Friday, August 29, 2008

Nineteenth Century House Party

School’s started here, but many places are enjoying a last few days of summer before returning to the hallowed hallways of learning. For the aristocratic young lady in nineteenth century England, August heralded the start of the country house visit.

August in London was hot, sticky, and stinky, with the Thames wafting up all kinds of odors in the summer heat. With Parliament generally out of session, everyone who was anyone found an excuse to leave town for cooler climates, often in the north of England. August 1 was also the start of grouse season, so if your dear Papa was fond of shooting the little birds, you probably headed to Scotland, where the best hunting was to be found.

If you didn’t have a lavish country seat where you could retire, you angled for an invitation to someone else’s country estate. This was a chance to lengthen the Season, to be with a select group of friends in a different setting. You might visit a distant relative or the family of a dear friend. If one particular gentleman had shown his interest, he might invite you and your family to the ancestral pile to meet his extended family and have a little more time to get to know each other. Such invitations came with the expectation that the young man was going to offer marriage, and soon!

But even if you were the guest, going to house parties cost a pretty penny. First, you had to have sufficient outfits for breakfast with the family, tea in the afternoon, formal dinners at night, balls in the local assembly rooms, riding, walking to visit friends or nearby architectural wonders, boating in the nearby river or lake, lawn bowling, and many other interesting activities. Then, you were expected to provide vails (tips) to the servants who supported you while you were visiting—the groom who held your horse, the maid who cleaned your room, the cook who made your favorite raspberry scone, the porter who handled your baggage on your way to the estate, and so on. Some people even opted to stay in the stench of London rather than incur the costs of tipping every servant from here to there!

I haven’t been on a country house visit, but I did run away this week to celebrate my wedding anniversary. My husband and I spent the night at the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel, which still looks much like it did when it was built in the 1920s. Famous early film stars Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow stayed here, among other luminaries. So it’s off by about a 100 years and on the wrong continent. It was still very romantic.

How are you ending your summer?


Jen Bradbury said...

Have you seen this?
Its a BBC reality show that recreates a summer house party. Scandalous in the way that most reality TV is, but with a lot of great details.

Angie Frazier said...

Great info! The tipping is something I did not know about. Thanks!

Regina Scott said...

Oh, Jen, beware! I don't know where they got some of their information. I watched part of it when it was originally on TV and was . . . well, amazed is a kind word. For example, they claimed that the servants would draw one bath and everyone had to share it, starting with the lady of the manor. After she bathed, the next lady of rank used her water, and so on down to the poor companion.

Hogwash! Literally.

Gillian Layne said...

I just love "house party" books! :)

So, they would head to their family seats or a friend's estate in the north--when did they go to Bath? Was this the time of year, as well?

I've been digging through your past posts to look but then gave up because one of my (very persistent) cats kept hopping on my keyboard and wiping out my pages.

Regina Scott said...


Bath was apparently more often a winter spot, with people going down to keep warm in those heated waters. I believe some went to Brighton in the summer, to swim and hang out with the Prince. Hm, now there's an idea for a post.

Gillian Layne said...

Thanks, Regina!

And yes (hint, hint, nudge, nudge) that would be a lovely topic for a post! :)

Marissa Doyle said...

Bath had also fallen out of fashion by the Regency period--it had become almost a retirement community or a place for chronic invalids and maiden aunts to live.

Gillian Layne said...

You know, I didn't know that!--or at least I didn't have that impression from most books. Although one of Mary Balogh's Slightly books had the sister going to Bath and she was so bored--that would make sense.

Thanks ladies, for making it a little clearer for me.:)