The conversation was here interrupted. They were called on to share in the awkwardness of a rather long interval between the courses, and obliged to be as formal and as orderly as the others; but when the table was again safely covered, when every corner dish was placed exactly right, and occupation and ease were generally restored…
Emma, Chapter 26.
Dear,dear….what would Mr Conset say about the Cole’s staff ,who are not doing a very accomplished job at the dinner party in front of the assembled Great and Good of Highbury?
He was a chef who wrote The Footman’s Directory and Butler’s Remberancer, published in 1823, and in it gave strict and minutely detailed instructions for the correct setting of the dinner table and how to manage it all with style.
The first two courses would have seen the table laid with a green baize cloth put underneath a white damask linen one, to prevent the table from becoming marked with heat marks from the hot dishes served in the first and second courses.
There was, or so it seems to me, ample opportunity for the staff to make mistakes and appear clumsy.
Here is an example of a grand first course from The Housewife’s Instructor by Henderson.
And here is an examle of the types of dishes that would follow in a grand second course:
Let’s look at Mr Consett’s directions for laying the cloth:
In putting on the cloth, let the table be dusted ,and the green one put on first.. then take the linen one , observing to have it the right side outermost ; this you may easily tell by the hemming and the fold of it: be likewise particular in having the bottom of the cloth face the bottom of the table, as in most families they have some sign woven in their table-linen, such as their crests or coats of arms. If the pattern be baskets of flowers, the bottom of the basket must be towards the person who sits at the bottom as the design ought likewise to go exactly down the middle of the table.
This is what he has to say about the removal of the first course:
As soon as you receive the signal for removing the first course, take the small knife tray with a clean knife-cloth in it, and take all the carving knives, forks and spoons which have been used, form off all the dishes, before you attempt to take the dishes. Observe when you take off the knives forks and dishes to begin at the bottom of the table and take the knives etc from the left-hand side of the dish, and go regularly round, removing from the sides as you go down the table; then when you come to the bottom where you began, put down your tray and begin removing the dishes form off the table in the same way you did the knives, forks etc.; remove the bottom dish first , then the side, top and the other side: as you must consider in taking off an putting on, you should lose no time, nor be running backwards and forwards anymore than you can help; let your dishes be taken off and put on in a systematic order so that you make no bustle and confusion in the room;br quick but quiet in your movements; as you take off the dishes put them in a large tray which of course you have ready and if ther is no one to take them downstairs for you do it yourself; empty your tray as quick as possible and but the second course on it; but be not in too great a hurry as you may spill the gravy or break the dishes but be no longer than you can help in carrying the things up and down.
It sometimes happens when there have been but four dishes for the first course there have been six for the second;be particular in putting them on; have the bill of fare in the tray on the sideboard then you will be able to look at tit and prevent making mistakes as it is reasonable to think that ladies and gentlemen like to have the dishes put on the same way which they have contrived for the things to answer each other.
If you were to pay attention in settling the dishes in the tray you could place them in it as they are to go onto the table;this certinaly would be an advantage to you and you may esily do so when you have all the dishes up; begin to put them on in the same order as you took the others off, the bottom dish first , then the left side, and top etc. ; be very particular to have them in a proper line with each other and at equal distances from the sides and ends of the table.
When you have put them all on, take the covers from off those which are covered then be ready to wait on the company: when you see they are finishing the second course let the cheese plates be put before them as you change the others, a small knife and if there is a salad a fork also should be put in the plate.
He then makes these remarks about the removing of the cloth:
After the first and second courses have been removed, and the cheese eaten- and surely there would be cheese at the Cole’s dinner party,for we know they served it to Mr Elton at one of their “experimental” men-only dinners- the dessert could then be served :
…as soon as the company have done with the cheese, remove it from the table; then take all the things quite off, both dirty and clean; have a spoon( if there is not a proper table–brush) with a plate, and take off all the bits of bread, then with a clean glass-cloth and another plate, brush all the crumbs off the cloth; as soon as this is done put round the finger –glasses, one to each person. If you have not got the desert ready before you put the finger–glasses on, you had better get it while they are using; during that time, likewise, remove as many of the things as you possibly can out of the room. As soon as the finger –glasses are done with , remove them; then take off the cloth with the green one also ,and put them out of the room at once, other wise it is very likely in your haste you may fall over them; when you have removed the cloths, if the hot dishes have drawn out the damp, take a cloth and wipe it off ,but do not do it with a dirty cloth as this will not be pleasant for the company to see…As soon as you have wiped the table , put the desert on; put the dessert dishes nearer the middle of the table as you did with the meat etc., etc., as they are smaller.
Observe the same rule in putting on the dessert as the other courses, unless there are more dishes in the dessert then in the other courses; in this case , you may put on the dessert dishes top, middle and bottom before you put on the sides; when they are all put on then put on the sugar basin and the water jug, between the top and bottom dishes and middle one in the same line; then put the cut-glass rummers between the two side dishes and the middle two on each side; then put the wine decanters on at the bottom of the table, next to the gentlemen, but if there be none but ladies, put the wine near the one who sits at the top. Let four table spoons be laid to serve the dessert with and if there be a cake, let a knife be put with it; next put on the dessert plates and two wine glasses to each person; and when the dessert is all set out be as quick as you possibly can in removing everything out of the room except the clean glasses in the side board, the cruet stand and the clean plate ;the clean knives forks and plates on the side table may also be left; but remove all the dirty plates, knives , forks, beer, toast and water etc.etc. All things of the eating and drinking kind should be removed before you leave the dining room; but let it be done quickly and with as little noise as possible as not to appear all in a bustle and confusion when leaving the room, for a good servant is to have everything in the room ready when called for ….The sooner you leave the room after the dessert is put on the better; never loiter about the room when the company are drinking their wine; some servants that I know will be rattling the knives and forks and removing all the clean glasses etc etc from the dining rooms before they leave it, but this is quite unnecessary. You may leave the sideboard and side table to look ornamental without much trouble or loss of time.
I could imagine that staff unused to such formalities would be a little awkward in performing these tasks seamlessly. We know that the staff are very inexperinced for not only is the dining room a new addition to the Cole’s house but they have never attempted to entertain on this scale before:
The Coles had been settled some years in Highbury, and were very good sort of people — friendly, liberal, and unpretending; but, on the other hand, they were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel. On their first coming into the country, they had lived in proportion to their income, quietly, keeping little company, and that little unexpensively; but the last year or two had brought them a considerable increase of means — the house in town had yielded greater profits, and fortune in general had smiled on them. With their wealth, their views increased; their want of a larger house, their inclination for more company. They added to their house, to their number of servants, to their expenses of every sort; and by this time were, in fortune and style of living, second only to the family at Hartfield. Their love of society, and their new dining-room, prepared every body for their keeping dinner-company; and a few parties, chiefly among the single men, had already taken place.
I know Id hate to try it…..and I feel for those poor inexperienced staff…..