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Dinner Parties

From Women in European History

Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan Main Page

Victorian and Edwardian Dinner Parties

The End of Dinner, 1913 by Jules-Alexandre Grun, from The Illusions Gallery

Almost half of Consuelo Balsan's narrative in The Glitter and the Gold concerned dinner parties. They were an integral part of Victorian and Edwardian societies; moreover, they were an important duty of wives in the upper class. As hostesses, they had to keep keen eyes on everything—from the guest list and seating chart to the decorations to every last dish served.

Dinner parties were held primarily to establish and maintain social connections. The hostess of a party had “her 'guest list' of people she considered worthy of her acquaintance: old friends and new friends, people she wished to cultivate for their distinction or wealth, or for the use they might be to her husband.”[1] Consuelo, for example, met both of her husbands at dinner parties—Marlborough at one held by her mother, Balsan at one she held herself—and she gauged her own social acceptance as divorcee through the invitations she received. Invitations to dinner parties and their acceptance were not to be taken lightly, for these social gatherings delineated social bondage; every invitation received must end in an invitation extended (a system of Maussian gift exchange, we may think of it, in which the object given were a meal and entertainment), and one could not refuse an invitation for anything “short of a contagious illness or a bereavement.”[1] Invitations were favorably extended to young bachelors, who could generate exciting conversation, and politicians and artists of the day, who were, in act, the most sought-after houseguests. Henry James, the American novelist, dined out no less than 107 times in London the spring and summer of 1879 (and would, once in his lifetime, be invited to dine at Mrs. Balsan's). Lord and Lady Balfour were favorites at many households, as well as the Churchills.

The hostess's duties extended far beyond mere invitations; the seating arrangement was an arena in which one mistake could cause much chastisement and wounded pride. The guests were seated in strict order of precedence according to the Peerage (a book of titles and positions equivalent to the American Social Register). With even a minor change in the guests list, the entire seating arrangement would be upset, and Consuelo herself experienced many dinners at which certain guests drew her aside to express their displeasure at being seated out of order or next to someone not worthy of their conversation.[2] The host and hostess would sit either at opposite ends of a long table or opposite each other in the middle (preferred in the later periods). Even the procession into the dining room was of strict formality: “The host...offered his arm to the senior lady present before leading the way into the dining-room. The other guests, strictly in order of precedence, followed in a procession like the pairs of animals entering the Ark, the hostess bringing up the rear with the senior gentleman.”[3] At the end of the dinner, the hostess would lead the ladies into the drawing room (for which exit all the gentlemen would stand, of course) to engage in “feminine” chatter over fashion and gossip—the only topics that were appropriate for proper ladies[4]—while the men remained to discuss “masculine” topics—politics, science, etc—over smokes and port. After a period of time that got shorter and shorter into the 20th Century, the men would join the women in the drawing room for general conversation.

Despite the importance placed on the people present, the food itself was not to be neglected. The menu always included soup and fish, followed by removes or releves (“large dishes served to look as appetizing as possible...poultry cooked in cream by the chef and garnished with vegetables”[5]), flancs or side dishes, entrees, a choice of roasts, entremets de douceur (palate-cleansing items, such as sherbet and souffle) as a prelude to some piece de resistance, and ending with savories and dessert, usually a large range of fresh and exotic fruits. Handbooks for etiquette dictated numerous rules and regulations, such as “potatoes should not be offered with fish”[6] as stated in Godey's Lady's Book, and a good French chef was a necessity for every household.

The dining etiquettes of the Gilded Age provides us with a glimpse of the expectations placed on a woman, especially a wife, in high society. Like the salon owners of 18th Century France, she both had a large amount of power and control and was yet under immense restrictions of propriety. Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, then, at least in this aspect, perfectly embodied the dutifully entertaining upper-class wife.

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 Margetson, Stella. "Dinner Parties." Victorian High Society. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980. 73.
  2. Consuelo Balsan. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952. 128.
  3. Margetson, Stella. "Dinner Parties." Victorian High Society. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980. 75.
  4. Margetson, Stella. "Dinner Parties." Victorian High Society. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980. 81.
  5. Margetson, Stella. "Dinner Parties." Victorian High Society. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980. 78.
  6. McKee, Duncan A. "A Gilded Age Dinner." New England Antiques Journal Online. September 2005. New England Antiques Journal. 26 May 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.uchicago.edu>.

Bibliography

Consuelo Balsan. The Glitter and the Gold. New York: Harper, 1952.

Margetson, Stella. "Dinner Parties." Victorian High Society. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980. 73-89.

McKee, Duncan A. "A Gilded Age Dinner." New England Antiques Journal Online. September 2005. New England Antiques Journal. 26 May 2009 <http://web.ebscohost.com.proxy.uchicago.edu>.

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This page has been accessed 17,960 times. This page was last modified on 2 June 2009, at 13:17.


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