Illustration by Karl James Mountford, from The Midnight Peacock
One of the first things most of us think of when we think of the Edwardians is the grand country house. It appears everywhere from Downton Abbey to The Go-Between, not to mention in dozens of mysteries, romances and ghost stories. The period from 1861 – 1914 is generally considered to have been the ‘golden age’ of the English country house – and the country house party in particular was a mainstay of upper-class Edwardian social life.
Entertaining was a mark of status for well-off Edwardians. For the Edwardian gentry, their country estate was a place to display their wealth, power and refined taste via their art collections and elegant furniture, their sumptuous grounds, their army of servants, and the lavish food and drink at their table. Hosting a country house party would allow them to showcase all this to their peers.
Sometimes lasting weeks at a time, but more often from Saturday until Monday (literally referred to as ‘Saturday-to-Monday’ – as we’ve learned from the Countess of Grantham, the word ‘weekend’ was considered rather vulgar) country house parties most often took place during August and September.
Up to 20 or 30 people would typically be invited, each of whom might bring their own servants with them (perhaps a maid or a valet, and possibly a chauffeur) as well as a large quantity of luggage. An Edwardian lady would not want to wear the same outfit twice during her stay, and with different clothes typically expected at breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner, a three-day visit could require as many as fifteen different ensembles!
Gentlemen of the party would spend their days shooting, while the ladies wrote letters, read, strolled in the gardens or perhaps took part in outdoor activities like riding, croquet or lawn tennis.
Food was of course a most important aspect of any Edwardian house party! The day would begin with a vast breakfast spread, featuring fruit, eggs, toast, muffins, rolls, bacon, ham, kidneys, pies, haddock, kedgeree, tea, coffee, cocoa and more – though the ladies of the party might well take their breakfast in bed. As well as a generous luncheon, there would be afternoon tea in the drawing room, and in the evening the party would gather for a sumptuous dinner.
After dinner the ladies would typically retire to the drawing room, leaving the gentlemen to enjoy their port and cigars before rejoining the ladies for an evening of music, dancing or card games like bridge or baccarat (the latter was actually illegal at the time, but like Leo’s brother Vincent in The Midnight Peacock, many people in Edwardian high society enjoyed scandalous gambling!)
As well as being an opportunity for socialising, country house parties could offer a chance for matches to be made. Young ladies who had not found a husband during the Season might have the opportunity to meet and get to know a suitable young man, often of their parents’ choosing. (That’s exactly what Veronica Whitley’s parents have in mind in The Midnight Peacock – but things don’t quite go to plan…)
Readers of the Sinclair’s Mysteries, have already had a peep into a grand Edwardian house – Leo Fitzgerald’s home, Winter Hall. In the final book, The Midnight Peacock, I wanted to take us back to Winter Hall, and allow Sophie and Lil to experience the world of a high society Edwardian house party, with all its complex rules and traditions. Here, it’s a Christmas house party, complete with ice-skating, snowy walks, and a Christmas party for the children of the estate. But amongst all the festivities, there’s a mystery afoot – and Sophie and Lil soon discover that Winter Hall is hiding a sinister and spooky secret…
Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries