Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Way Back When-sday: Victorian Dinner Party

I'm in the midst of writing a Victorian novel, set in 1898. 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.

For today's Way Back When-sday, I've decided to share 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:
  • 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


  1. I would have been an outcast. I never could have remembered all those rules and my crazy nature is to break them just to see what would happen. lol

    I do love to read about their customs though and it's one reason I enjoy novels in this time period. It's simply fascinating to me!

  2. I think it's awesome and hilarious that some of the very things we do now as common practice were considered rude and for those of low breeding! :)

    And I always wondered why married couples weren't allowed to sit next to each other!

  3. Jessica - I would LOVE to create your character and plop her in Victorian America - just to see what she would do with it! I have absolutely no problems envisioning that scene!! :) Maybe you'll make a cameo appearance in my novel...

    Lindsay - I'm not going to lie, I kind of wish we could resurrect some of the old rules of etiquette! But I'm happy the majority of them are gone. That one about married couples surprised me when I was reading it, but I understand. The last thing a hostess would want is a quarrelsome couple ruining her dinner party!

  4. I think it makes sense to separate couples, it would force them to get outside their comfort zone and get to know someone else.

  5. Our reenacting group has had Victorian dinners. They are so fun, and everyone is dressed up. I could never remember all the rules! haha! Great post, Gabrielle!

  6. Haha, I fear I would not fare well at a Victorian dinner party. I love that the women have to be escorted to the table...I mean, I'm all for chivalry, sure, but I do think I'm capable of walking from a living room or parlor to a dining room without getting lost. Just saying... :)

    Fun stuff, Gabe! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Love it, Gabrielle! The only rule that struck me as odd for that time period was the no neck and arms at the dinner table. I envision all sorts of dinner parties from movies where women have these long beautiful necks exposed and snow white arms brushing up against the men in their elegant jackets. So funny how rules like that get set aside for the sake of entertainment.

    Love this kind of research. And yes, I believe Jessica needs to make an appearance. Absolutely!

  8. My husb...this guy I know wouldn't get past the front, or back, door. Of course, I'd end up politely escorted out as well, but at least I'd make it through the main course before putting my elbow on the table.

  9. Cori - I actually think separating couples was a good idea, too, for the reason you listed. I'm sure it kept the conversation flowing and gave each person an opportunity to "enlarge" their society. :)

    Loree - I wish I had friends close by who would have fun doing this sort of thing! We have some reenacting groups in our area, but they are all Voyageurs. I know there are some Civil War Reenactors in the Twin Cities, but that's a bit of a drive for me. Maybe one day...

    Melissa - your comment made me laugh! I'm sure the women could get from point A to point B all by themselves, but isn't it fun to think of a gentleman who would be willing to escort you there?!?! The men were supposed to be utterly devoted to the needs of that particular woman all evening. Ahh... :)

    Becky - I thought the same thing about the neck and arms. I'm wondering if this was just a Victorian thing, and other eras were allowed to show that much skin? Hmmm...more research! And yes, I definitely foresee Jessica showing up in one of my novels! I can't just picture it now. :)

    Jennifer - I'd love to see you at a Victorian Dinner! You and Jessica could come arm and arm and revolutionize the Victorian Rules of Etiquette handbook! I can't wait until ACFW - I hope you'll be there! We'll all have to go out to dinner and practice our manners. :)

  10. How fun! I enjoyed reading this. Thanks for posting, Gabrielle. :-)

  11. I, too, am writing a Victorian novel (set in 1885), and I just have to thank you for posting this. It has helped me a great deal. :)

    I mentioned you, and this post, on my own blog, Writing and the Road to Publication.

    Again, many thanks!



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