The Country House Visit
by Michelle Jean Prima
The country home visit was an important social ritual in Victorian England. More than just passing the time with friends or family, it was a venue to talk business, aspire to politics and sometimes have a discreet affair.
Visits could last for several weeks, or even months. This was due in large part to the poor modes of transportation at the beginning of the 19th century. Because roads were bad, sometimes even dangerous, travel was kept to a minimum. Once one arrived at his destination, he stayed as long as he was welcome, to avoid the treacherous ride home. When travel improved and trains began to run, visits became shorter, but more frequent. Weekend visits became popular, except during hunting season, when they lasted a week or fortnight.
One never visited a country house unless he was invited. The dates and times of the visit were predetermined by the hostess. Visitors could bring a lady's maid or valet along (if the hostess approved), but children and horses were deemed in poor taste to accompany a guest. It was proper to arrive by late afternoon, so as not to interfere with the dinner hour. Guests were served tea upon arrival, while their luggage was brought up to their room. The hostess showed her guests to their rooms after tea, then informed them of the dinner hour.
Every day was much like the next as far as routine. Breakfast was an informal affair. Guests helped themselves from a sideboard, and sat where they wished at the table. No time was set--people came and went as they pleased. If the gentlemen were going to hunt, they rose and ate earlier. Ladies rarely arrived downstairs before half past ten.
Gentlemen spent the days out of doors, either hunting or shooting. They packed a picnic lunch, and didn't return to the house until dinner. Ladies had little to do all day. If the weather was nice, they would take a walk, or stroll through the gardens. If the weather was inclement, they would write letters, gossip or do their stitching. For a change of pace, the hostess sometimes arranged visits to nearby attractions. They would then go upstairs to change for five o'clock tea, a custom begun in the early 1870s.
Everyone would return and dress formally for dinner. Because of the frequent wardrobe changes, a lady could expect to pack as many as fifteen outfits for a three-day weekend. The dinner bell sounded thirty minutes before dinner, at which time guests would gather in the drawing room. From there, they would file into the dining room and be seated according to rank. Once dinner was over, the ladies retreated to the drawing room while the gentlemen talked politics or business over glasses of wine.
The gentlemen then joined the ladies for billiards, card games or parlor games such as charades. Once this was over, entertainment of a different type began. It was not unusual for 'ladies' to carry on trysts such as they could not otherwise conduct in more public places.
While the above is a typical day when guests were present, the meals were much simpler, and the dress less formal when a family was not entertaining. Also, rooms which were rarely used had to be cleaned and prepared for guests. Extra staff had to be hired to cook and clean, sometimes as many as 150 servants. Entertainment, such as musicians or actors, had to be brought in. Therefore, a family often expended the money and entertained a succession of guests for a month, then closed up their house and paid their own visits.
Although relaxation was the main reason for a country house visit, the deals that went on behind closed doors could either further one's career or destroy it. And many a marriage was concocted or ruined. One could say it was an early form of networking as we know it today.
What Jane Austen Ate & Chalres Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool. Simon & Schuster, ISBN#0671793373
The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England by Kristine Hughes. Writer's Digest Books, ISBN#0898798124
For more information on country-house visits, see our Researching the Romance page.
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Copyright 2005, Michelle Jean Prima