How to Be a Victorian Dinner Hostess

Sometimes I talk with a full mouth, I have red wine with fish, and place my elbows on the table while eating.

But these days are over thanks to my good friend Mrs. Beeton!

Having dealt with 18th century dating guides for women for my last term paper, I am now moving on to the next part of my (pre-)Victorian self-improvement Tour de Force. Specifically the undiscovered country of the 19th century household manual.

In the 19th century it was of utter importance to be a good hostess. Some faux pas on a dinner party could easily make you the ridicule of your social circle and leave nasty stains not only on your tablecloth but also on your class identity. In the wake of industrialism, when the working classes flooded the city and the middle class felt more and more threatened, it was essential to display your proper bourgeois nature and who could be more accommodated to that task than the Victorian dinner hostess?

Manuals on how to manage your household correctly popped up everywhere in Victorianism and one of the most important of these guides was certainly Isabella Beeton’s The Book of Household Management, comprising information for the Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper and Under House-Maids, Lady’s-Maid, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nurse-Maid, Monthly Wetand Sick Nurses, etc. etc.—also Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda: with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of all Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort. Mrs Beeton, as she was commonly referred to in the 19th century, composed this 1000+ pages collection of guidelines, advice and recipes when she was only 23 years old. In a preface she admits:

I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it.

Whoever knows me knows that I am not afraid of a challenge. It is on, Mrs Beeton! Instead of just browsing through Beeton’s 1000 pages of household guidelines, I also decided to incorporate some of her ideas into my daily life. The first challenge that I want to tackle is trying to bake my own 19th century, proper Victorian shortbread. And who knows… maybe my master’s thesis will be celebrated with a real Victorian dinner, but beware: Traditional recipes also have their pitfalls, as Friends‘ Rachel had to find out the hard way.

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