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London's PeopleVictorian Etiquette II: The Dinner Table
Posted on May 01, 2005 - 09:33 AM by Bill McCann

The London Journal, launched in 1845, was one of the most widely read publications of nineteenth-century Britain. Its weekly appearance ushered in the period when mass-market reading, in a modern sense, was born. Between April 12 and August 30 1845, the Journal carried seventeen articles under the heading "Etiquette for the Millions," written by G.W.M Reynolds. They were clearly aimed at educating the mass readership (mostly the newly emerging middle-classes) in the behaviour expected of them in public. At times trenchant, the views expressed in the articles describe a view of society that is very, very different from that which we experience today. But, perhaps, one that many sections of modern society hanker after. The second article instructs us as to what we must, and must not, do at the dinner-table.

Victorian Table Etiquette is instilled at an early age. The manners and breeding of an individual are never put to so severe a test as at the dinner table. He may contrive to pass through the ordeal of a morning call with much greater facility than the routine of the table.

In conducting a lady from the drawing-room to the dining-room, offer her the arm that will place her next to the wall in descending the stair case; but should the rooms communicate with each other, or be upon the same floor, so that there are no stairs to descend, place yourself on the lady's right hand that she may take your left arm.

When, in the drawing-room, you have given your arm to a lady to conduct her to the dining-room, do not hurry her away immediately, as if you were anxious to scramble for a good place at the table; but allow those who are your superiors by age or station to proceed first.

During the transit from the one room to the other, do not allude in any way to the repast to which you are proceeding. Nothing is more vulgar than to express a hope that the dinner will be a good one, or to state that you have a good appetite.

At the dinner-table you will sit next to the lady whom you have escorted thither, taking care to place yourself on her right-hand.

If you sit on the right-hand of he lady of the house, you must carve the joint for her; but do not offer to assist her in serving fish or pudding.

May I be allowed the honour of taking wine with you?.When the lady next to whom you are seated has partaken of soup, or fish, - you must ask "to be allowed the honour of taking wine with her." Her reply will of course be an affirmative. You must then help her from the decanter within your reach, filling her glass only two-thirds. If there be several dinner wines upon the table, you must ask her which she prefers, and then take he same yourself.

In the highest circles, the custom of gentlemen taking wine with ladies, or with each other, has exploded. The gentlemen, however, help the ladies placed next to them; but no acknowledgement by bow passes between them.

When asked to take wine, a lady must not say, "Thank you," but "With pleasure;" and if on very friendly terms, "With much pleasure." A lady must never refuse to take wine with a gentleman who solicits the honour: she must reply in the affirmative; but she is not compelled to do more than put her lips to the glass. When a gentleman at a distant part of the table asks a lady to take wine with him, the gentleman seated at the lady's right hand must help her to the wine. He must not however fill his own glass immediately afterwards, or it would be supposed that he wished to "join them," of which nothing is more vulgar.

When one gentleman asks another gentleman to take wine with him, the latter must observe which wine the former takes; and should he not like that particular kind, he may say, "Will you allow me to take sherry, or madeira, or marsala," etc., as the case may be.

The guest must not ask the gentleman of the house to take wine with him; a well-bred host will ask each gentleman in due time. The guest must however ask the lady of the house.

It is by no means necessary to drink wine with every one at the table: neither, in many cases, would it be consistent with good taste.

You must never be helped twice to fish nor soup. The fish must be eaten with the fork, aided, if you choose, with a piece of the crust cut off your bread. In helping any one to sauce or melted butter, do not pour it over the fish; but on one side of the plate.

Never convey the knife to your mouth; nor put bread into the gravy in your plate, to eat it when so sopped. It is by no means necessary to empty your plate, if you have been served too copiously; or if you be not hungry. Whether you like soup, or not, you must take it; you can use your discretion in accepting or refusing subsequent dishes.

Do not bite your bread, but break it. Tarts, pudding, and all sweets must be eaten with a fork or spoon never with a knife.

While eating, be careful not to breathe hard, nor make a noise with the lips. Eat slowly, and never let anything drop from your mouth on your plate again. Never speak while you have food in your mouth; and if addressed by any one even by a lady, empty your mouth ere you reply.

If you be a snuff-taker, do not produce your box from your pocket until the table-cloth be removed.

A menu for supper at 10 Belgrave Square on June 15.Never press any one to eat more, nor to partake of any particular dish. Do not praise the various dishes upon the table, or you will lead those present to believe that you never tasted such delicacies before.

Do not leave the dinner-table, unless absolutely compelled, until the table-cloth be removed. Never pick your teeth at the dinner-table. Say "Thank you," or incline your head gently, when the servants hand you anything for which you have asked.

When the dessert is placed upon the table, do not offer to pare an apple or a pear for a lady. Should she ask you to do so, you must use your fork to hold it. Do not hand her a dish of fruit to select and apple, pear or orange; but help her to one with a spoon.

When the ladies rise to retire to the drawing-room, the gentlemen must all rise from their seats, but do not hasten to open the door, unless there be no servant in the dining-room at the time. Then, the gentleman seated nearest to the door is expected to open it.

As a general rule of conduct at the dinner-table, we may observe that each gentleman should principally address his conversation to the lady next to him; that no argument should be started in the presence of the ladies; that the conversation should be on topics in which ladies may bear a part, politics, sporting-matters, religion, etc. being studiously banished; that no one should speak in a loud tone; that great-eating should be avoided, as no well-bred person goes out to dinner merely to "make a meal;" and that no one should engross all the conversation to himself and thereby endeavour to become the "lion of the party."

It is not correct to speak of the appetite at all: but should the gentleman of the house happen to say to a guest, "I am afraid you are not doing well," or words to that effect, - do not say in reply that you had either dined before you came, or that you had eaten copiously at luncheon. On the contrary, declare that "You are doing excellently."

G.W.M. Reynolds.
The London Journal,
For the week ending April 19, 1845.

TO BE CONTINUED.


 

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