by Maria Grace
In nearly every society, rules of etiquette abound. Strictures surrounding meals and eating are among the most common. The Regency era was no exception. In fact, a young woman’s ability to navigate the injunctions of etiquette could dramatically influence her chances of making a good marriage—which for most was the making or breaking of her future life. Published guides abounded to assist young women and their mothers in surmounting the challenges of polite society.
Dressing for dinner
The first challenge was dress. Whether simply a family event or one with invited guests, members of the gentry and upper classes dressed for dinner in appropriate evening clothes. Typically dinner required half dress, a semi-formal style worn from afternoon to early evening and for informal evening occasions. For a formal dinner party full dress might be required. These formal evening gowns would have been on the same level of ballroom attire – but of a different style. Suitably formal manners at the dining table also prevailed.
Within the dining room, guests were not assigned seats. The hostess sat at the head of the table with the highest ranking male guest at her right. The host took the foot of the table with the highest ranking female guest at his right. Other guests were free to select their own seats as they chose. Though there was a tacit understanding that seats closest to the hostess should be taken by the highest ranking guests.
Conventions later in the era suggested alternate male-female seating around the table, although little effort was generally made to insure equal numbers of male and female guests. As a general rule, husbands and wives did not sit together. The prevailing idea was that one saw enough of one’s spouse at home and ought to mingle with others instead.
Dinner during the Regency was an elaborate affair encompassing several courses with a multitude of dishes at each. Anywhere from five to twenty five dishes might be offered, depending on the grandeur of the occasion.
The first course always included soup and fish, often, more than one choice for each. The hostess served the soup, the host, the fish. He also carved all the meat joints. The first course included other dishes as well: meat, poultry, vegetables and starches all on the table at the same time.
In order to accommodate more dishes than the table would physically hold at one time, courses might include a ‘remove’ where half way through the course one dish was removed and replaced with another delicacy. At the end of the course, the dishes and first table cloth would be cleared away. The fresh table cloth, underneath the first would be reset with a second course, similar to, but somewhat lighter than the first.
At the end of the second course, the dishes and final tablecloth would be cleared and a dessert course would be served. Dessert included fruits, nuts, candies, biscuits and little cakes, sweetmeats and even ice creams.
Fortunately guests were not expected to try every dish on the table!
Getting all this food onto the guest’s plates could be challenging. To help in the process, the hostess would acquaint her guests with the dishes on the table and sideboards, the wine and liquors on the side-board and with any removes added to the table after the course was served.
Each gentleman would serve himself and his neighbors from the dishes within his reach. As a matter of politeness, since eating a great deal was deemed indelicate in a lady, he would not fill her plate too full. Once he served her a small slice of meat, he would ask what kind of vegetable she preferred. If a dish was required from another part of the table, a manservant would be sent to fetch it. It was not good form to ask a neighbor to pass a dish. It was equally bad manners for the ladies to ask for wine. The nearest gentlemen needed to attend to that detail as well.
After the roasts of meat had been carved, a toast to good health would be proposed. Gentlemen could make lengthy toasts – and toasts in response to each other’s toasts. This ceremony could go on to excess, leading to interruption of the meal and drunkenness. It fell out of favor toward the end of the Regency period.
Specific rules had to be followed while eating. The soup course could never be refused, even if the diner only toyed with it until the fish course. If one ate the soup, it was scooped with the spoon away from the diner and sipped from the side of the spoon, not the point. Sipping should be accomplished noiselessly—one could not eat too quietly.
Eating quickly (which inferred poverty) or very slowly (which inferred dislike of the food) were considered vulgar. Those who showed too much interest in their food or were overly finicky about it opened themselves up to criticism.
Diners must not eat with their nose in the plate nor bring food to her mouth with a knife. If food had any liquid, it should be sopped with the bread and then raised it to the mouth. A lady’s napkin belonged in her lap, a gentlemen’s tucked in his collar. Between courses, water in finger bowls was available so that mouths could be rinsed or hands washed as fingers were probably used as frequently as forks.
During dinner, one did not scratch any part of the body, spit, lean elbows on the table, sit too far from the table, or pick teeth before the dishes were removed. A guest did not leave the table before grace was said.
During dinner, a gentleman was expected to entertain the ladies nearest him with engaging conversation. It was not polite to talk behind one guest's back to another, still less to shout down the table. To reduce general noise and confusion, there were rules of protocol developed for dinner conversation. During the first course, the conversation would flow to the hostess's left. When the second course was set, the hostess would turn to the guest on her right, thus “turning the table” and conversation would flow to her right.
The list of unacceptable topics far outnumbered the acceptable ones. A polite individual did not ask direct personal questions of someone they had just met. To question or even compliment anyone else on the details of their dress might also be regarded as impertinent. Scandal and gossip should be omitted from public conversation. Any references to pregnancy, childbirth, or other natural bodily functions were considered coarse and carefully sidestepped. A man could sometimes discuss his hunters or driving horses in the presence of ladies though it was generally discouraged.
Repaying the favor
After a dinner party, ceremonial visits to acknowledge the hospitality had to be paid within two days. These calls would be paid later in the day than ‘morning calls,’ typically between three and four in the afternoon. Reciprocal dinner invitations must be promptly issued after that. Guests would not be invited again until that took place. Failure to return an invitation was considered a serious breach of etiquette and could lead to significant offense.
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