I love the idea of having people over and sitting around the dinner table with good friends. I scour magazine articles about how to plan a party, and I collect Pinterest posts about entertaining; but then I think of all the work involved. First, I’d have to clean, then I’d have to cook something worth eating, and then I’d have to get my kids to behave with perfect manners.
I have much to learn about setting aside my perfectionism, and Jane Austen’s novels are a great resource in that regard. Jane’s opinions about entertaining run under the surface in most of her books, but they seem most obvious to me in her final novel, Persuasion. Throughout the book, she hints that entertaining shouldn’t be about perfection but about love and joy. That’s definitely something I need to internalize.
The first example of successful hosts in Persuasion are the Musgrove family, who cheer others with “talking, laughing, and singing.” Austen writes:
The party at the Great House was sometimes increased by other company. The neighborhood was not large, but the Musgroves were visited by every body, and had more dinner parties, and more callers, more visitors by invitation and by chance than any other family.
The girls were wild for dancing: and the evenings ended, occasionally, in an unpremeditated little ball. There was a family of cousins within a walk of Uppercross, in less affluent circumstances, who depended on the Musgroves for all their pleasures: they would come at any time, and help play at any thing, or dance any where.
The next family that Austen sets up as good hosts is the Harville family, who unlike most good examples in Austen’s novels come from a much lower class:
They all went indoors with their new friends, and found rooms so small as none but those who invite from the heart could think capable of accommodating so many. Anne had a moment’s astonishment on the subject herself; but it was soon lost in the pleasanter feelings which sprang from the sight of all the ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements of Captain Harville, to turn the actual space to the best possible account.
A while later, Anne goes to Bath to stay with her father and sister. Her family’s style of interaction with others stands in stark contrast to the Musgroves and Harvilles. Austen notes:
Their house was undoubtedly the best in Camden-place; their drawing-rooms had many decided advantages over all the others which they had either seen or heard of . . . Their acquaintance was exceedingly sought after. Every body was wanting to visit them. They had drawn back from many introductions, and still were perpetually having cards left by people of whom they knew nothing.
It would seem that the Elliots could have entertained with ease, and yet, Austen writes, “they gave no dinners in general.” Rather, Anne’s father and sister spent their time obsessing over a connection with the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple.
I’m sure Anne voiced Austen’s opinion on the matter of entertaining, when she said, “My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”
So, to Jane Austen, good entertaining isn’t about the size of the house, the style of furniture, or the food. It’s about the people. That is something we tend to lose sight of in this crazy, modern world we live in. I think if Jane Austen were to write a magazine article about entertaining today, she would advise us to set aside our perfectionism and instead sit down with a good book in preparation for friends coming over. Maybe we could also pick up some food at the store and tidy up a bit, but entertaining should be more about making others happy than about showing off our perfect lives.
What experiences have you had with entertaining? What do you think makes a good party or a good host?