Invitations to dine, from a married party, are sent in some such form as the following:
Mr. and Mrs. A—— present their compliments to Mr. and Mrs. B——, and request the honor, [or hope to have the pleasure] of their company to dinner on Wednesday, the 10th of December next, at seven.
A—— Street, November 18th, 18—.
R. S. V. P.
The letters in the corner imply “Répondez, s’il vous plait;” meaning, “an answer will oblige.” The reply, accepting the invitation, is concluded in the following terms:
Mr. and Mrs. B—— present their compliments to Mr. and Mrs. A——, and will do themselves the honor, [or will have much pleasure in] accepting their kind invitation to dinner on the 10th of December next.
B—— Square, November 21st, 18—.
The answer to invitations to dine, accepting or declining, should be sent immediately, and are always addressed to the lady. If, after you have accepted an invitation, anything occurs to render it impossible for you to go, the lady should be informed of it immediately. It is a great breach of etiquette not to answer an invitation as soon after it is received as possible, and it is an insult to disappoint when we have promised.
Cards or invitations for a dinner party, should be issued at least two weeks beforehand, and care should be taken by the hostess, in the selection of the invited guests, that they should be suited to each other. Much also of the pleasure of the dinner-party will depend on the arrangement of the guests at table, so as to form a due admixture of talkers and listeners, the grave and the gay.
Letters or cards of invitation should always name the hour of dinner; and well-bred people will arrive as nearly at the specified time as they can. Be sure and not be a minute behind the time, and you should not get there long before, unless the invitation requests you particularly to come early for a little chat before dinner.
It is always best for the lady of the house, where a dinner-party is to come off, to be dressed and ready to appear in the drawing-room as early as possible, so that if any of the guests should happen to come a little early, she may be prepared to receive them. It is awkward for both parties where visitors arrive before the lady of the house is ready for them. If it is necessary for her to keep an eye upon the dinner, it is still best that she should familiarly receive her guests, and beg to be excused, if it is necessary for her to vanish occasionally to the kitchen. A real lady is not ashamed to have it known that she goes into the kitchen; on the contrary, it is more likely that she will be a little proud of being thought capable of superintending the preparing feast.
It is not in good taste for the lady of the house, where a dinner-party is given, to dress very much. She leaves it for her lady-guests to make what display they please, and she offers no rivalry to their fine things. She contents herself with a tasty négligé, which often proves the most fascinating equipment after all, especially, if the cheeks become a little flushed with natural bloom, in consequence of the exercise and anxiety incident to the reception of the guests.
The half hour before dinner has always been considered as the great ordeal through which the lady of the house, in giving a dinner-party, will either pass with flying colors, or lose many of her laurels. The anxiety to receive her guests, her hope that all will be present in good time, her trust in the skill of her cook, and the attention of the other domestics all tend to make the few minutes a trying time. The lady however, must display no kind of agitation, but show her tact in suggesting light and cheerful subjects of conversation, which will be much aided by the introduction of any particular new book, curiosity of art, or article of virtu, which may pleasantly engage the attention of the company.
“Waiting for dinner,” however, is a trying time, and there are few who have not felt——
“How sad it is to sit and pine,
The long half-hour before we dine!
Upon our watches oft we look,
Then wonder at the clock and cook,
And strive to laugh in spite of Fate!
But laughter forced, soon quits the room,
And leaves it to its former gloom.
But lo! the dinner now appears,
The object of our hope and fears,
The end of all our pain!”
In giving an entertainment of this kind, the lady should remember that it is her duty to make her guests feel happy, comfortable, and quite at their ease; and the guests should also consider that they have come to the house of their hostess to be happy.
When dinner is on the table, the lady and gentleman of the house will have an opportunity of showing their tact by seeing that the most distinguished guests, or the oldest, are shown into the dining-room first, and by making those companions at the table who are most likely to be agreeable to each other. The lady of the house may lead the way, or follow her guests into the dining-room, as she pleases. Among those who delight to follow the etiquette of the English nobility, the latter practice is followed. But the practice must not be considered a test of good breeding in America. If the lady leads, the husband will follow behind the guests, with the lady on his arm who is to sit at his side. The old custom is still followed to some extent in this country, of the lady taking the head of the table, with the two most favored guests seated, the one at her right and the other at her left hand; while the gentleman of the house takes the foot of the table, supported on each side by the two ladies most entitled to consideration. But this old rule is by no means slavishly followed in polite society in this country.
In order to be able to watch the course of the dinner, and to see that nothing is wanting to their guests, the lady and gentleman of the house usually seat themselves in the centre of the table, opposite each other.
When all the guests are seated, the lady of the house serves in plates, from a pile at her left hand, the soup, which she sends round, beginning with her neighbors right and left, and continuing till all are helped. These first plates usually pass twice, for each guest endeavors to induce his neighbor to accept what was sent to him.
The gentleman then carves, or causes to be carved by some expert guest, the large pieces, in order afterwards to do the other honors himself. If you have no skill in carving meats, do not attempt it; nor should you ever discharge this duty except when your good offices are solicited by him; neither can we refuse anything sent us from his hand.