Monday, September 10, 2012

Let the Party Begin! English Country House Parties!

We had an Indian tent set up under the cedars on the lawn where I used to sit with our guests. We always brought out the Times and the Morning Post, or a book or two, but the papers were soon discarded for conversation…  Sometimes we played tennis or rowed on the lake and in the afternoon the household played cricket on the lawn. The tea table was set up under the trees. It was a lovely sight, with masses of luscious apricots and peaches to adorn it. There were also pyramids of strawberries and raspberries; bowls brimful with Devonshire cream; pitchers
 of iced coffee; scones to be eaten withvarious jams, and cakes with sugared icing.
– Consuelo Vanderbilt, The Glitter and the Gold.

I don’t know about you, but I want to crash that party. That party being a house party at Blenheim Palace.
House parties were one of the most time-honored social customs in Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian England. They were generally held between the months of August through December, when guests had returned from their London houses and were gearing up for pheasant shooting and foxhunting, the former, which began the first week of September. Ah, the social whirl.

In the Regency era, country house parties could last up to several weeks. But by the Edwardian era, with the invention of the railroad, and by the early 1900’s, the motorcar, they were typically Friday evening to Monday morning events. Typically twenty to thirty guests were invited with invitations sent out several weeks in advance. They were nerve wracking affairs for even the most experienced hostess who had to make sure the numbers were balanced, which meant that there were enough single ladies and single gentlemen, and be sure to have enough rooms prepared. Plus menus needed to be gone over, entertainment decided upon for the ladies who didn’t care to watch the men shoot, arrangements for the servants who came with the guests, and the list went on. Luggage was extensive, as a lady needed a breakfast outfit, something fancier for luncheon, a tea gown, and then the dinner dress. And a lady tried not to wear the same outfit twice during the same weekend, so during a three day country stay you could wear fifteen different costumes. For men it was simpler, tweeds during the day and white tie in the evening.
The guests typically arrived Friday evening in time for dinner, leaving Saturday occupied for shooting, one of the most important aspects of a country house visit. The gentlemen competed with each other to see who could “bag the most birds.” King Edward VIII was a champion of shooting and even had the clocks set forward a half an hour at his estate Sandringham, to allow more time for hunting. This became known as “Sandringham Time.” The crack of gunshot could be heard across the spacious lawns to within the county house where ladies lounged in the drawing rooms, scribbling letters and playing bridge, idling away the time until the men had finished the day’s sport. Sometimes a hostess would arrange for a few men to join the party, who didn’t shoot, to amuse the ladies indoors. In the case of Mr. Bott in Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her he would have probably been better off indoors as Trollope writes that, “Twice he went out shooting, but as on the first day he shot the keeper, and the second very nearly shot the Duke, he gave that up.”

Besides hunting there were two other main occupations during a house party. Eating and flirting. Both were favorites of King Edward who defined society from the 1870’s onward to 1910 and attended many of the house parties himself, including the ones held by Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Duchess of Marlborough.

There were three large meals during a house party, four if you included the afternoon tea observed by the ladies. Breakfast was served between nine and half past ten. Although meals were simpler during the Regency era, by the Edwardian they were veritable feasts, including fruits, eggs, meats, fish, toast, rolls, tea cakes, muffins, hams, tongues, pies, kidney and fried bacon. Tea, coffee, hot coca, and juice was the common drinks. Breakfast was laid out on a sideboard and guests could help themselves, much the way continental breakfasts are served today at hotels.
Luncheon could be both formal and informal. The formal events were similar to dinner, with everyone seated according to rank in the dining room. Informal could mean the ladies joining the gentleman out of doors for a shooting luncheon, a very lavish picnic. Dinner of course, was very formal with full dress and everything done as it would be at a dinner party.

After dinner, charades and other games were played, or the carpets were rolled back and an impromptu ball begun. Cards were also de rigour.
House parties signified the end of the London Season and many a desperate miss, who did not find a husband in London, did her utmost to assure her social success at a house party. Activities such as picnics, walks, riding, croquet, billiards and lawn tennis could show off the young lady and perhaps help her secure an offer. They were also a time for a newly married couple who had wed at the end of the Season, to begin to establish themselves in society.

House parties are still in existence today and I would love to attend one. J What better way to spend a weekend (whatever that is) changing clothes, sitting on a chaise lounge, and dancing the night away.

For Further Study

The Country House Party by Phyllida Barstow
The Marlborough House Set by Anita Leslie
Society in the Country House by Thomas Hay Sweet Escott
The Glitter and the Gold – Consuelo Vanderbilt
What Jane Austen ate and Charles Dickens Knew – Daniel Pool


As always,

Happy Writing!

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