Congratulations, you’ve made it.
You won that prize, your business boomed, you ensnared that heir (or heiress)… Whatever you did, it worked, and you’ve made it in Regency society. You’re the proud proprietor of a country house. So, this begs the question: what are you going to do with it?
Why, throw a party of course.
The wealthy few of Regency society spent a large proportion of their time visiting each other, going from one fine house to the next. This constant succession of house parties was one of the great social facilitators of its day. This was the way one made acquaintances, and more. And you didn’t stay for the weekend, rather, for a few weeks.
However, guests felt no compunction in complaining to their (presumably mutual) friends and acquaintances to air any grievances if they felt their needs and expectations were not being adequately met. Princess Lieven complained that staying at Stratfield Saye, which was gifted by the nation to the Duke of Wellington, was boring. Guests at Arundel, which belonged to the Duke of Norfolk, protested that they went without basic comforts.
Therefore, although you may have made it into society, you need to be a good host (or hostess) if you want to stay there. Unless you can claim that your wealth and status have left you above reproach, that your deficiencies can be written away as eccentricities, you must be the embodiment of hospitality. You should be courteous, welcoming and have the ready means to indulge the whims of your principal guests.
This may all seem baffling to those newly arrived in Regency polite society, but this is where Behind the Past steps in to save you!
Here are all the four key elements you need to consider in order to throw a spectacular Regency house party, with the corresponding social success all but guaranteed…
1 – The Hostess
First, in order to throw a party and in the interests of propriety, you need a hostess. An unattached man in possession of an estate could call upon a fitting female relative or perhaps engage a hostess.
A hostess should be a woman of suitable rank in relation to the house, and be well versed in the rules of polite society. It is her role to ensure that the needs of guests are catered for and that proper behaviour and etiquette are followed.
There can be no question of guests until you can ensure they will be suitably hosted.
2 – The Guests
Finally, once the issue of hosting has been resolved, you can begin to extend your invitations.
A key phrase already mentioned in this guide is ‘principal guest’. You may have made it in Regency society, but this success should only have served to highlight how inherently unequal this world is. The same can be said for your guests.
While the old strictures of social precedence are no longer being adhered to with the same ferocity as in previous generations, even being abandoned by the Regent himself on occasion, this did not mean they had been forgotten. Unless you can be certain that all parties will accept a break, or that you are sufficiently secure in yourself and your social position to weather any anger or offence, it is best to err on the side of caution. When proceeding to the dining room, always make sure that the principal guests go first and have first choice of the best of everything.
Seating arrangements will also be dictated by social precedence. In this way, you should be able to match up your guests. After all, when inviting your guests, you should consider what you what to get from this party. If you simply want the most fun, with the best conversation, and with the most engaging company, then go after the best of Regency society within your grasp. Your dinner table will be merry and lively. However, if you’re throwing this party because, for instance, you have a son or daughter you want to marry off, make sure you don’t invite the competition! Or, if you misjudge your invitations and the corresponding social precedence, then you could risk seating your son or daughter next to an unappealing prospect, or your intended target for them next to someone else!
In short, prior preparation is everything.
3 – The Accommodation
It is fully possible that you may invite more guests than you have space. While this should be avoided if possible, it is not the worst thing that can happen. Guests of lower status can be asked to share a room together or on rotation, or, if that proves unworkable, it is not unheard of for a tent to be pitched on the grounds. However, it is important to make sure that rooms are allocated on the basis of precedence. The highest ranking guest would expect, and should receive, the best room.
You also need to be aware when inviting a flock of beautiful and wealthy young ladies – if, for example, you have a wayward son who you are trying to steer towards matrimony in the hopes of settling him down – that these young ladies will come with an entourage in the form of a chaperone. You must also attended to the needs of, and lay out accommodation for, these chaperones. They are not old maids that you can easily ignore and cast aside. Indeed, in many cases a chaperone might take precedence over her younger charge. Additionally, chaperones are engaged to aid a young woman in finding a suitable husband and to protect her reputation. One of the worst things that could happen would be for a chaperone to quit your party due to an oversight or offence, taking her charge with her.
The question of accommodation also throws into play the question of service. Only the highest ranking guests can expect to receive a dedicated personal servant. Servants can be sent to other guests and chaperones, but it is on the basis of availability, or at the discretion of the chaperone, if young ladies of lesser consequence receive help with their toilette.
4 – The Entertainment
Guests are expected to contribute to their entertainment. Plays, recitals and the composition of poems were among the things they could add in order to promote the happiness of the rest of the group.
Nevertheless, the burden of entertainment is centred upon the host and hostess. Dinner should be the highlight of the day, not just in terms of the food, but also conversation and after-dinner amusements. These could focus on activities such as music or cards. Again, the choice lies with the host and principal guests. Carriage rides, hunting, fishing, shooting and picnics could also be laid out during the day. You might consider inviting a noted somebody of something or other to come and present a talk to your guests.
Either way, boredom is to be avoided at all possible cost!
In short, house parties require more than a collection of people and perhaps some food and drink. In the Regency world, these parties were a significant undertaking in their own right. While they may have been continuous, both throwing and attending them included the real possibility of social loss and gain.
Hopefully, armed as you now are, you will be able to bravely carve yourself out a name as a noted Regency host or hostess.
References and Further Reading
Jago, Lucy, Regency House Party, (London: Time Warner Books, 2004).
Murray, Venetia, An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1998).