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Sunday, 2 December 2012

ESAH Sunday Series: Dinner Parties

Continuing our series ... Extracts from Edward Henry Lisle Reeve's 'Commonplace Book', written in 1881.  

Dinner Parties
Drinking Post Dinner

In the days – known sometimes as the good old days – a great deal more wine was consumed after dinner than it is the custom now, and a man was hardly worthy the name who could not put away his two bottles at least.  Then, we must recollect, dinner was about four o’clock in the afternoon, and the after hours were kept up as late as now, so that a good deal might be reasonably expected in the time.  After a dinner party the ladies would go home alone, it being very little use to wait for their escorts.  Sometimes the gentlemen would stagger back to the drawing room, but they were anything but agreeable companions after dinner.

The dining room chairs used all to be made to run on castors, and the valets would come and wheel out their several masters.

It is altogether a disgraceful account to give of the society of the day.  Capt. Reeve at his house would not produce more wine when he saw everybody was well sated, he could not help it, he said, he did not want to be stingy, but thought it well to draw the line somewhere.  He used to tell the story of some young host who was called all sorts of hard names for not producing more wine at such a time.  He took out a dozen or more of his best wine on to the lawn and broke the bottles saying that he did not want the wine, but they had all had quite enough. 

When out at a party, Capt. Reeve with his common sense, would take great notice before dinner began of the exact position of the door in case of accidents. He has often seen unsteady forms trying in hopeless corners of the room to find their way out.

Dinner Etiquette

We have already hinted at the rather loose conduct of the gentleman over their wine at the dinner parties of the olden time.  There was, however, a great deal of formality interspersed with the joviality of the period.  It was customary, for example, for every gentleman to bow across the table to the lady of the house, and ask for the pleasure of a glass of wine with her.  Neglect of this piece of etiquette would have been deemed an unpardonable omission.  It was rather a formidable task for the youth of that day to withstand the gaze of the assembled party while he waited to catch the hostess’ eye.

And the task was yet more formidable when the hostess’ eye was an ever wandering though beaming star.  Miss Thomson of Dedham unfortunately squinted, and the gentlemen never knew when they had caught her eye, and when they had not.  On one occasion, at her house, the gentlemen had all nervously refrained from attempting the usual formula.  This was not to be passed unnoticed by that lady.  “There are less than seven gentlemen present”, she said, “and not one of them has had the grace to ask me to take wine with him”.

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