Sunday, July 1, 2012

Dinner Parties – Downton Abbey Style

We see them sitting around their long circular table in that gorgeous dining room, watch as the footmen discreetly bring round course after course, then the ladies retire to the drawing room and the men have their brandy and cigars. But just what went on during these evenings, commonplace from the Regency era onward? Although the style of dining changed, going from a la francaise to a la russe, the progression of the evening remained almost unaltered.

I’ll focus on the way the evening would go in late Victorian/early Edwardian Britain (this is Downton Abbey after all)

We’ll start about three weeks ahead of the event, when the lady of the house, in this case Lady Grantham, would decide who will be in attendance. This could become an enormous ordeal, because not only did one have to make sure there was an equal number of gentlemen and ladies who were both single and married, there was also the matter of precedence, that is, making sure you didn’t invite someone who would make the rest of the guests uncomfortable. A duke and the village doctor, probably wouldn’t mix well, and the hostesses’ main job was making sure her guests were comfortable. The amount of guests at a dinner party could range anywhere from ten to forty, sometimes even more. Then the hostess would wait for a response of some sort, always sent by letter.
About a week, to a day or two before the event, the hostess would go over the menu with the cook or chef, deciding how many courses would be served. Among the Edwardian elite, up to twelve courses wouldn’t be uncommon and the hostess would often orchestrate the menu according to the guest of honor’s favorites. Bertie, the Prince of Wales at the time, would often polish off several dozen oysters, plus bread and butter, caviar, plovers’ eggs, ortolans (a type of songbird), sole poached in Chablis garnished with oysters and prawns, chicken and turkey in aspic, quails and pigeon pie, grouse, snipe, partridge, pheasant and woodcock. This doesn’t even go into the desert and sorbet courses. The hostess would also decide which plate and dinner services would be used and make sure the appropriate wines were served. Sometimes the host did this too.  

At last the evening arrived and at the designated time (usually around 7 to 9 P.M.), guests would begin to arrive and would be shown to the drawing room (at Downton) or in the case of Blenheim Palace, the Long Library. Everyone would stand or sit, admiring each other’s gowns and waiting for the late arrivals. Cocktails was a strictly American custom until after WWI and the shilly shallying didn’t last long, as everyone wanted to get to the main event - dinner.
While everyone was mingling, the hostess would make any necessary introductions before beginning the most nerve wracking part of her evening, precedence or “Who Will Sit With Whom”. This could become quite a task, as titles were so intermingled and intricate. If you had two dukes at your party who ranked higher? The one with the oldest title. But what about the elder son of a duke vs. an earl? Who then? You can easily see how a hostess, especially a young bride, could become easily muddled. Also, one had to make sure that they didn’t allow people who loathed each other to go into dinner together as they had to spend a large part of the evening in conversation with that person. If Lady Anne had been once engaged to Lord Percy, and they had broken the engagement, it would be a terrible social blunder for the hostess to have them go in together. Consuelo Vanderbilt, a young American who married an English duke, received many set-downs for committing such errors and often a guest would take her aside and express their displeasure about who they had been seated beside.   

The host always took the lady of the highest rank in to dinner and, the gentleman of the highest rank, took in the hostess. This rule was absolute, unless the highest ranking male and female were related to the host or hostess. Then it was the next ranking. Husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, and mothers and sons never went into dinner together. The hostess always tried to invite an equal number of men and women to the party, although if possible, it was always best to have more gentlemen, so married women were not obligated to go in to dinner with each others’ husbands only. In the case of there being more ladies than men, the highest ranking ladies would be taken into dinner by the gentlemen present, and the remaining ladies would go in by themselves.
Once in the dining room, the host remained standing, until everyone had been seated. The seating depended on precedence and the host and the hostess sat at opposite ends of the table, the host at the bottom of the table, the highest ranking lady at his right hand. The hostess at the top and the gentleman who took her, sat at her left. Then the lady second in rank, sat at the host’s left hand and the other female guests at the right of the gentleman who had brought them in to dinner. Sometimes, place-cards with the names of the guests were placed on the table, thus making things easier for everyone. Thank goodness! The hostess of course, would have had to instruct the butler to lay these out ahead of time, a copy of Burke’s or Debrett’s Peerage in hand. The menus were always written in French and were placed between each place setting, often shared by two persons.

The table could be decorated a number of different ways. Flowers, elaborate silver centerpieces or epergnes, and fruit arrangements could all be part of the display. Silver candlesticks were a must and, even when electric lighting became popular, it was still common to dine by candlelight. Then of course there were those elaborate place settings with a zillion different forks. Generally these were comprised of a soup spoon, fish knife and fork, two knives, two large forks, and goblets and wine flutes for the wine, along with the various dinner and dessert plates. All this was known as the “cover.”
Dinner etiquette was very rigorous and went beyond just using proper table manners. This was another reason why the hostess only invited those of her own social class. They were generally the only ones who knew what they were doing and wouldn’t make such blunders as eating off a knife or tucking a napkin into their shirt collar (although earlier in the century, the napkin tucking wasn’t as offensive as it became later on) When a lady sat down at the table she would always remove her gloves, placing them either in her lap or beside her plate.

Now for the eating. Generally, they began with hors d’oeuvres and went on to soup, fish, entree, meat, salad, savory, sorbet, dessert. What each of these courses consisted of is a whole different blog post.
While all this food was being consumed, everyone engaged in conversation with the person seated next to them, until halfway into the meal they would “turn.” This meant they would turn and talk to the person on the other side of them. To engage in conversation with someone other than those you had been seated beside, wasn’t really the “done thing” although occasionally it did happen. Polite meant no discussion of health, politics (even if the person beside you was a politician) or anything especially deep. It also meant no arguing at the table or no conversation that involved personal or family matters.

After dinner, which usually went on for an hour to an hour and a half, the hostess would nod to the lady of the highest rank present, thus signaling it was time for the ladies to retire to the drawing room. The gentlemen rose when the women did and the ladies exited in order of their rank, hostess following last. The chaps were then left to their port, claret, cigars and talk of subjects perhaps not always suitable for the delicate ears of a well-bred duchess. The ladies meanwhile were in the drawing room having coffee and gossiping about the latest on dits or perhaps playing the piano.
The gentlemen rejoined the ladies in half an hour to an hour, and usually cards or some sort of game was proposed. There was no set time for leave-taking and some dinner parties could last well into the night. Pity the poor servants who had to wait on them. Although Carson wouldn’t dream of yawning!

After the last guest was seen into their carriage, the host and hostess were free to congratulate each other on how well the evening went (assuming it did) and then collapse. For tomorrow night, there would be yet another party to attend and the whole process would repeat all over again. Whew!


P.S. I am taking a two week hiatus from blogging (one of the reasons why the post was so long), due to moving to a new house. I plan to be back around July 15, with more writing and Victorian era themed posts! So stayed tuned.

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