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Setting Your Table

Mrs. Bennet had been strongly inclined to ask them to stay and dine there that day; but, though she always kept a very good table, she did not think anything less than two courses could be good enough for a man on whom she had such anxious designs, or satisfy the appetite and pride of one who had ten thousand a year. -Pride and Prejudice

Most period cookbooks offered suggested menu ideas for different gatherings and even different months of the year, based on what would be seasonable and fresh at the time. Some cookbooks even contained suggested table settings, like this one, giving hostesses and housekeepers an idea of how to fit so many dishes onto one table. A “remove” indicated just that—after being served, the dish was to be removed and replaced by another during the same course. A family dinner might consist of a single course with fewer dishes to choose from.

A period table setting example

Naturally, it would be difficult to sample every dish on the table. In the event of a dinner party, a gentleman would help himself and his dining partner to whatever dishes were placed in front of him. If something was particularly desired from a different part of the table, a footman would be sent to retrieve the dish. Naturally, this had the potential to create a great deal of noise and confusion during dinner!

In her book, A New System of Domestic Cookery, Maria Rundell suggests that,

“Vegetables are put on the side table at large dinners, as likewise sauces, and servants bring them round: but some inconveniences attend this plan; and, when there are not many to wait, delay is occasioned, besides that by awkwardness the clothes of the company may be spoiled. If the table is of a due size, the articles alluded to will not fill it too much.”

It is certainly something to keep in mind when planning your dinners!

To take one aspect of noise and confusion away, there were rules of protocol to be followed when conversing at the table. During the first course, the conversation would flow to the hostesses’ left (the seat of honor). Once the second course was laid, the hostess would turn to the guest on her right, thus “turning the table” and allowing uninterrupted conversations without anyone feeling singled or left out. As might be expected, far more casual manners prevailed during private family functions.


Adapted from  Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends, by Laura Boyle. Buy online at our Jane Austen giftshop where you will also find our delightful Pemberley Collection Afternoon Tea selection.

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Regency Dinner Parties and Etiquette

Regency Dinner Parties

– Jane Austen
“The soup was fifty times better than what we had at the Lucases’ last week; and even Mr Darcy acknowledged, that the partridges were remarkably well done; and I suppose he has two or three French cooks at least.”
Mrs. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice

A Regency dinner party was quite an affair encompassing several courses with a multitude of dishes at each. Guests who sat down to eat were faced with soup, meat, game, pickles, jellies, vegetables, custards, puddings- anywhere from five to twenty five dishes depending on the grandeur of the occasion.

The first course would have been soup, which the host would supervise the serving of. When that was finished and cleared away, he would carve the larger joints of meat (mutton, beef, etc.). The Gentlemen of the party would serve themselves from the dishes in front of them, and offer them to their neighbors. If a dish was required from another part of the table, a manservant would be sent to fetch it. Fortunately guests were not expected to try every dish on the table!

When the main course was cleared a small dessert of salad and cheese was put in its place until that was cleared in favor of the second course, which was a variety much like the first including many dishes savoury and sweet. This, in turn, was cleared, the cloth taken away and Dessert was served- usually nuts, fruits, sweetmeats and perhaps ice cream.

At last the ladies would retire to the drawing room to gossip and embroider and chat for about an hour while the gentlemen enjoyed their Port in the dining room. They would then gather for tea and conversation- sometimes cards, and tea again- until the party broke up, quite late in the evening.

A period volume, True Politeness: A Handbook of Ettiquette for Ladies offers the following suggestions:

  • The hostess takes the head of the table; the seat of honor for a gentleman is at her right hand; for a lady, it is to the right of the host.
  • It is usual to commence with soup, which never refuse; if you do not eat is, you can toy with it until it is followed by fish…soup must be eaten from the side, not the point of the spoon; and in eating it, be careful not to make a noise, by strongly inhaling the breath: this habit is excessively vulgar; you cannot eat too quietly.
  • Always feed yourself with the fork, a knife is only used as a divider. Use a dessert spoon in eating tarts, puddings, curres, &c., &c.
  • If what you are eating before dessert has any liquid, sop the break and then raise it to the mouth.
  • The mistress of the household should never appear to pride herself reagarding what is on her table…; it is much better for her to observe silence in this respect, and leave it to her guests to pronounce eulogiums on the dinner.

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