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Thursday, 30 September 2021

Drink at the Regency dinner table - a Regency History guide

The Dashwoods at dinner with the Middletons   Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811) Illustration by Hugh Thomson (1896
The Dashwoods at dinner with the Middletons
  Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)
Illustration by Hugh Thomson (1896)
Today’s post continues my series on Regency meals. I have already looked at some areas of Regency dinner etiquette here, such as where people gathered for dinner, how they proceeded into the dining room, where they sat and whether they used napkins.

This post looks at the question of drink at the dinner table and afterward – what they drank, the customs of taking wine and drinking healths, and when ladies withdrew to leave gentlemen at their wine.

What did they drink?

In Domestic Duties (1825), Mrs Parkes wrote about the drinks to serve at a dinner party:

The wines are placed upon the table at first, in six decanters, one of each being placed at each corner of the table, and one on each side of the epergne, whilst two bottles of some light French or Rhenish wine, undecanted and corked, and placed in silver or plated vases, fill up a space between the epergne and each end of the table. Small decanters of water, covered with an inverted tumbler, should be placed by every second guest, but malt liquors, cider, soda-water, ginger-beer, or similar beverages, are handed by the attendants when called for. In the interval of each course, champaign, hock, burgundy, or barsac, are handed round to each guest. Cheese, with a fresh salad, follows the third course, and a glass of port wine is generally offered by the servants to each of the gentlemen.

She continued:

The decanted wines placed on the table during dinner are white wines; either madeira, sherry, or buçellus; those circulated after dinner are port, madeira, and claret. Claret is generally contained in a decanter with a handle, and of a peculiar form.1

According to Simond, a French visitor to England, writing in 1810:

The wine generally drank is Port, high in colour, rough, and strong,— Madeira, and Sherry; Bourdeaux wine, usually called here Claret, Burgundy, Champagne, and other French wines, are luxuries; few of these wines come to England without some heightening of brandy. People generally taste of fewer dishes here than at Paris, each dining generally on one or two. You are not pressed to eat or drink. The ordinary beverage during the dinner is small-beer, porter rarely, and sparkling ale, which is served in high shaped glasses like Champagne glasses; water, acidulated by the carbonic gas, is frequently used: few drink wine and water mixed. The crystal vessels, called decanters, in which wine is brought on table, are remarkably beautiful.3

In A System of Etiquette (1804), Trusler gave advice to young gentlemen starting out in society:

Call for any wine you please, without waiting to be asked; in some houses, the master announces to his company, the different sorts of wine on the side board; in great houses, where this is not done, all common wines are supposed to be present. At the house of a friend, you are expected to be as much at your ease, as if at home, and of course may freely ask for any wine, you know the master is accustomed to keep, whether it is on the side-board or not, and whether before dinner or after. But this liberty is seldom taken by those, who do not give the same liberty at their own houses.3

The dining room, Calke Abbey
The dining room, Calke Abbey
Taking wine and drinking healths

I must admit that I have found the references to taking wine with another person and drinking healths at the dinner table quite confusing. It has taken me a while to realise that these are two separate things.

Taking wine at the table

The custom of taking wine with another person at the table appears to have been a polite way to ensure the ladies had sufficient to drink without them having to ask. It was also a way of paying a compliment to another lady or gentleman.

In The Honours of the Table (1791), Trusler wrote:

As it is unseemly in ladies to call for wine, the gentleman present should ask them in turn, whether it is agreeable to drink a glass of wine. (“Mrs. ---- , will you do me the honour to drink a glass of wine with me?”) and what kind of the wine present they prefer, and call for two glasses off such wine, accordingly. Each then waits till the other is served, when they bow to each other and drink.4

Although this guide was written some years before the Regency, Jane Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh (1798–1874) remembered the custom from his youth. In his Memoir of Jane Austen (1871), he wrote:

Who can now record the degrees by which the custom prevalent in my youth of asking each other to take wine together at dinner became obsolete?5

The custom of taking wine was still practised when Arthur Freeling wrote The Pocket Book of Etiquette (1837):

You must not ask a lady to take wine until she has finished her soup or fish. If you are seated near the hostess, it will be a mark of respect to ask her to take wine with you, before requesting the honor of any other lady: the lady who has accompanied you to the table next demands your attention. If either lady or gentleman be asked to take wine, they must not refuse; it is only necessary to taste, if more than this be unpleasant.6

In Domestic Duties (1825), Mrs Parkes wrote:

Mrs L - Can a lady refuse to take wine with a gentleman when requested ?

Mrs B - It is not the custom to refuse the request, nor is it considered polite; though I think it may be done, provided the manner in which it is done, be so tempered by politeness as to avoid the unpleasantness of offending.7

In Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801), Mr Hervey invites a lady to take wine with him:

He was nearly struck dumb by the forbidding severity with which an elderly lady, who sat opposite to him, fixed her eyes upon him…He asked her to do him the honour to drink a glass of wine with him. She declined doing him that honour; observing that she never drank more than one glass of wine at dinner, and that she had just taken one with Mr Percival.8

Drinking to Isabella Thorpe   Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817) Illustration by Hugh Thomson (1897)
Drinking to Isabella Thorpe
  Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817)
Illustration by Hugh Thomson (1897)
What was the drinking of healths?

The drinking of healths was a more complicated ritual. Writing in 1810, Simonds explained the custom:

It was done in this way: One of the guests challenged another, male or female; this being accepted by a slight inclination of the head, they filled respectively, each watching the motions of his adversary, then raised their glasses, bowing to each other, and in this attitude, looking round the table, they had to name every one of the company successively; this ceremony finished, the two champions eyed each other gravely, and carrying their glasses to their lips, quaffed their wine simultaneously. As one challenger did not wait for another, and each guest matched himself without minding his neighbours, the consequence was, circular glances, calls of names, and mutual bows, forming a running-fire round the table, crossing in every direction. It was then the invariable custom to introduce guests to each other by name, and it was quite necessary to recollect these names, in order to drink their healths at table. This custom of introducing is losing ground every day.9

Did they drink healths in the Regency?

Trusler wrote in 1791:

Drinking of healths is now growing out of fashion, and is very unpolite in good company. Custom once had made it universal, but the improved manners of the age, now render it vulgar. What can be more rude or ridiculous, than to interrupt persons at their meals, with unnecessary compliments? Abstain then from this silly custom, where you find it out of use, and use it only at those tables, where it continues general.10

In 1804, Trusler wrote that this practice had gone out of fashion completely:

Drinking of healths during dinner or supper, among the first class of people, is entirely exploded; but if the master of the house sets the example, you may follow it.11

Simonds does not quite agree with this. Writing in 1810, he said:

Formerly it was the invariable custom to drink every body's health round the table; and although less general now, it is by no means entirely abolished.12

Mrs Parkes had a different opinion. Writing of the custom of drinking healths, she said:

I think the total omission of the old custom not altogether defensible; for, although the routine of drinking healths by every individual is a formality which may be well dispensed with, yet I should prefer the ancient fashion to be preserved, as far as regards the friends at whose social board we are guests, and whose attentions seem to claim some acknowledgement and tribute of respect on our parts. There is in my mind an apparent heartlessness in the present fashion; and a little of that honest warmth which characterized the rude hospitality of our forefathers would not detract from the refinement of the present age, but would increase the pleasures of the social table.13

A circle of admirals   Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814) Illustration by Hugh Thomson (1897)
 A circle of admirals
  Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814)
Illustration by Hugh Thomson (1897)
Did the ladies withdraw from the dining table first?

Trusler wrote in The Honours of the Table (1791):

Habit having made a pint of wine after dinner almost necessary to a man who eats freely, which is not the case with women, and as their sitting and drinking with the men, would be unseemly; it is customary after the cloth and desert [sic] are removed and two or three glasses of wine are gone round for the ladies to retire and leave the men to themselves, and for this, ’tis the part of the mistress of the house to make the motion for retiring, by privately consulting the ladies present whether they please to withdraw. The ladies thus rising, the men should rise of course, and the gentlemen next the door should open it, to let them pass.14

Simonds observed in 1810:

Soon after dinner the ladies retire, the mistress of the house rising first, while the men remain standing. Left alone, they resume their seats, evidently more at ease, and the conversation takes a different turn, — less reserved,— and either graver, or more licentious.15

I like the closing instruction from Mrs Parkes in this excerpt from Domestic Duties (1825) on the ladies leaving the gentlemen to their wine, that the coffee should be served early, and the gentlemen summoned!

The custom for the ladies to retire soon after dinner is the relic of a barbarous age, when the bottle circulated so freely, and toast upon toast succeeded each other so rapidly, that the gentlemen of a company soon became unfit to conduct themselves with the decorum essential in the presence of the female sex. But in the present age, when temperance is a striking feature in the character of a gentleman; and when delicacy of conduct towards the female sex has increased with the esteem in which they are now held, on account of their superior education and attainments, the early withdrawing of the ladies from the dining room is to be deprecated; as it prevents much conversation which might afford gratification and amusement, both to the ladies and the gentlemen. The truth of this remark is almost generally acknowledged in polite circles; and it is not, now, customary for the ladies to retire very soon after dinner. A lapse in the conversation will occasionally indicate a seasonable time for the change to take place.

I may take this opportunity of remarking, that servants should be instructed to attend to the drawing-room fire, and to prepare the lights after dinner. Prints, periodical works, or other publications of a light kind, ought to be dispersed about the room, and are sometimes useful to engage the attention, when any thing like ennui is observable.

Coffee should be brought up soon, and the gentlemen summoned.16

The gentlemen join the ladies after dinner   Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813) Illustration by C E Brock (1895)
The gentlemen join the ladies after dinner
  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
Illustration by C E Brock (1895)
How long do the gentlemen remain over their wine?

It depends! The length of time that the gentlemen were left to drink depended on personal preference. If Mrs Parkes’s instructions above were followed, not long.

Espriella, writing in 1802 wrote:

They take less wine than we do at dinner, and more after it; but the custom of sitting for hours over the bottle, which was so prevalent of late years, has been gradually laid aside, as much from the gradual progress of the taxes as of good sense.17

In Jane Austen's Emma, Emma’s father does not sit long over his wine:

Mr Woodhouse very soon followed them into the drawing-room. To be sitting long after dinner, was a confinement that he could not endure. Neither wine nor conversation was any thing to him; and gladly did he move to those with whom he was always comfortable.18

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian historical romance set in the time of Jane Austen. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

Find out more about Rachel's books and sign up for her newsletter here.

If you have enjoyed this blog and want to encourage me and help me to keep making my research freely available, please buy me a virtual cup of coffee by clicking the button below.

Notes
  1. Parkes, Mrs William, Domestic Duties or Instructions to young married ladies on the management of their households (London, 1825).
  2. Simond, Louis, Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811 (1815).
  3. Trusler, Rev Dr John, A System of Etiquette (1804).
  4. Trusler, John, The Honours of the Table, or, rules for behaviour during meals (1791).
  5. Austen-Leigh, James Edward, Memoir of Jane Austen (1871).
  6. Freeling, Arthur, The Pocket Book of Etiquette (Liverpool, 1837).
  7. Parkes op cit.
  8. Edgeworth, Maria, Belinda (1801).
  9. Simond op cit.
  10. Trusler, John, The Honours of the Table, or, rules for behaviour during meals (1791).
  11. Trusler, Rev Dr John, A System of Etiquette (1804).
  12. Simonds op cit.
  13. Parkes op cit.
  14. Trusler, John, The Honours of the Table, or, rules for behaviour during meals (1791).
  15. Simonds op cit.
  16. Parkes op cit.
  17. Espriella, Don Manuel Alvare, Letters from England, translated from the Spanish by Robert Southey 3rd edition (1814) Volume 1.
  18. Austen, Jane, Emma (1815).

Sources used include:

Austen, Jane, Emma (1815)

Austen, Jane, Jane Austen's Letters, Collected and Edited by Le Faye, Deirdre (Oxford University Press, 1995)

Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park (1814)

Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey (1817)

Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811)

Austen, Jane, The Letters of Jane Austen selected from the compilation of her great nephew, Edward, Lord Bradbourne ed Sarah Woolsey (1892)

Austen-Leigh, James Edward, Memoir of Jane Austen (1871)

Cruickshank, Dan and Burton, Neil, Life in the Georgian City (1990)

Edgeworth, Maria, Belinda (1801)

Espriella, Don Manuel Alvare, Letters from England, translated from the Spanish by Robert Southey 3rd edition (1814) Volume 1

Freeling, Arthur, The Pocket Book of Etiquette (Liverpool, 1837)

Parkes, Mrs William, Domestic Duties or Instructions to young married ladies on the management of their households (London, 1825)

Simond, Louis, Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811 (1815)

Trusler, Rev Dr John, A System of Etiquette (1804)

Trusler, John, The Honours of the Table, or, rules for behaviour during meals (1791)

All photographs © Regencyhistory.net

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Book review: A Faithful Proposal by Jennie Goutet

Front cover of A Faithful Proposal by Jennie Goutet

A sweet Regency romance where purpose triumphs over pleasure

The scenario

Anna Tunstall goes to visit her friend Emily Leatham who is expecting a baby and needs companionship while her husband is away at sea. A short distance from her destination, Anna’s carriage is held up by highwaymen and she is knocked unconscious. Harry Aston, the rector, finds her, and is soon hoping to persuade her to stay in Avebury permanently. But Anna thrives on the fashionable life of Regency London, and she is not in a hurry to give it up.

What I really liked

I very much enjoyed this sweet Regency romance with elements of faith woven in. I loved the gentle romance between Anna and Harry, with the dramatic elements of Emily’s story and of the search for the highwaymen going on in the background. I particularly liked seeing Harry’s flaws and the way his brother brought out the worst in him. It made him seem more human than a perfect clergyman would have done. I really liked the way Anna interacted with Harry’s brother and how Goutet demonstrated that lack of openness can lead to mistrust.

Those little historical details

I am a big fan of the little historical details threaded through the narrative that give a Regency romance an authentic feel. Goutet did this beautifully, with references to Hannah More’s Practical Piety, published in 1811 (the year before the book is set), and the Treaty of Amiens of 1802, which produced a temporary lull in hostilities between the United Kingdom and France during the Napoleonic wars.  

Quote from A Faithful Proposal by Jennie Goutet

Church customs

The hero, Harry, is a clergyman, and there are some interesting details about church life in the Regency including buying church pews and tithing. These sent me scurrying off to do some research as it was not an area I had looked into before.

I was aware of the existence of tithing, but I had assumed it operated like a parish tax and was paid in money, like a rent payment. It was something of a surprise to discover that in the Regency, although sometimes a monetary arrangement was made between the tithe payer and the tithe owner, tithes could still be paid in kind, as Goutet mentions in A Faithful Proposal.

The idea of owning or renting a pew seems appalling to me, but it was a source of income for the church at this time. In discouraging this practice, Harry was risking a reduction in the church’s income.

A word about words

I am always intrigued when I check out words that don’t sound right to me in a Regency setting only to discover they are perfectly acceptable. A quick look in my etymological dictionary told me it was fine to use chum and poppet (though it did make me think of Pirates of the Caribbean!). 

Other words, such as touchĂ© – an exclamation to acknowledge a hit in fencing – sound right, as gentlemen fenced in the Regency, and yet the first recorded use according to my etymological dictionary was 1902!

Since reading this book, I’ve added two more by Jennie Goutet to my Kindle library. I guess I must have liked it this book quite a lot. 

Clean and sweet?

Heat level low – just kissing. 

Christian characters with references to faith, prayer and purpose. 

No swearing. 

Mild violence/accident.

5 stars Highly recommended

Rachel Knowles author
Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian historical romance set in the time of Jane Austen. She has been sharing her research and reviews on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

  Find out more about Rachel's books and sign up for her newsletter here.

Monday, 6 September 2021

Regency dining etiquette - a Regency History guide

A banquet at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton from the coloured lithograph by J Nash in Life in Regency and Early Victorian Times by EB Chancellor (1926)
A banquet at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton from the coloured
lithograph by J Nash in Life in Regency and
Early Victorian Times
by EB Chancellor (1926)
When I’m writing a scene set at a Regency dinner party, I often find myself asking questions about how they would have done things. As I strive for historical accuracy in what I write, I’ve tried to develop an understanding of the etiquette observed at the time. I have looked at books on etiquette, contemporary novels, letters and journals to try and establish some rules. As with all things historical, they are more guidelines than a strict code of behaviour, as no doubt there was variation as to when or even if these rules were applied, across time, class and location.
 

Did Regency people gather in the drawing room before dinner?

In Trusler’s A System of Etiquette (1804), he wrote:

When invited to dinner, make a point of always being there in proper time, not to make the company wait; fifteen minutes at least before the appointed hour, and to prevent mistakes, see that your watch goes right, and make a proper allowance for the time in going. A superior indeed, will not wait your coming beyond the time; and if you enter after the company is seated, you are a general disturber.

He continued:

On your entering the room where the company is, address yourself first to the lady of the house, next to the master, and after, to the rest of the company you are introduced to, by a respectful bow to each.1

As he then proceeded to give instructions about walking into the room where dinner is served, this suggests it was expected that the company would gather before going into the dining room.

The Pocket Book of Etiquette (1837) states that this usually took place in the drawing room:

On arriving at the house of the inviter, you will be shown into the room in which the party are assembling (ordinarily the drawing room); here, of course, you will be presented.2

This would seem to be borne out in Jane Austen’s novels. In Mansfield Park, she wrote:

Thus much was settled before Edmund, who had been out all the morning, knew anything of the matter; but when he entered the drawing-room before dinner, the buzz of discussion was high between Tom, Maria, and Mr Yates.3

Dining room, Felbrigg Hall (2019)
Dining room, Felbrigg Hall (2019)
Did they use a dinner bell or gong?

I have not, as yet, come across any contemporary reference to a dinner gong, but Maria Edgeworth mentions a dinner bell in her novel Belinda (1801):

Before Belinda had answered these questions to her satisfaction, the dinner-bell rang.4

In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Elinor Tilney knows what time her father expects dinner to be served and urges Catherine Morland to hurry to the drawing room. When the company is gathered, the General calls for dinner:

Miss Tilney gently hinted her fear of being late; and in half a minute they ran downstairs together, in an alarm not wholly unfounded, for General Tilney was pacing the drawing-room, his watch in his hand, and having, on the very instant of their entering, pulled the bell with violence, ordered “Dinner to be on table directly!”5

How did guests enter the dining room?

In The Honours of the Table (1791), Trusler wrote:

In all public companies precedence is attended to, and particularly at table. Women have here always taken place of men, and both men and women have sat above each other, according to the rank they bear in life. Where a company is equal in point of rank, married ladies take place of single ones and older ones of younger ones.

When dinner is announced, the mistress of the house requests the lady first in rank, in company, to shew the way to the rest, and walk first into the room where the table is served; she then asks the second in precedence to follow, and after all the ladies are passed, she brings up the rear herself. The master of the house does the same with the gentlemen. Among persons of real distinction, this marshalling of the company is unnecessary, every woman and every man present knows his rank and precedence, and takes the lead, without any direction from the mistress or the master.6

In Pride and Prejudice, after her marriage, Lydia is anxious to assert her precedence over her eldest sister Jane:

She [Elizabeth] then joined them soon enough to see Lydia, with anxious parade, walk up to her mother’s right hand, and hear her say to her eldest sister, “Ah! Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman.”7

Domestic Duties (1825) suggests that the host rather than the hostess takes the lead, and that the company proceeds in couples rather than all the ladies before the gentlemen:

When dinner is announced, the gentleman of the house selects the lady most distinguished by rank, or respectable by age; or the one who is the greatest stranger in the party, to lead to the dining-room…the rest of the party follow in couples.8
Illustration by Hugh Thomson from Emma by Jane Austen (1896 edition)
Illustration by Hugh Thomson
from Emma by Jane Austen (1896 edition)

How were guests seated at the table?

Describing an English dinner in 1810, Simond wrote:

The master and mistress of the house sit at each end of the table, — narrower and longer than the French tables, — the mistress at the upper end ; — and the places near her are the places of honour.9

In his 1804 book on etiquette, Trusler wrote:

Seats at table, are taken generally in the like manner, the ladies at the upper end of the table, the gentlemen at the lower; but the master or mistress of the house will sometimes direct it otherwise, and seat the ladies and gentlemen alternately, that is one gentleman and one lady, and so on, for convenience. When the men and women are so mixed, it is a mark of good manners to carve and help the ladies, to any dish that may be near you.

The mistress of the house always sits at the upper-end of her table, provided any ladies are present, and her husband at the lower-end; but, if the company consists of gentlemen only, the mistress seldom appears, in which case, the master takes the upper-seat.10

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen described a dinner party at Rosings, the home of Lady Catherine de Bourgh:

The dinner was exceedingly handsome, and there were all the servants and all the articles of plate which Mr Collins had promised; and, as he had likewise foretold, he took his seat at the bottom of the table, by her ladyship’s desire, and looked as if he felt that life could furnish nothing greater. He carved, and ate, and praised with delighted alacrity.11

Later in the book, at a dinner party at Longbourn, most of the company are left to choose their own places at the table:

When they repaired to the dining-room, Elizabeth eagerly watched to see whether Bingley would take the place, which, in all their former parties, had belonged to him, by her sister. Her prudent mother, occupied by the same ideas, forbore to invite him to sit by herself. On entering the room, he seemed to hesitate; but Jane happened to look round, and happened to smile: it was decided. He placed himself by her.12

In Domestic Duties (1825), Mrs Parkes wrote:

When dinner is announced, the gentleman of the house selects the lady most distinguished by rank, or respectable by age; or the one who is the greatest stranger in the party, to lead to the dining-room, where he places her by himself. If her husband be of the party, he takes the lady of the house to her place at table, and seats himself beside her: the rest of the party follow in couples; and the hostess arranges them according to their rank, or according to what she imagines may be their expectations; always, however, placing the greatest strangers amongst the gentlemen near herself. This arrangement should be effected in an easy, gentle manner, and with as little form as possible.13

This arrangement was clearly not universal as Mrs Parkes felt the need to comment on the custom of host and hostess sitting together:

It is customary in some houses, which are regarded as fashionable, for the master and mistress to sit together at the head of the table, leaving the lower end in charge of a son, or some male relation or friend; but this custom has never been sanctioned by general usage, and is so objectionable, as far as regards the attention and comfort which every guest has a right to expect from his host, that it is not likely ever to prevail. It is true that bad health, advanced age, or accidental circumstances may place a gentleman as a guest at his own table, but when these do not exist, his appropriate situation is, certainly, at the lower end of the table.14

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Wickham at dinner   Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813) Illustration by C E Brock (1895)
Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Wickham at dinner
  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
Illustration by C E Brock (1895)
Who could you speak to at a Regency dinner party?

I have long held the belief that you weren’t supposed to talk to anyone apart from the person seated on your immediate right and left, but I am struggling to find this spelt out in any of the books on etiquette I have read. In smaller gatherings, it seems that general conversation was normal:

In Domestic Duties (1825), Mrs Parkes wrote:

A very large party is not likely to be so lively and sociable, as one of moderate size. A remark has somewhere been made, that a dinner party should never be less in number than the graces, nor more than the muses, but certainly more than ten or twelve in number is not desirable. When a table is very long, the conversation, witticisms and pleasantries at one end, must be lost at the other.

She continued:

The conversation must, in a great degree, however, be regulated by the host and hostess; who should be always prepared to rouse it, when it becomes heavy, or to change it, skilfully, when it is likely to turn upon subjects known to be unpleasant to any of their visitors.15

In Pride and Prejudice, at the dinner at Rosings Park mentioned above, Lady Catherine listens to Mr Collins’s conversation, even though he is seated at the far end of the table from her. Elizabeth, however, finds it hard to converse because of where she is placed:

Every dish was commended, first by him [Mr Collins] and then by Sir William, who was now enough recovered to echo whatever his son-in-law said, in a manner which Elizabeth wondered Lady Catherine could bear. But Lady Catherine seemed gratified by their excessive admiration, and gave most gracious smiles, especially when any dish on the table proved a novelty to them. The party did not supply much conversation. Elizabeth was ready to speak whenever there was an opening, but she was seated between Charlotte and Miss de Bourgh—the former of whom was engaged in listening to Lady Catherine, and the latter said not a word to her all dinner-time. Mrs Jenkinson was chiefly employed in watching how little Miss de Bourgh ate, pressing her to try some other dish, and fearing she was indisposed. Maria thought speaking out of the question, and the gentlemen did nothing but eat and admire.16

At the dinner at Longbourn also mentioned above, Elizabeth reflects on Mr Darcy’s position at the dinner table. As was due to a gentleman of his consequence, he is seated next to the hostess:

Mr Darcy was almost as far from her as the table could divide them. He was on one side of her mother. She knew how little such a situation would give pleasure to either, or make either appear to advantage. She was not near enough to hear any of their discourse, but she could see how seldom they spoke to each other, and how formal and cold was their manner whenever they did.17

In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is invited to dinner by Mrs Grant at the parsonage. With six sat down to dinner, there seems to be only one conversation going on at the dinner table:

A very cordial meeting passed between him [Henry Crawford] and Edmund; and with the exception of Fanny, the pleasure was general; and even to her there might be some advantage in his presence, since every addition to the party must rather forward her favourite indulgence of being suffered to sit silent and unattended to. She was soon aware of this herself; for though she must submit, as her own propriety of mind directed, in spite of her aunt Norris’s opinion, to being the principal lady in company, and to all the little distinctions consequent thereon, she found, while they were at table, such a happy flow of conversation prevailing, in which she was not required to take any part—there was so much to be said between the brother and sister about Bath, so much between the two young men about hunting, so much of politics between Mr Crawford and Dr Grant, and of everything and all together between Mr Crawford and Mrs Grant, as to leave her the fairest prospect of having only to listen in quiet, and of passing a very agreeable day.18

The Dashwoods at dinner with the Middletons   Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811) Illustration by Hugh Thomson (1896)
The Dashwoods at dinner with the Middletons
  Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)
Illustration by Hugh Thomson (1896)
In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Jennings has rather vulgar manners:

Willoughby took his usual place between the two elder Miss Dashwoods. Mrs Jennings sat on Elinor’s right hand; and they had not been long seated, before she leant behind her and Willoughby, and said to Marianne, loud enough for them both to hear, “I have found you out in spite of all your tricks. I know where you spent the morning.”19

Did they use napkins?

Domestic Duties (1825) states:

When, according to the continental fashion, the cloth is allowed to remain on the table; or, according to the more general custom of this country, before it is removed, a silver, or a china or glass dish, containing rose-water, is passed round the table, into which each guest dips the corner of his table napkin, for the purpose of refreshing his mouth and fingers, prior to the appearance of the dessert.20

Earlier, in 1810, Simonds observed that sometimes the tablecloth was used instead of a napkin:

Towards the end of dinner, and before the ladies retire, bowls of coloured glass full of water are placed before each person. All (women as well as men) stoop over it, sucking up some of the water, and returning it, often more than once, and, with a spitting and washing sort of noise, quite charming,— the operation frequently assisted by a finger elegantly thrust into the mouth! This done, and the hands dipped also, the napkins, and sometimes the table-cloth, are used to wipe hand and mouth.21

When was dinner over?

It was polite for the host or hostess of a dinner party to keep eating as long as any of their guests. Trusler wrote in The Honours of the Table (1791):

The master or mistress of the table should continue eating, whilst any of the company are so employed, and to enable them to do this, they should help themselves accordingly.22

Did the children of the house join the company after dinner?

This must have been a custom in the circles in which Jane Austen moved. In Emma, she described a dinner party at the Coles’s:

She [Emma] said no more, other subjects took their turn; and the rest of the dinner passed away; the dessert succeeded, the children came in, and were talked to and admired amid the usual rate of conversation.23

Similarly, in Sense and Sensibility:

Lady Middleton seemed to be roused to enjoyment only by the entrance of her four noisy children after dinner, who pulled her about, tore her clothes, and put an end to every kind of discourse except what related to themselves.24

I’ve looked at the question of drinking healths and ladies withdrawing from the table to leave the men at their wine in a separate post here.

Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian historical romance set in the time of Jane Austen. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

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Notes

  1. Trusler, Rev Dr John, A System of Etiquette (1804).

  2. Freeling, Arthur, The Pocket Book of Etiquette (Liverpool, 1837).

  3. Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park (1814).

  4. Edgeworth, Maria, Belinda (1801).

  5. Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey (1817).

  6. Trusler, John, The Honours of the Table, or, rules for behaviour during meals (1791).

  7. Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (1813).

  8. Parkes, Mrs William, Domestic Duties or Instructions to young married ladies on the management of their households (London, 1825).

  9. Simond, Louis, Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811 (1815).

  10. Trusler, Rev Dr John, A System of Etiquette (1804).

  11. Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (1813).

  12. Ibid.

  13. Parkes op cit.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (1813).

  17. Ibid.

  18. Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park (1814).

  19. Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811).

  20. Parkes op cit.

  21. Simond op cit.

  22. Trusler, John, The Honours of the Table, or, rules for behaviour during meals (1791).

  23. Austen, Jane, Emma (1815).

  24. Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811).

  25.  

    Sources used include:

    Austen, Jane, Emma (1815)

    Austen, Jane, Jane Austen's Letters, Collected and Edited by Le Faye, Deirdre (Oxford University Press, 1995)

    Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park (1814)

    Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey (1817)

    Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

    Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811)

    Austen, Jane, The Letters of Jane Austen selected from the compilation of her great nephew, Edward, Lord Bradbourne ed Sarah Woolsey (1892)

    Cruickshank, Dan and Burton, Neil, Life in the Georgian City (1990)

    Edgeworth, Maria, Belinda (1801)

    Espriella, Don Manuel Alvare, Letters from England, translated from the Spanish by Robert Southey 3rd edition (1814) Volume 1

    Freeling, Arthur, The Pocket Book of Etiquette (Liverpool, 1837)

    Parkes, Mrs William, Domestic Duties or Instructions to young married ladies on the management of their households (London, 1825)

    Simond, Louis, Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811 (1815)

    Trusler, Rev Dr John, A System of Etiquette (1804)

    Trusler, John, The Honours of the Table, or, rules for behaviour during meals (1791)

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