Image: Victorian depiction of early 19th-century Christmas celebration by Charles Green, Wikimedia Commons
Formal dining, like much of Victorian life, was strictly circumscribed by the rules of etiquette. Good table manners were, of course, paramount, but great emphasis was also placed on invitations, punctuality, precedence and a proper seating plan. In this, as in so much else, savoir-faire was a prime requisite for anyone who sought status within the social hierarchy.
It was the obligation of the host to ensure that their formal dinner ran seamlessly. “A dinner, to be excellent, need not consist of a great variety of dishes: but everything should be of the best, and the cookery should be perfect. That which should be cool should be cool as ice; that which should be hot should be smoking; the attendance should be rapid and noiseless; the guests well assorted; the wines of the best quality; the host attentive and courteous; the room well lighted; and the time punctual.”
There was no tolerance of indecision or prevarication when it came to invitations: they should be “replied to immediately, and unequivocally accepted or declined. Once accepted, nothing but an event of the last importance should cause you to fail in your engagement.”
On the night of the dinner, guests were expected to be “exactly punctual”, with some etiquette manuals opining that it was better not to show up at all (providing one sent an apology) than to be late and to inconvenience the hostess and the other guests.
The next great ritual was the “taking down” to dinner. Once the guests were all assembled, the hosts took each gentleman aside and pointed out the lady whom he was to conduct to the table. If that lady was a stranger, it was up to the gentleman to single her out beforehand and seek an introduction. When dinner was announced the gentleman offered the lady his arm and the couples proceeded down to the dining room in order of precedence.
The tricky matter of precedence was the host’s responsibility: “When the society is of a distinguished kind, the host will do well to consult Debrett or Burke, before arranging his visitors.” In less elevated company a simple rule of thumb was followed: “The lady who is the greatest stranger should be taken down by the master of the house, and the gentleman who is the greatest stranger should conduct the hostess. Married ladies take precedence of single ladies, elder ladies of younger ones, and so forth.”
The vexed question of where to seat the guests could make or break a dinner party, then as now, and the advice in etiquette manuals will be familiar. There were certain unbreakable rules in relation to the prime positions at table: “The lady of the house takes the head of the table. The gentleman who led her down to dinner occupies the seat on her right hand, and the gentleman next in order of precedence, that on her left. The master of the house takes the foot of the table. The lady whom he escorted sits on his right hand, and the lady next in order of precedence on his left, &c.” Married couples were, of course, separated unless they were recently wed, in which case they were allowed to sit together.
As far as seating the rest of the guests, hosts were advised to be tactful and mindful of the social dynamics. A “good talker” should be placed at the centre of the table where he could be seen and heard by all; it was obviously a bad idea to place two such people in proximity. Putting gentlemen of the same profession next to each other was ill-advised as they were liable to fall immediately into an exclusive conversation that would be of no interest to the surrounding guests. The politics, religion, and general opinions of the various guests should all be taken into consideration.
As soon as the guests were seated, they were advised to remove their gloves and place the table napkin on their knees.
Formal dinners proceeded with stately predictability. First was the soup, which was followed by the fish course (by the mid-19th century serving fish and soup together was considered old-fashioned). It is firmly stated that “All well-ordered dinners begin with soup, whether in summer or winter.” The soup was dispensed from the tureen by the lady of the house and bowls were sent round to each diner. Firm advice was given to diners not to ask for second helpings of fish or soup, as it might delay the arrival of the main course and inconvenience fellow diners.
The third course introduced the principal dishes of roast and boiled meats and fowl, accompanied by various side plates. Increasingly, the “French fashion” was followed, and meat was carved on the sideboard by servants and handed round, which relieved the host, or a designated guest, of the responsibility of carving (although it was advised that every gentleman should acquire the art of competent carving). When dessert arrived, gentlemen were requested to help neighbouring ladies, serving strawberries, passing cherries or grapes, and volunteering to peel apples or peaches.
When it came to helping neighbours, diners were told that it was “inexpressibly vulgar” to offer to “assist”; instead, phrases such as “Shall I send you some mutton?” or “may I help you to grouse?” were recommended.
Today, we are inclined to wait until everyone is ready to eat, unless explicitly instructed otherwise, but the Victorians took the opposite view. “As soon as you are helped, begin to eat; or, if the viands are too hot for your palate, take up your knife and fork and appear to begin. To wait for others is now not only old fashioned, but ill-bred.”
Servants were usually responsible for taking wine round the table and filling glasses and the gentlemen were firmly instructed to take charge of the glasses of the ladies next to them and ensure their glasses were filled. It was considered inappropriate for ladies to ask for wine, but entirely acceptable for them to decline it, so if they wished to drink, they were reliant on the good offices of their male neighbours. Expectations of ladies’ wine consumption seem surprisingly high: “Young ladies seldom drink more than three glasses of wine at dinner but married ladies, professional ladies, and those accustomed to society, and habits of affluence, will habitually take five or even six, whether in their own homes or at the tables of their friends.”
As far as general conduct was concerned, guests were advised to eat “deliberately and decorously” and to ensure that they were not “too much engrossed in attending to the wants of the stomach, to join in the cheerful interchange of civilities and thought”. Gentlemen were expected to be assiduous in attending to the needs of the ladies, whilst showing due appreciation of the “delicacy, moderation, and fastidiousness” of their appetites.
At the end of the meal, after coffee and liqueurs had been handed round, the ladies retired to the drawing room, leaving the gentlemen to their cigars, cognac and conversation. When the ladies left the dining room, the gentlemen all stood and remained standing until the last lady had left the room. Lingering too long in the dining room was considered a “bad compliment” to the hostess and her female guests: “a refined gentleman is always temperate”.
Obviously much of the burden of organising the dinner fell on the hostess and she was advised never to be “dependent on the taste and judgment of her cook”. If her cook was not up to the task, it was perfectly acceptable to order a meal from a reputable restaurant.
Hostesses were expected to be calm, discreet and attentive throughout the evening, never displaying a whisper of anxiety or stress. It was considered bad form to reprove or give audible directions to their servants. If they were the mother of small children, they were adamantly advised not to allow their children to make an appearance at any point in the evening: “Children are out of place on these occasions. Your guests only tolerate them through politeness; their presence interrupts the genial flow of after-dinner conversation.”
The hostess, in short, must “neglect nothing, forget nothing, put all her guests at their ease, encourage the timid, draw out the silent, and pay every possible attention to the requirements of each and all around her. No accident must ruffle her temper. No disappointment must embarrass her. She must see her old china broken without a sigh, and her best glass shattered with a smile.”
An article in Cassells Family Magazine (1875) gives us a highly prescriptive account of the ideal Victorian dining room. The author confidently asserts that “warmth, comfort and hospitality” are the goals of the décor, and therefore rich and glowing colours are recommended. Rooms should be wallpapered in crimson, oak or green, with perhaps a little gold in the pattern to give a “brightening effect”. If the owner of the room is lucky enough to possess a fine array of paintings, these should be displayed against a plain and delicate colour, such as pale green, buff or salmon.
On the floor a Turkey carpet is recommended: its warm colours contribute to the cosiness of the room, and it is also extremely hard-wearing.
Curtains should be heavy and substantial: “Cloth, woollen rep, and Cotelan (a German manufacture made of silk, wool, and cotton) seem to be the most suitable for the purpose; a plain colour bordered with a trimming to correspond will look the best”.
Mahogany furniture is highly recommended, and it ias pointed out that the furniture should be “en suite”: mismatched items of furniture will give the room a “patched and forlorn look”. A four-square dining table, with legs at the corners, is decreed to be the most convenient: “the most inconvenient is the Pembroke table, whose four legs are in such awkward positions that they are always in everybody’s way, and invariably get kicked or knocked by someone. Then there is a dining-table whose legs are clustered in the middle, and form a pedestal; this has its drawbacks, for the weight of the dishes presses most heavily where there is no support, and consequently this kind of table is not very steady in its behaviour.”
Beyond a doubt, Cassels identifies the sideboard as the “chief glory” of the dining room. If it is affordable, a carved sideboard is the most desirable, but the writer firmly prefers a “perfectly plain side-board well made, than one showy and florid, having great pretensions, but proving an impostor on inspection.”
Dining room ornaments should be few in number and plain: on the mantlepiece there should be candles or a small candelabra, a clock, a spill pot (for lighting cigars), and a couple of vases. These items should be made of marble, bronze or serpentine. The sideboard should be dedicated to the serving of food and should only be used for functional items such as the tea-caddy, serving salvers, biscuit box and dessert-knife case.
Quotations are taken from:
Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette, George Routledge, 1860
How to Behave: A Pocket Manual of Etiquette and Guide to Correct Personal Habits, Samuel Wells, 1865
Cassels Family Magazine, 1875
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