In Jane Austen’s novels, as well as in countless variations, a great deal happens at the dinner table, when our favourite characters are brought together to exchange so much more than casual pleasantries over elaborate meals. Mr. Collins comes along, to impress his relations with his excellent patronage, or Mr. Hurst, to guzzle his ragout and find nothing to say to Elizabeth when she tells him she prefers simpler dishes.
We have too few instances of dinner conversation between Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet – largely because Miss Bingley was not about to let them sit next to each other, if she could possibly help it – which is why we dream them up again and again in our variations, delighting in imagining their verbal sparring and their courtship dance, before either of them even knew they were actually courting.
So let us imagine a beautifully decorated dinner table, much like this – in my opinion one of the most exquisite examples of its kind (Attingham Park, Shropshire).
A great deal of thought and careful planning went in the way the table was set, as I learned last year in Bath, from Mr. John White, performance historian and consultant. Playing the part of Mr Adams the butler, he held one of the most entertaining and informative workshops I have ever seen. Sadly that particular event, ‘The Honours of the Table’, is not part of the programme this year, but if I’m not mistaken the same gentleman will come back to the Bath Festival in September to tell us all about crime and punishment in Regency times, as well as share some shocking stories about what passed for medical treatment in those days.
But to go back to setting the dinner table, Mr. Adams tells us that it all starts with the colour of the table-cloth: white for the first course, dominated by soups and fish; then green for the second course, where meat joints take centre stage, and then no cloth at all for dessert. Those tablecloths would have been placed one atop the other and carefully folded away by footmen, each at the appropriate time, from one end of the table to the opposite, while the guests had to cheerfully bear with the wait, as Emma and Frank Churchill are obliged to do when her gossiping and his attempts at ungentlemanly cover-up are disrupted.
The conversation was here interrupted. They were called on to share in the awkwardness of a rather long interval between the courses, and obliged to be as formal and as orderly as the others; but when the table was again safely covered, when every corner dish was placed exactly right, and occupation and ease were generally restored, Emma said,
“The arrival of this pianoforte is decisive with me. I wanted to know a little more, and this tells me quite enough. Depend upon it, we shall soon hear that it is a present from Mr. and Mrs. Dixon.”
And then of course everything that was on the table had to be moved, rearranged or replaced. No wonder that dinner engagements took absolute ages!
The key to setting the dinner table was symmetry in everything, from decorations to serving dishes.
Fashionable housekeeping books of the era include diagrams on how to place every tureen and platter just so, and what sort of dishes should be served together.
The dishes would vary in number depending on the grandeur of the occasion.
An ordinary family dinner in the Bennet household might have had two courses, comprising four or six dishes each.
The menu for the magnificent banquet the Prince Regent gave at the Brighton Pavilion in January 1817 lists 115 different dishes altogether.
The exquisite supper held at Alton Hotel last month, to conclude the ‘Jane Austen Regency Week’, struck a perfect balance between the two. The eye-catching creations, although slightly less than 115, were absolutely stunning, continuing the tradition of elegant suppers organised and painstakingly prepared for this event.
There are countless books and internet resources on Regency dinners, from menus to the etiquette of dining, but I will not try your patience here with details about who carved, who served and what Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth might have eaten. Perhaps at times we get it wrong in our variations, and Mr. Darcy’s contemporaries would shudder at him being described at having such shockingly poor manners as speaking to someone sitting across the table rather than beside him (that was an absolute no-no, apparently) or sipping his burgundy to hide his discomfort, without arranging with a dinner companion to ‘take wine with him’ (although I believe this was an earlier Georgian custom, from his father’s time rather than his).
So even if by any chance his behaviour is not up to the strictest standards and we make him deviate a little from written and unwritten rule books, I hope you would still enjoy reading about him and his dinner companions. Here is a little excerpt from my upcoming novel, ‘The Unthinkable Triangle’, due to be released this autumn.
* * * *
There was just one quiet spot at the large table: the one where Elizabeth sat, with Mr. Darcy at her right. She had no knowledge how he came to be her dinner companion. Mrs. Bennet would frequently choose the informality of not assigning places – and this Longbourn dinner certainly was more informal than most.
The same could not be said of his demeanour. He hardly spoke, and when he did it was with restrained civility, to ask her if she wished to be served with some dish or other or if he could refill her glass of wine.
She made the profound error of accepting the latter offer only once. She would not run the risk again, after the one disturbing instance of raising her hand to move the glass closer to him, only to find their fingers touching as they both reached for the fragile stem.
She withdrew her hand as though it had been burned, and so did he. It was a wonder that neither happened to unsettle their plates or the wine carafe with their too sudden movements.
She swallowed and pointedly crossed her shaking hands into her lap, to signal that he could handle her glass in safety. He chose not to though, and poured the bright red liquid halfway up without touching the glass at all, then returned the carafe to its place and retrieved his cutlery, but it was merely to aimlessly push his food about the plate.
She did not retrieve hers, but thanked him quietly for his assistance as she surreptitiously rubbed her thumb over fingers that still tingled from the touch.
Had she not felt like crying, she surely would have laughed at her own response, so unaccountable and missish. Had he not held her hands before? Had she not sought his of her own accord, pressed them in reassurance, without the slightest qualm, the slightest tremor?
Yet that was in another life. At a time of blissful ignorance of her own feelings.
Her mouth went dry at the very thought, leaving her longing for a sip of water, but she would not trust her shaking hands to handle the tall glass without spilling its contents all over the table. She ran the tip of her tongue over her lips instead. At her right, Mr. Darcy sighed, for no reason she could fathom.
Eventually she returned to her veal and he to his roast lamb with glazed roost and vegetables. And still neither spoke, their silence unnoticed in their loquacious surroundings, until at last Elizabeth found herself quietly addressed.
“Are you looking forward to visiting your sister’s new home, Miss Bennet?”
Miss Bennet still! She put her knife down without the slightest clatter and dabbed the napkin to her lips before answering simply.
Elizabeth looked up to him then, drawn despite herself by the concern she thought she had detected in the question. She regretted her intrepidity at once and glanced away. It was unwise to meet those eyes at such close quarters.
“I fear it would be an imposition on Mr. Bingley and my sister to host us all so soon, before they are even established in their home. And I regret that my mother has imposed on you as well with her request,” she added.
His reply was earnest and prompt.
“Pray let that be the least of your concerns! It would be my pleasure to convey you and Miss Mary to Blakehill.”
“I thank you.”
“You are very welcome.”
He took a sip from his glass and added:
“Georgiana and I will arrive at Longbourn at seven in the morning. I hope that would be convenient.”
“Of course. Anything that suits you.”
“’Tis Bingley who has set the time. He is hoping to arrive at the Black Swan at Alconbury by the evening and fully expects it would be a slow progress.”
Elizabeth could not fail to smile at that.
“I daresay it shall be. My niece can be a very demanding little person.”
“Unlike her aunt,” he smiled back and the unexpected flash of dimples left her at a loss for a sensible answer.
At last, she choked out a laugh.
“True enough. ‘Tis a very long time since I was that little.”
“In effect, I was speaking of demanding.”
She blushed profusely and, vexed for doing so, she forced herself to answer lightly, just as she might have done several months ago.
“You are very kind but sadly misinformed. For a more accurate opinion you should refer to my relations. They have the doubtful privilege of living with me everyday.”
He did not smile again, as she had hoped he would. Instead, he reached for his glass of wine, leaving her to fret in the ensuing silence over the ways in which her words might have been misconstrued.
* * * *
There will be a giveaway for my new book as soon as it’s launched, but I hope you’d be tempted to enter the Austen Authors Summer Giveaway, for a chance to win lots of goodies. I’m contributing too, with winner’s choice of a paperback or e-copy of any of my published books, so put your name in the hat for a chance to win!