A Taste of Victorian Dinner Etiquette

"From two to three hours after dinner is the proper time to leave the house."
 Sarah Annie Frost 1869

ON no occasion is a want of punctuality more ill-bred than at a dinner party, whether it is the guests who are late, or the hostess who allows dinner to be later than the time appointed. Belie remarks, with as much truth as sarcasm: "I have always been punctual to the hour of dinner, for I know that those whom I kept waiting would employ those unpleasant moments to sum up all my faults."

To arrive too early is to annoy the lady of the house by disturbing her at her toilet. To arrive too late is injurious to the dinner, to the temper of your host, of the other guests and of the servants. It is really a sad breach of etiquette to be later than the hour named in your invitation for dinner, and from ten to fifteen minutes before it is quite soon enough for your arrival.

As regards the hour for dinner, etiquette, strictly so called, has not prescribed anything. Custom, the fashion, convenience, a score of things may control it. From five to eight o'clock, according somewhat to the season of the year, is the present fashionable limit. By that time the business of most men is over for the day, which can scarcely be said of an hour earlier than five.

The lady of the house should be in her drawing-room, ready to receive her guests, ten or fifteen minutes before the hour fixed for their arrival, and the daughters of the house should be with her, and not drop in one by one after the guests' arrival. The gentleman of the house should also be present, and in case it is a strictly gentleman's party, at which no hostess presides, he must be all ready before the appointed time to do the honors.

On guests being announced, the lady advances a few steps towards them, and should receive them cordially with some words of welcome. The hostess must never betray any chagrin at the lateness of a guest, but try to place the unfortunate last arrival as much at ease as possible by her cordial welcome and unembarrassed manner.
Before all the guests have arrived the lady should have made her arrangements as to what gentleman and lady are to go in to dinner together, and before dinner is announced the gentlemen of the party should be informed what lady they are to escort to the table. The gentleman of the house offers his arm to the lady most honored amongst the guests, the gentleman most distinguished offers his arm to the lady of the house. Gentlemen give the left arm to a lady, excepting military officers in full dress, who give the right arm, as the sword is inconveniently worn for offering the left. In all other cases the right arm must be left free. 
Evening dress for the Victorian lady
The order of procession being settled, the company move according to it from the drawing-room to the dining-room, as soon as dinner is announced. The host sits at the bottom of the table, the hostess at the top. At the right of the host is placed the lady he escorted from the drawing-room, and at the right of the hostess her escort. The next place of honor is at the left of the hostess.

It is a good plan, and rapidly becoming an established custom, to have small cards with the names of the guests written upon them, laid upon the plate at each seat. Each one thus taking the place assigned prevents confusion, and gives the hostess the privilege of placing near to each other the guests who will prove mutually agreeable.

Gentlemen should stand behind their respective chairs until all the ladies are seated, and then take their own seats, being careful that their chairs do not stand upon the dresses of the ladies beside them. Seats having been apportioned to all, grace is said, by a clergyman if there is one present, if not, by the host. The clergyman should be invited to say grace by the host.

If the dinner is  à la Russe, there will not be any carving done on the table itself. If the party is small, mere en famille, the hostess will have a dish before her, the contents of which will have to be carved. The gentleman on her right hand should in that case offer to carve for her, but if she declines, should not press the offer. Many ladies are excellent carvers, and like to appear so. 

There is no space in our little volume for directions upon carving, nor do they form any portion of the art of etiquette. All that etiquette has to say on the subject is that you must not stand up to carve; you must not pursue the bird, joint or whatever the meat may be, all round the dish; nor should you comment upon the age of the fowl, the toughness of the meat or your own awkwardness in carving. If you really do not understand it, do not attempt it; say so and let the waiter cut it up. 

Never be helped twice to soup or fish, and indeed it appears low bred to be twice served to any one dish. You may refuse either soup or fish, but make no comment if you do, as to your liking or dislike for the dish, nor is it incumbent upon you to state that "soup does not agree with you," or that "fish always make you ill;" any such remarks are rude. Simply to say "no, thank you," in refusing a dish, is all the reply that strict etiquette will allow upon the subject.

No remarks should be made by the host or hostess on the refusal of a guest to partake of a proffered dish. Pressing the food upon a guest with "Oh, do take some," or "You must, it was made by so- and- so," or indeed any remark upon the repast, is not only annoying to the guest, but a proof of low-breeding in the entertainers. There is a sort of hospitality about it, but it is a rough barbarism. Who does not remember the description of Bridget Elias' hospitable gaucherie in Charles Lamb's "Poor Relation," when urging the poor relation to eat with the speech: "Do take some more; remember you do not get pudding every day."

Never should a host or hostess apologize for the fare set before their guest. Such apologies are generally a mere fishing for compliment, untrue and in entirely bad taste. In inviting his friends to dinner, the host binds himself to set before them the best his house and purse can afford, and if the fare is good the guest will soon find it out, if bad, no apologies will make it any better.

It is in bad taste to apologize to the waiters for the trouble given them, and betrays a lamentable ignorance of the customs of society. They are hired to wait upon the guests, and it is no affair of those guests how they feel, as long as they discharge their duty. To reprove a waiter is the height of ill-breeding.

Do not, when a dish is brought to you, say you prefer to be helped after some one else. Accept or refuse what is offered to you, and let the waiter pass the dish on. A gentleman, however, will see that the lady he has escorted to the table is helped as she wishes, before he attends to his own dinner, but to interfere with the lady on the other side of him is all insult to her escort. He may ask the lady under his care if she will be helped from any dish offered him, before he accepts or declines for himself, and will issue her orders for her to the waiter when she selects her dinner. A gentleman or a lady will always say "Thank you" to a waiter, but nothing more.

A guest must never find fault with any dish placed before him, and to appear to question the quality or freshness of the viands by smelling or fastidiously tasting them, is a positive insult to the gentleman who has invited him to his table.

A host or hostess may never find fault before their guests, neither with the dinner, with the servants, nor with each other. Burnt soup, fish boiled to rags, underdone vegetables, heavy pastry, must be endured with smiling equanimity. No scowl must greet the crash that announces the fall of a tray of the finest glass, no word of remonstrance greet the deluge of a plate of soup over the tablecloth. If care has not been taken to secure first-rate cooks and well-trained waiters, the faults of omission and commission must be endured with placid serenity.

After the ladies have all been served, the guests to the right of the hostess must be attended to, then the guest on her left, and so on until all are served. Ten persons are all that one cook can properly prepare a dinner for, and three waiters will be amply employed in waiting upon that number. If more are invited the attempt to make the conversation general had better not be made, but the guests allowed to converse tete-a-tete.

Wine should be handed by the waiters after soup. To decline wine by covering the mouth of the wine-glass with the hand is an ill-bred gesture. Say simply "Not any, thank you," and the waiter will not fill your glass. 
Fish follows next in order. A slice, neatly cut, not hashed up by bad carving, should be placed upon each plate, with a slice of egg, and fish sauce. If there be a silver knife, use it to cut the fish. If not, take your fork in your right hand and supply the place of the knife by a small piece of bread, which you should cut off, and when your fish is eaten, leave upon your plate. 

Do not eat as if you had good fare for the first time in your life--that is to say, do not eat ravenously, and do not eat in a noticeable way.

Never smack the lips when eating.

Never take a long, deep breath after you finish eating, as if the exercise had fatigued you.

Never make noises in your mouth or throat.

Never suck your teeth, or pass your tongue round the outside of  your gums.

Never, even with cheese, put your knife into your mouth.

Never pick your teeth, or put your finger into your mouth.

If you find you have a fish-bone in your mouth, cover your lips with a napkin to remove it. It is better to be very careful to remove all bones before putting fish into your mouth. On no account spit the bones out upon your plate.

Never take the bones of fowl or birds up in your fingers to gnaw or suck them. Remove the meat with your knife, and convey it to your mouth with your fork, never being too eager to clean off every particle of flesh.

Wipe your finger tips, if soiled, upon the table napkin, never upon your tongue or the table-cloth. An elegant eater will never have occasion to think of his fingers.

Never use the table-cloth to wipe your mouth, you might as well use it in place of your pocket handkerchief.

Never remark upon what is placed before you, either in praise or dispraise of it.

Neither drink nor speak when you have anything in your mouth.

When you are helped, begin to eat, without regard to those who have already, or have not yet, been helped.

Never watch the dishes as they are uncovered, nor make any exclamation when you see their contents.

Under no circumstances tuck your napkin, bib-fashion, into your shirt collar. Unfold it partially and put it in your lap, covering your knees. A lady may slip a corner under her belt if there is danger of its slipping upon her dress, but a gentleman must be awkward indeed if he lets his napkin fall upon the floor.

No gentleman will ever settle himself in his chair, pushing back his cuffs, as if for a "set-to," at the table. 

If you make any general remark, do not look up at the waiters to see what effect it has upon them. If they are well-trained they will not move a muscle at hearing the most laughable story, nor will they give any sign whatever that they have not closed their ears like deaf adders to all that has been going on. In any case, however, you must refrain from noticing them.

If you want anything, take the occasion of a waiter being near to you, to ask for it in an undertone. To shout out "Waiter!" or order one about, as if you were in a restaurant, is a certain mark of ill-breeding.

Unless the party is a very small one, general conversation is impossible. In such a case, you must converse with those on either side of you, not confining your remarks exclusively to one.

Talk in a low, quiet tone, but never in a whisper. To affect an air of mystery or secrecy at a dinner-table, is an insult to your companion and company assembled.

It is in bad taste to force the attention of the company upon yourself by loud talking or loud laughing.

Too many jokes or anecdotes are in bad taste, but the subjects for conversation should not be too serious.

Any gentleman propounding a conundrum at the dinner-table deserves to be taken away by the police.

To use one's own knife, spoon or fingers, instead of the butterknife, sugar-tongs or salt-spoons, is to persuade the company that you have never seen the latter articles before, and are unacquainted with their use.

Never eat all that is on your plate, and above all never be guilty of the gaucherie of scraping your plate, or passing your bread over it as if to clean it.

Never fill your mouth so full that you cannot converse; at the same time avoid the appearance of merely playing with your food.

Eat in small mouthfuls, and rather slowly than rapidly.

If upon opening fruit you find it is not perfect, or there is a worm in it, pass your plate quietly and without remark to the waiter, who will bring you a clean one.

None but a low-bred clown will ever carry fruit or bon bons away from the table.

Drinking wine with people is an old custom, but it will nowadays be found to exist only among the past or passing generation. If you are, however, asked to take wine with any one, you should fill your glass with the same sort of wine your friend has, and raise it to your lips. You need only taste, not act upon the principle of "no heel-taps."

A man would be looked upon as a curiosity, nay, many would not understand what he meant, who should at the present day propose a "sentiment" before drinking wine.

Never spit from your mouth the skins of grapes, the stones or pips of fruits. Receive them upon the prongs of your fork, laid horizontally, and place them as conveniently as so inelegant a process will allow upon the edge of your plate.

Never play with your fingers upon the table.

Never play with your knife and fork, fidget with your salt-cellar, balance your spoon on your tumbler, make pills of your bread, or perform any of those vulgar antics unfortunately too often seen at table.

Never in conversation, illustrate your remarks by plans drawn upon the table-cloth with your nail, or built of your knife, fork and spoon.

Never stretch your feet out under the table, so as to touch those of your opposite neighbor. It is quite as bad to put them up under you upon the chair-bar, or curl them up under the chair itself.

Try to take an easy position at table, neither pressing closely up to it, nor yet so far away as to risk depositing your food upon the floor instead of conveying it to your mouth.

Never touch fruit with your fingers. If you wish to peel an apple, a pear or a peach, hold the fruit on a fork in your left hand, and peel with a silver knife in your right. Eat it in small slices cut from the whole fruit, but never bite it, or anything else at table. Need I say no fruit should ever be sucked at the table.

When the hostess thinks her lady friends have taken as much dessert as they wish, she catches the eye of the principal among them; an interchange of ocular telegraphing takes place, the hostess rises, and with her all the company rise; the gentlemen make a passage for the ladies to pass; the one who is nearest to the door opens it, and holds it open until all the ladies have passed out of the room. As soon as the ladies have retired the gentlemen may resume their seats for more wine and conversation, but it is a very poor compliment to the lady guests to linger long in the dining-room.

The ladies upon leaving the dining-room, retire to the drawing-room, and occupy themselves until the gentlemen again join them. It is well for the hostess to have a reserve force for this interval, of photographic albums, stereoscopes, annuals, new music, in fact, all the ammunition she can provide to make this often tedious interval pass pleasantly.

If you dine in the French fashion, the gentlemen rise with the ladies, each offering his arm to the lady he escorted to dinner, and all proceed to the drawing-room together. If the gentlemen remain to have coffee served in the dining-room, tea may be served in the drawing-room to the ladies.

Upon returning to the drawing-room the gentlemen should never cluster round the door, but join the ladies at once, striving to repay the hospitality of the hostess by making themselves as agreeable as possible to the guests.

From two to three hours after dinner is the proper time to leave the house. If the dinner is for the gentlemen guests alone, and the lady of house presides, her duties are over when she rises after dessert. The gentlemen do not expect to find her in the drawing-room again. In this case cigars may be served with the coffee, and then the servants may retire, unless especially summoned to wait. If smoking is indulged in, have placed upon the table a number of small match boxes, ashes receivers, and between the chairs spittoons.


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