Etiquette Rules for Dinner Parties from a Victorian Magazine: What Would Lady Constance Howard Do?

Are you inviting guests to your home for a holiday feast or party? This timely advice on dinner etiquette may help prevent “vexation of the spirit”, which is, as you surely must know, to be avoided at all costs.

Originally published in the July 6th, 1895 issue of Home Chat by Lady Constance Howard, who also authored the book Etiquette, What to Do, and How to Do It, a free download from Archive.org.

The usual suspects.

Exciting and wealthy guests to ensure lively conversation. The Earl and Countess of Lathom, their sons, daughters, and beloved dogs.

Etiquette of Dinners

By Lady Constance Howard

Guests should be punctual. It is a terrible want of courtesy to arrive at 8.30 when eight o’clock is the hour specified; added to which, unpunctuality is unfair to the cook, and spoils the dinner.

To obtain the reputation of giving good and agreeable dinners, three things are necessary to produce a harmonious whole.

  1. First, that your guests should be chosen to suit each other, and that the right lady should be sent in with the right gentleman, otherwise vexation of the spirit is the forerunner of the party.
  2. Secondly, that they should be remarkable for something—either beauty, wit, talent, money—and that you should be certain of such a flow of light conversation that no one can be bored or feel in any way neglected.
  3. Thirdly, that your dinner should be of the very best your means will afford; a good plain dinner without pretension, if your income is small, every delicacy of the culinary art, and the wine of the very best if you are blessed with much money. With these three necessities, the hostess may eat her dinner in comfort, secure in the knowledge that the verdict of her guests will be in her favour.

Two topics of conversation are best avoided— religion and politics; and the hostess who possesses tact will not discuss music or painting with persons who have no taste for either.

From 10.30 to eleven o’clock is the usual time for carriages to be ordered after a dinner party, unless the dinner is followed by a ball, concert, or other entertainment in the same house.

A lady’s cloak is taken from her in the hall by the butler, or she is shown into the cloak-room where the maid relieves her of it. The same with a gentleman, he leaves his hat and coat in the entrance-hall, or in the cloak-room, where there is one.

Ladies wear gloves at dinner parties, which they remove in the dining-room. It is not necessary for gentlemen to wear them.

A lady is received on entering the room by the host or hostess, and after her, welcome is accorded to her husband, son, or whatever gentleman accompanies her.

Guests are asked their names by the servant, and then announced to the host or hostess.  The host escorts the lady of highest rank to dinner; the hostess follows with the gentlemen of highest precedence.

No gentleman escorts two ladies, and relations do not go to dinner in couples; all relationship is lost sight of, precedency alone is thought of. If your dinner is to be a success, there should be a corresponding number of ladies and gentlemen; In England, etiquette requires that the lady a gentleman has escorted to dinner is placed on his right hand; abroad, she sits on his left.

At most dinner-parties there will be a “bore,” man or woman. No one will be a “bore” who notes the eyes and postures of those with whom he converses, and no one need force himself or herself habitually on the unwilling notice of others.

One menu is allowed to every couple, and should be placed in front of them, so as to be easily read.