Could you survive an Edwardian dinner party?

Which fork is which? When can't you talk to your spouse? And what are the rules about tiaras? With Downton Abbey coming to UK cinemas on Friday BBC History Revealed offers some indispensable tips to help you impress anyone at a 'high society' dinner – even Dowager Countess Grantham herself

Dinner at Downton Abbey

The Edwardian period – officially spanning the reign of Edward VII between 1901 and 1910, but often encompassing the years running up to World War I – was a time of airs and graces. Many of the rules and manners seem alien compared to those of the 21st century, with several of them hangovers from the prim and proper Victorian era.

Advertisement

Few areas were the rules more obviously in force than at an Edwardian dinner party. Such occasions were more than just an excuse for a get-together. They were showcases of wealth for the upper classes, allowing them to impress their guests with their best silverware and multiple courses of fine food and wine.

If you were suddenly transported back in time, how would you navigate this strange world of footmen, dinner gongs and decorum? Fear not! Our expert guide will guarantee you a return invitation.

1

Dress to impress

How should you dress to ensure you look your best for the occasion? Formal wear is a must and hats should be worn by gentlemen on their arrival. For all meals before 6pm, hats and gloves are a necessity for women and should be kept on for lunch.

During dinner, gloves should sit on your lap beneath your napkin. Men generally wear tuxedos as a minimum – tailcoats for especially formal occasions – while the women will be attired in full length dresses with their hair in an elaborate up-do.

Tiaras are only worn by married women, to set apart the single ladies in the room. The lady of the house will ensure her maid records what she wears to avoid any embarrassing repetition of outfits should she host you again.

2

Be prepared

Punctuality is extremely important, if you want to give a good first impression. Guests will congregate in the drawing room. If there is a large group of diners, men will be given a card containing the name of the woman they will be seated next to.

After the butler has announced dinner, the master of the household will lead the procession into the dining room, with the lady of highest rank on his arm. They will then be followed by the rest of the family and guests in pairs. Gentlemen offer their arms to the ladies and husbands do not escort their wives. The last in should be the hostess and the most ‘socially important’ male guest.

Dinner is served reasonably late, at around 8pm. Make sure you’re prepared for what lies ahead of you – dinner can be a long affair and leaving the table, to answer a call of nature for example, is not acceptable.

3

Arrive hungry

What can you expect to eat at this fine soirée and how should you go about eating it to avoid a potential dinner disaster? As with so many things about Edwardian life, there are rules. Dinner is the most formal meal of the day.

You may assume, with all the number of servants present, that food will be dished up for you, but this is often not the case.  Footmen – wearing white gloves to avoid smearing the silverware – will hold food platters to your left so that you can help yourself. This allows you to govern how much you eat. The lady on the host’s right will be attended to first and then the footmen will serve clockwise around the table. The idea of women being served first is a continental idea that has not been adopted yet. Rulers are used when the table is being set to ensure that the cutlery is aligned properly and that knives, forks and spoons are the correct distance away from each other.

Dining styles are changing, so your food may be served ‘à la Russe’ (in the Russian style), where dishes are portioned on a sideboard and handed to each guest. This replaces the older French tradition, in which courses are placed on the dining table and guests help themselves. In either case, keep in mind that dinner will be a multi-course affair, so eat a little of each if you want to reach the final course comfortably, especially if you’re wearing a corset.

Six courses is the most common number but on special occasions you may encounter as many as twelve. These generally consist of soup, a fish course, an entrée such as vol-auvents or sweetbreads, a sorbet, a roast course such as pheasant and then dessert which can include blancmange or fresh fruit from the estate’s hothouses.

Jellied tongue, ox heart and a pig’s head are also popular delicacies to look out for. The menu will have been discussed between the lady of the house and cook in advance. As well as tasting good, all of the food served must look impressive. Garnishes are a popular feature so almost all dishes will be dressed with a sprig of greenery or a glaze.

4

Keep the conversation light

To avoid making an embarrassing faux pas, ensure you are aware of what is deemed an inappropriate topic of conversation. Gossip of an indelicate or sexual nature is strictly off limits – there will be ladies present after all.

Controversial subjects like politics, religion or boasting about finances are also a no-no. As well as what you can talk about, who you talk to is also governed by the rules of etiquette. You can’t just launch into conversation with someone on the opposite side of the table when you feel like it.

When the meal begins, you may converse with one of your neighbours – which side will usually be dictated by the lady of the house, so follow her lead. During the course of the meal, she will turn to her other neighbour and perhaps give a discreet cough or other signal to inform diners that they may now turn and speak to the person on their other side. This ensures that no one gets ignored and is known as the turning of the table.

You may be expecting to sit with the person you arrived with but no, there will be carefully thought out seating plan to follow. On your arrival you will have been given a card informing you who you are sat next to. Guests sit male-female-male around the table, and married couples are normally separated. Engaged couples are often sat together so they can converse and get to know each other while chaperoned.

What about the servants?

Servants will eat downstairs in the servant’s hall, but this happens much earlier at around 6pm, to ensure they are ready to serve upstairs.

The kitchen maid will normally oversee the staff meal, so the cook can undertake preparations for the grander fare served to the family and guests. The menu for staff may have been quite basic, but on the whole if you worked in a grand house or estate you probably ate considerably well compared to those not in service. Freshly baked bread, meat stews, rice pudding and home-grown vegetables were common meals at the servant’s table.

While upstairs, wine was the usual tipple to accompany a meal, beer was the more appropriate choice downstairs. Small beer – roughly with 2.5 per cent or less alcohol content – was often provided throughout the day and some country houses would even brew their own.

Occasionally – and only if they were lucky – servants may have been permitted to sample leftovers from the upstairs meals.


5

Mind your manners

The importance of manners cannot be underestimated and will help ensure you’re on the guest list the next time around. Remember to be polite and be on your best behaviour. If you do not know the person you will be sitting next to, it is up to the gentlemen to introduce themselves and offer the lady his arm on the way into the dining room.

Sit correctly in your chair – one’s back must never touch it, so there can be no slouching. Bring your food towards you – never the other way around – and try not to end up wearing your soup. When standing, never put your hands in your pockets, as this is considered uncouth. Physical contact is also not the done thing: a hug as a greeting is not appropriate.

6

Don’t show your lack of breeding

One of the greatest social faux pas you can make when invited to a formal dinner party is to give away your class status – if this is lower than that of your hosts. If the house you have been invited to is exceptionally grand, try to keep your amazement to yourself.

Standing with your mouth wide open in awe at the finery and elegant decor will embarrass both you and them. This also means you should keep compliments to a minimum – otherwise you could give away the fact that this is not a situation, or surroundings, you are accustomed to. Do not give the impression that you’re overwhelmed with the grandeur of the house, the expensive silverware or the vast number of servants.

With regards to the food, your hosts will not have toiled in the kitchen themselves – they have staff for that. Compliments on the standard of food, therefore, are meaningless.

7

Follow your crowd

After dinner has finished, the women will retire to the parlour or drawing room, while the men remain at the dining table to talk freely about politics and generally put the world to rights – topics seen as far too challenging for women to worry themselves about.

For the men, liquor and smoking is often involved – the host will receive a decanter of wine which he’ll pour himself. The women, meanwhile, will sip coffee while indulging in some gossip about the latest royal scandal or potential romances within their social circle.

Advertisement

This content first appeared in the November 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed