UK and didn’t know anyone, so had signed up for this evening, on their own, purely to get out and meet people. Props to you, my friends; I wouldn’t have even set foot in that bar without two pals and at least three glasses of wine.

Speaking of the wine, that helped. I lost track of the amount of times I said, wearily, that “I’m a freelance journalist” in response to the dreaded “so what do you do?” – and so about two thirds (and two glasses) of the way in, I decided to mix it up. “Welcome to the fun corner!”, I bellowed at a poor, unsuspecting guy whose turn it was to make his way over to the three of us. “I don’t want to know what you do”, I stated brusquely to another one. “You can tell me instead what brings you to speed dating – and ‘because I’m single’ doesn’t count”. (That was a long four minutes.)

After the event, all guests were encouraged to stick around and “mingle”. And this was really the point where it got really Austenian. People who’d ticked the ‘Yes’ box for another person tentatively sought them out to “chat more” – much as one of the Bennet sisters might have tracked down a suitor who’d put his name on her dance card. All further interactions for us and our cohort were pursued purely on the basis of four minutes of rushed conversation that was on a strict time limit – much as I imagine Catherine Morland only had a few minutes of snatched conversation to go on when considering her initial feelings for Henry Tilney after one of the many Bath balls.

The next day, we had to upload our thoughts and feelings onto our online profiles, in the form of a ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Friend’ for each person we’d met. At 5pm, the results were published, and we were matched with people who’d similarly said ‘Yes’ to us. I felt a little as though the mastermind behind the whole operation was Emma Woodhouse, whose grand plan it is to match all her friends to those she deems most suitable.

Jane Austen quips aside, it was a fun evening. But I still need to do a lot more to get over my fear of dating (which was partly what the evening was in aid of in the first place). My only relationships – and even all my flings – have been with people I was already friends with, and so I’ve never really dated (I’m defining dating here as going on dates with someone not previously known to me, but am aware there are myriad other definitions!). It’s something I have a major mental block with, and that block in turn is something I am trying to shake. But for anyone who feels similarly: I recommend speed dating. It’s fun, it’s well-organised, and it really isn’t that scary. My only top tip would be to give yourself a new occupation for each person you meet, just to mix up the tedium of having to repeat your job title what feels like 100000000 times. I personally wish I’d said I was an astronaut at least once.

Oh, and drink all the wine.