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Monday, 28 March 2016


Ladies expected their female domestics should be clean and tidily dressed in muslin (not lace) caps, cotton and stuff gowns and petticoats, sturdy shawls of demure colours, and straw bonnets when going outdoors. In Persuasion, Mrs Musgrove complained that her daughter-in-law Mary’s ‘nursery-maid... is always upon the gad, and...she is such a fine-dressing lady, that she is enough to ruin any servants she comes near.’

And in Mansfield Park, Mrs Price was discomposed if she saw her servant Rebecca 'pass by with a flower in her hat' when out walking on Sundays.

A good master or mistress ensured that their servants received good, plain, plentiful food, and paid their medical expenses if ill. Servants were permitted to visit their friends and relations occasionally; Sunday was usually the most convenient day.
Ladies took great care to select servants with good references, and if possible hired those recommended by friends or family. A careless or slovenly maid could cause havoc in a household.

In January 1802, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra, 'We plan having a steady cook and a young, giddy housemaid, with a sedate, middle-aged man, who is to undertake the double office of husband to the former and sweetheart to the latter. No children, of course, to be allowed on either side'.
Illustrations: 'High life below stairs'. George Cruikshank, 1799.
‘Work for the plumber’. Thomas Rowlandson, 1810.  Both courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Hugh Thomson illustration for Mansfield Park. Author's collection.  

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Mr Darcy Is Coming! Planning A Special Dinner

Mrs Elton with her housekeeper.

When planning a dinner or card party, hostesses set aside part of the day to organise menus with their housekeeper or cook. Emma’s new bride, Mrs Elton, complained: ‘I believe I was half an hour this morning shut up with my housekeeper.’ 
Mrs Elton and her pearls.
If only one course was served, the company was told ‘You see your dinner’ when they sat down to dine. But for a special dinner party, at least two courses were provided. When Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs Bennet invited Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy to a family dinner at Longbourn, she, ‘did not think anything less than two courses could be good enough for a man on whom she had such anxious designs, or satisfy the appetite and pride of one who had ten thousand a year.’

Perkins, 'Every Woman Her Own Housekeeper'.
All the dishes for the first course were placed on the table at the same time. Then the serving dishes were ‘removed’ for the second course, which was arranged in a similar fashion. Guests ate a little of what they fancy from the dishes closest to them, perhaps asking a servant to pass them a favourite dish, if wanted, from the far end of the table.

'The gentlemen did approach'.

Genteel hostesses dressed smartly though not over-grand, so that their guests did not feel inferior if only modestly attired; but for dinner parties, ladies and gentlemen normally wore full evening dress.
Charles Brock coloured illustrations for Emma, and black and white illustration for Pride and Prejudice, courtesy of Mollands.
A sample 3 course dinner for the month of March. John Perkins, Every Woman Her Own House-keeper, (London, 1796). Courtesy Google Books.