For a long time, food, more specifically shared meals, has been an important medium to allow people to come together to catch up with each other, communicate, and form an even tighter relationship. Back in the Victorian era, people came together with their relatives and/or family friends to do this over dinner. However, it wasn’t as simple as just quickly preparing food and calling up friends. There were certain rules and regulations that society deemed appropriate. From the text of the time, we can see what the traditions were when it came to having dinner guests.
Isabella Beeton is an excellent first person source of information from the time period. In her book, “The Book of Household Management,” she discussed the roles of the mistress of the house and of the housekeeper before she launched into talking about the kitchen, how it should be run, and any recipes or discussions of meals. Based on her rules, 21st century scholars can deduce that dinners back then had a very specific formula to ensure their success.
Invitations to dinner were given out “a fortnight” (two weeks) to three weeks in advance. It was the job of the hostess to make sure the guests all got along and that the seating arrangement provided a perfect balance of talkers and listeners. She had to either prepare the food or oversee her workers (i.e cook, housekeeper) while remaining pleasant and focused on preparing to entertain. Once the guests arrived (promptly on time, of course), she needed to engage them all in enjoyable, intellectual conversation, potentially regarding things such as books or art.
|Ideal family scene|
|A finger-glass of the time|
Once guests were seated, the lady passed soup to the gentlemen on either side of her until everyone had received some. Seconds were not allowed when it came to soup or fish because it wouldn’t be fair to those served first and would take too long for everyone to receive them again. After everyone had eaten, dessert and finger glasses were placed on the table, and the women present were expected to wet their fingers before taking some of the food. Following dessert and wine (especially once the men began to act drunk), the hostess led the women to the drawing room as the gentleman of the house held the door open for them.
|A finger-glass of the time|
While works like Beeton’s show us the ideal situations, the literature of the time makes it clear for us to see that this level of perfect etiquette was not common (if it was even attainable). She "failed to take account of the realities of human nature" in writing her book. When looking at the past, surveying different forms of media is important to get an accurate portrait of society. Beeton shows us how important dinner and the role of the mistress/wife was; novels such as “Mary Barton” show us that while Victorians had high hopes for the final meal of the day, often times it would get messed up in some way or another.
|Another example of poor Victorian dinner etiquette|
Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Mary Barton” features a dinner scene at the Barton household early on in the novel. Unlike like the depiction of dinners that Beeton provided, it didn’t go smoothly. In fact, most if not all of Beeton’s societal rules were broken in this short scene.
It begins with the Barton family inviting the Wilsons over for dinner and tea while they all walked home together. There were no invitations sent out in advance; John Barton only invited them over once he saw how Jane Wilson cheered up his wife. There was no half hour beforehand to prepare anything, as the guests accompanied them to their house. The mistress of the house, Mary Barton, recognized that she had to sit out with the Wilsons rather than help out in the kitchen. Thus, she broke the rule of supervising the cooking in favor of making sure to entertain her company. Since they are a working class family, there was no staff to pick up the slack and get everything prepared. Her poor daughter was left in charge of running out to invite the final guest, Alice Wilson (a last minute addition), going to get the food, and cooking the dinner for everyone.
According to Beeton, Mary Barton fell short not only in her role as the hostess and mistress of the house, but also as a mother. Her child couldn’t bask in the enjoyment and comfort of her home, but instead had to run around and work to make sure the dinner could be a hit.
Keeping all these minor failures in mind, the true derailment of the dinner came from Alice. While attempting to raise a toast, she accidentally mentioned the fact that Mary’s sister had recently gone missing. This left Mary in tears and put a damper on the rest of the evening, and led to the Wilsons leaving early. While hostesses were permitted to discuss great events of sorrow, her job was to remain cheerful to please those around her, not end up sobbing and ruining everyone else's good mood.
Mary Barton’s dinner scene ends with Mary comforting Alice, telling her that she knew no harm was meant and to forget it even happened. The dinner fell short of Victorian expectations, but there were absolutely no complaints. The Wilsons didn’t point out Mary’s shortcomings, and the Bartons didn’t get mad at Alice’s poor choice of words. This scene reminds us all how we should view dinners, etiquette, and ideal scenarios in general. While it’s good to strive for perfection, we must always remember that perfection is unattainable, and that’s what makes us human. Besides, failures make for great stories.
Beeton, Isabella. The Book of Household Management. Vol. 1. N.p.: n.p., 1861. Exclassics. Web. <http://www.exclassics.com/beeton/beetpdf1.pdf>.
Altick, Richard D. Victorian People and Ideas; a Companion for the Modern Reader of Victorian Literature. New York: Norton, 1973. Print.
Webb, Philip. Finger-bowl. Digital image. V&A Search the Collections. Victoria & Albert Museum, n.d. Web.
Davenport & Co. Finger Bowl. Digital image. V&A Search the Collections. Victoria & Albert Museum, n.d. Web.
Sadler, W. Dendy, and W.H. Boucher. Home Sweet Home. Digital image. Library of Congress. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. <https://www.loc.gov/item/94512064/>.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: Tale of Manchester Life. London: Chapman and Hall, 1848. Print.
Griffith, and Farran. Boltington Flung the Contents of the Glass in Henderson's Face. Digital image. The Union Jack, 8 Sept. 1881. Web. <http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/photo/victorian-youths-arguing-at-the-dinner-table-1881-royalty-free-image/482675771>. Volume 2 No. 89