I often read in another’s author’s book about the guests for supper at Lord and Lady So-and-So supper party entered the room according to precedence, meaning according to rank/title, with the host escorting in the highest ranking female and the hostess entering on the arm of the highest ranking gentleman (not her husband). The hostess and her escort was at the end of the line, not directly behind the host and his supper partner for the evening. Heck, I am certain in one or more of my fifty novels, I have written a similar scene. The thing is, although I cannot say this was not a custom found in the Regency, I cannot seem to locate any actual pieces from the time period that prove it.
Therefore, I am relatively certain, this practice is more Victorian than Regency. I am taking this stance due to what I read in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which indicates in the times before the Victorian period, people sat where they wanted. However, I have been proven incorrect before and will likely be made a fool again.
I do know that the manner in which a supper party was conducted changed in the early 1800s. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, one might see the women all seated on one side of the table and men on the other. Later, there was a period where the guests were mixed, more of man-woman-man-woman, etc., about the table, which required an equal number of men and women as guests (another plot line found in Regency romances, especially unequal prospects). Not everyone in Society jumped on the proverbial “bandwagon” at the same time regarding these changes. By the way, the host and hostess do not count in the system of precedence except that sitting next to either one was an honor no matter the relative ranks they held.
Nuncheon (lunch, as many of us think of it) became a “thing.” The meal was gradually moved from about 2:30 in the afternoon to around five, or even later. Supper could be as late as 8 PM.
Over this time, meal times transformed, as some believe thanks to the Duchess of Bedford. “The Spruce Eats, tells us, “There is no more quintessential British ritual than the ceremony and serving of afternoon tea. It is believed that credit for the custom goes to Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford in the early 19th century. The usual habit of serving dinner between 8 and 9 pm left the Duchess hungry and with a ‘sinking feeling’ by late afternoon. To stave off the hunger, she would order tea, bread and butter and cakes to be served in her room. Later on, she would invite friends to join her at her home and the light tea was such a success the habit caught on.
“The origins of afternoon tea show clearly it was the preserve of the rich in the 19th century. For workers in the newly industrialized Britain, tea time had to wait until after work. By that hour, tea was generally served with heartier dishes which were substantially more than just tea and cakes. Workers needed sustenance after a day of hard labor, so the after-work meal was more often hot and filling and accompanied by a pot of good, strong tea to revive flagging spirits. Today, the evening meal in working-class households is still often called “tea” but as working patterns have changed yet again, many households now refer to the evening meal as supper. The addition of the word ‘high’ to the phrase ‘high tea’ is believed to differentiate between the afternoon tea that is traditionally served on low, comfortable, parlor chairs or relaxing in the garden and the worker’s after-work high tea that is served at the table and seated on high back dining chairs.”
An alternate seating arrangement was having the husband and wife sit next to each other on the long side of the table they sat in the middle on one side. Though, the Ton did not usually seat husbands and wives beside each other, people could do what they wanted in their own houses, especially if they felt secure enough not to be afraid of violating some unspoken rule or other.
At the beginning of the century, men and women were sitting on different sides of the table. Or everyone just sat where ever they wanted. It was only at a formal meal, with many guests, that everyone tried to follow the more rigid rules.
Men and women on different sides of the table, people sitting wherever they wanted, or a rigid formality with precedence followed. There is evidence in letters, books and pictures of all three systems being used. Then again we must consider that there seldom was an equal number of men and women at political dinners, for example, either because just a few women attended (were invited) to keep the hostess company or they were women who were involved in their husbands’ political career. If the host was not a married man, he had to have a female relative to play hostess if females were invited to be his guests for the evening. Only a relative could play hostess at a dinner without causing gossip.
We customarily believe the two highest ranking men sat on either side of the hostess and the two highest ranking females on either side of the host. The others often just sat themselves. It was not until the Regency period that the guests started going into meals two-by-two and then only on formal occasions. There are many letters and such about meals where the men and women were uneven in number. One lady complained about having to go in two by two like animals into an ark. If it was a rather friendly supper party, the guests need not stand on complete ceremony—except the host had to have a female relative, of an appropriate age, serve as his hostess.
If presented with their choice of seating, some might choose the section of the table with the dishes they most preferred. We must remember, despite what the novels we read say, most of the dining rooms were not that large, and so the number of dinner guests was limited. The people knew each other and took their seats, sorting themselves out according to preference.