It might be a comfort to know that some of the most famously confident socialites in history were all once nervous about the prospect of entering a social sphere of strangers. It does not necessarily follow that those most comfortable with networking social events are just as at ease in more formal surroundings, where a certain level of etiquette and knowledge of the technical aspects of social discourse is expected. No amount of confidence or bravado can make up for ill manners!
“Avoid too great a restraint of manner. Stiffness is not politeness, and, while you observe every rule, you may appear to heed none. To make your politeness part of yourself, inseparable from every action, is the height of gentlemanly elegance and finish of manner.”
The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, Cecil B Hartley, 1860
There is no greater time to display good manners and etiquette and no greater place to witness the departure from these rules than at dinner! So I have chosen a selection of the etiquette rules from the aristocratic Georgian and Victorian periods with which to test your own knowledge of such ‘good breeding’ as to make one pleasing company to others when dining in company…
1) When a gentleman receives an invitation to dinner our supper, he should respond to it immediately, irrespective of acceptance or declination. One should always respect the cordiality of the gesture, even if they do not esteem the company.
2) A gentleman will be punctual to the hour stated on the invitation, though to be five or ten minutes early is acceptable, if it is convenient, but not one minute later than that stated. It is incumbent upon dinner guests to ensure they are prompt.
3) A gentleman may never, unless specifically given permission to do so prior to the event, bring a friend or companion not already named on the invitation. It would be considered impertinent to the host and hostess, who reserve the right and privilege to invite whom ever they please, if a guest arrived with an uninvited companion, expecting the host and hostess to extend their valued hospitality and endure an uninvited guest in their own home.
4) Only an extreme calamity or forces out of one’s control, could justify breaking a dinner engagement.
5) Upon entering the drawing-room honour dictates that a gentleman must first speak with the hostess and then the host.
6) After introductions are made a gentleman makes polite conversation with the newly introduced or familiar guests until dinner is called.
7) A hostess will normally not wait more than fifteen minutes for any late arrivals, before going to dinner.
8) If a gentleman is late for any reason, he should attempt to draw the least attention to his solecism and quietly take his place with a word of apology to the hostess.
9) When dinner is announced a gentleman may be asked to escort one of the ladies present from the drawing-room to the dining table. A Gentleman must offer his left arm, upon which the lady places her right hand and is then escorted through, in the correct order of precedence, to the dining table where he will ensure she is comfortably seated. Only when all the ladies present are also seated, may a gentleman take his place.
10) There may be occasion that the hostess has prearranged the Lady to whom a gentleman will escort to the dining room; if so this is done via a card which may be in an envelope and passed to him upon arrival, before he enters the drawing-room, or left on a tray for the guests to select those baring their name; if the Lady’s name upon the card is not of the gentleman’s acquaintance, he asks the host to present him immediately after speaking with the hostess. He may also ask the host to introduce any members of the family he is yet to be acquainted with.
11) The usual order of precedence for a formal dinner is as follows:
Hostess and Gentleman of the highest rank/eldest/most honoured or estranged to the company, then by social rank; Highest social rank first. When the apparent rank is equal then next married ladies over single ladies and older ones over younger ones. The host and eldest Lady or whom he feels will be placed in the seat of honour to his right come last. This may be reversed, depending on the guest of honour being a Lady or Gentleman or sometimes the Hostess will follow the Host through with their respective escorts.
12) If the hostess enters last, due to the guest of honour being an esteemed Lady who was escorted by the host first, then she will often be seated nearest the door for convenience and be escorted by the eldest gentleman guest. Though sometimes it is more convenient for the Hostess to enter earlier to ensure no one is left waiting in groups when unsure of the seating arrangements.
13) When a gentleman passes through the Drawing-room doorway, he will pass out first, preceding his escort and the lady will then follow him into the hall or dining-room, still holding his arm, though at the door to the dining room the lady will drop her hand from his arm and he will again enter first. Once inside the dining room he will await her just inside the doorway until she enters at which point he will escort her to her place at the table first, before locating his own place.
14) If the dinner is served downstairs, a gentleman always gives the lady the wall side of the stairs.
15) If the stairs are narrow, as in a doorway, a gentleman should precede the lady and follow her when ascending narrow stairs.
“When they enter the dining-room, each takes his place in the same order; the mistress of the table sits at the upper end, those of superior rank next her, right and left, those next in rank following, then the gentlemen, and the master at the lower-end; and nothing is considered as a greater mark of ill-breeding, than for a person to interrupt this order, or seat himself higher than he ought. Custom, however, has lately introduced a new mode of feating. A gentleman and a lady sitting alternately round the table, and this, for the better convenience of a lady’s being attended to, and served by the gentleman next her. But not with standing this promiscuous seating, the ladies, whether above or below, are to be served in order, according to their rank or age, and after them the gentlemen, in the same manner.”
The Honours of the Table, 1791.
16) It is often expected to find married guests mixed, such that a husband and wife do not sit side by side at the dinner table. Early Georgian etiquette separated the gentlemen from the Ladies at the table; the Ladies would enter first in order of precedence and the gentlemen would follow, however the seating arrangement styles changed over the decades and became very much the prerogative if the hostess
17) If wanting to maintain a mix of lady and gentleman, then seating may only be done in fours - six, ten, fourteen, eighteen and so on.
18) If there are no ladies present in the party, then a gentleman may approach the table with any of the other gentleman guests standing near or indeed, with one of the gentleman he was conversing with when dinner was announced.
19) If the companion is older, then one must extend all courtesies that would apply if they had been a Lady.
20) If name cards are not present, wait for a place to be pointed out.
21) Always assume the places of precedence still presides unless directed otherwise.
22) Precedence of seating for a private dinner is as follows:
Hostess at the top of table with the most important gentleman guest to her right and then left successively working our way down its length. If the guest of honour is a lady then she will be seated to the right of the Host, who will sit at the top of the table.
23) Stand beside or behind the allotted chair at the table until the hostess has entered and gives the signal for everyone to be seated, remembering to seat the ladies first.
24) Always sit from the left of the chair and rise to the left when leaving the table.
25) Sit gracefully and avoid jostling your neighbour.
26) Do not sit too close or too far from the table.
27) Sit upright and never lounge indolently.