Company Manners

At this time of year, when many of us are preparing for holiday get-togethers, we can fall into worry more than anticipation.  We want everything to be perfect.

But in reality, aren’t some of our favorite memories about gatherings that were unplanned?  Or even where things went wrong and we had to make the best of it?

a group of people in a log cabin c. 1935

Friends in Alaska in the 1930s or 40s.

Here is the incomparable Elizabeth Gaskell, in an 1854 article about truly memorable gatherings:

“Toasting bread in a drawing-room, coaxing up a half-extinguished fire by dint of brown sugar, newspapers, and pretty good-for-nothing bellows, turning a packing case upside-down for a seat, and covering it with a stray piece of velvet; these are, I’m afraid, the only things that can call upon us for unexpected exertion, now that all is arranged and re-arranged for every party a month beforehand.  But I have lived in other times and other places…

… a slightly gipsy and impromptu character, either in the hostess or in the arrangements, or in the amusements, adds a piquancy to the charm : let any one remember the agreeable private teas that go on in many houses about five o’clock.

I remember those in one house particularly, as remarkably illustrating what I am trying to prove. These teas were held in a large
dismantled school-room, and a superannuated school-room is usually the most doleful chamber imaginable. I never saw this by full daylight, I only know that it was lofty and large, that we went to it through a long gallery library, through which we never passed at any other time, the school-room having been accessible to the children in former days by a private staircase — that great branches of trees swept against the windows with a long plaintive moan, as if tortured by the wind, — that below in the stable-yard two Irish stag-hounds set up their musical bays to mingle with the outlandish Spanish which a parrot in the room continually talked out of the darkness in which its perch was placed, — that the walls of the room seemed to recede as in a dream, and, instead of them, the flickering firelight painted tropical forests or Norwegian fiords, according to the will of our talkers.

I know this tea was nominally private to the ladies, but that all the gentlemen strayed in most punctually by accident — that the fire was always in that state when somebody had to poke with the hard blows of despair, and somebody else to fetch in logs of wood from the basket outside, and somebody else to unload his pockets of fir-bobs, which last were always efficacious, and threw beautiful dancing lights far and wide.

And then there was a black kettle, long ago too old for kitchen use, that leaked and ran, and sputtered against the blue and sulphur- coloured flames, and did everything that was improper, but the water out of which made the best tea in the world, which we drank out of unmatched cups, the relics of several school-room sets.

We ate thick bread and butter in the darkness with a vigour of appetite which had quite disappeared at the well-lighted eight o’clock dinner. Who ate it I don’t know, for we stole from our places round the fire-side to the tea-table in comparative darkness in the twilight near the window and helped ourselves, and came back on tiptoe to hear one of the party tell of wild enchanted spicy islands in the Eastern Archipelago, or buried cities in farthest Mexico ; he used to look into the fire and draw, and paint with words in a manner perfectly marvellous, and with an art which he had quite lost at the formal dinner-time.

Our host was scientific; a name of high repute; he too told us of wonderful discoveries, strange surmises, glimpses into something far away and utterly dream-like. His son had been in Norway, fishing ; then, when he sat all splashed with hunting, he too could tell of adventures in a natural, racy way. The girls, busy with their heavy kettle, and with their tea-making, put in a joyous word now and then.

At dinner the host talked of nothing more intelligible than French mathematics ; the heir drawled out an infinite deal of nothing about the “Shakespeare and musical glasses” of the day; the traveller gave us latitudes and longitudes, and rates of population, exports and imports, with the greatest precision ; and the girls were as pretty, helpless, inane fine ladies as you would wish to see.

“Company Manners” from Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1865 Cousin Phillis, pp. 154 – 156

Wishing you lovely, memorable gatherings — or at least wonderful accounts of them to read!  🙂