The problem with pedantry

19th century dinnerMy hero and heroine being invited to dinner, I set out to confirm what I knew about seating etiquette at a formal Georgian dinner. I’ve read heaps of novels in which the dinner guests process couple by couple into the room in order of precedence, and are seated male, female, male, around the table. But I wanted to get it right.

Turns out that it isn’t that simple. Jane Austin’s world tells me that, in 1791, the etiquette was quite different.

When dinner is announced, the mistress of the house requests the lady first in rank, in company, to shew the way to the rest, and walk first into the room where the table is served; she then asks the second in precedience to follow, and after all the ladies are passed, she brings up the rear herself. The master of the house does the same with the gentlemen. Among the persons of real distinction, this marhalling of the company is unnecessary, every woman and every man present knows his rank and precedence, and takes the lead, without any direction from the mistress or the master.

When they enter the dining-room, each takes his place in the same order; the mistress of the table sits at the upper-end, those of superior rank next [to] her, right and left, those next in rank following, the gentlemen, and the master at the lower-end; and nothing is considered as a greater mark of ill-breeding, than for a person to interrup this order, or seat himself higher than he ought. –John Trusler, 1791

A further quote from the same book says that:

Custom, however, has lately introduced a new mode of seating. A gentleman and a lady fitting alternately round the table, and this, for the better convenience of a lady’s being attended to, and served by the gentleman next to her. But notwithstanding this promiscuous seating, the ladies, whether above or below, are to be served in order, according to their rank or age, and after them the gentlemen, in the same manner. – John Trusler, p 6

Austenised has these rules, culled from Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, by Jennifer Kloester.

  1. When going in to dinner, the man of the house always escorted the highest-ranking lady present. The remaining dinner guests also paired up and entered the dining room in order of rank.
  2. Dinner guests were seated according to rank, with the highest-ranking lady sitting on the right-hand side of the host, who always sat at the head of the table.
  3. When dining informally it was acceptable to talk across or round the table.
  4. At a formal dinner one did not talk across the dinner table but confined conversation to those on one’s left and right.
  5. Ladies were expected to retire to the withdrawing room after dinner, leaving the men to their port and their ‘male’ talk.
  6. A hostess should never give the signal to rise from the table until everyone at the table had finished.

I’m not sure that these would apply in 1807, though. I found a lovely post on Georgian eating, which gave the same message as Trusler – ladies on one side, and gents on the other.

A call for help on Goodreads led me to the wonderful English Historical Fiction Authors, and the post by MM Bennetts, which told me about late Georgian servings, but not about 1807 seating.

A second post on the same site. this one by Maria Grace, gave me more details about how the courses were served and what they might comprise.

The truth is out there, but perhaps I should just send my characters on a picnic!

The angler's picnic