Thursday, December 14, 2017

Victorian Dinner Party Etiquette

By Gabrielle Meyer

I'm in the midst of writing a Victorian novella, set in 1899. I've had so much fun researching the customs and etiquette of this highly formal era. But even more than that, I've had fun informing my husband on numerous occasions that his behavior is a sign of "ill" or "low" breeding! :)

For instance, tapping one's fingers in the company of others is a sign of "low" breeding. Placing an arm on the back of a lady's chair is a sign of "low" breeding. And one must never take more than two spoonfuls of sugar, unless one wants to appear greedy.

Here are some dinner party etiquette - in case you're ever invited to a Victorian Dinner Party.

Dressing for the Dinner Party:

For the Ladies

Do not dress above your station; it is a grievous mistake, and leads to great evils, besides being the proof of a complete lack of taste.

Do not expose the neck and arms at a dinner party.

For the Gentlemen

The unvarying uniform is black pants, waistcoat and jacket, with white tie, shirt and gloves.

Seating Arrangements:

It is customary for the host and hostess to be seated opposite each other, at the side of the table, in the center.

Husbands and wives should sit as far as possible from each other. Society is the enlargement, the absorption, and, for the time being, the breaking up of all private and exclusive engagements.

The Before Dinner Interval:

At some point before dinner is announced, the hostess will discreetly point out to each gentleman the lady he will escort to dinner. He shall serve her throughout the meal.

Upon Sitting:

The guests find their places by the names on the place cards and every one sits down in a gay flutter of talk and laughter.

The Delicate Art of Dinner Table Conversation:

The conversation should be easy, playful and mirthful.

The rules of politeness are never at variance with the principles of morality. Whatever is really impolite is really immoral. 

Do not mention at the table anything that might not properly be placed upon it.

The Etiquette of the Dinner Table:

Eat slowly; it will contribute to your good health as well as your good manners. Thorough mastication of you food is necessary to digestion.

Be moderate in the quantity you eat. You impair your health by overloading the stomach, and render yourself dull and stupid for hours after the meal.

The After Dinner Interval:

Contrary to the custom of low society, civilized gentlemen do not remain at the table after the ladies have retired, to indulge in wine, coarse conversation, and obscene jokes. The more enlightened practice is for the ladies and gentlemen to retire together from the dining table.

It is expected that guests will linger for two or three hours after the dinner. In any event, no one may politely depart until at least one hour has passed.

After the Dinner Party:

Within one week, pay a brief "dinner call" to express thanks to your host and hostess, and to briefly reminisce over the delights of the evening. Do not stay for less than ten minutes or more than twenty.

Simple, right? I didn't mention all the rules listed. And I didn't get into the obligations of the host and hostess, the proper table settings, the proper behavior of servants, and on and on. It's giving me great fodder for my book.

What about you? What surprised you most about a Victorian Dinner Party? Is there anything you'd like to resurrect?

These rules are from The Essential Handbook of Victorian Entertaining adapted by Autumn Stephens, A Bluewood Book

My December 2017 release, The Gift of Twins, is now available!

Gabrielle Meyer lives in central Minnesota on the banks of the Mississippi River with her husband and four children. As an employee of the Minnesota Historical Society, she fell in love with the rich history of her state and enjoys writing fictional stories inspired by real people and events.

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  1. What a list of rules! I loved....limit your wouldn't want to over load the stomach and appear dull and stupid for hours!!!!!! Wow!

  2. Rules prior and afterwards. Interesting that the husbands and wives would to sit as far apart as possible.

    The Gift of Twins is calling my name, by being a twin. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Gabrielle.