On the screen the Regency period of Jane Austen’s novels always looks so prim, but in reality it appears not quite to have lived up to our expectations of public-broadcast propriety. Louis Simond, a French-born American who traveled through Britain in 1810–11, described in his journals some (to his mind) shocking practices of the English aristocracy at table — practices, as he said, “not quite consistent with that scrupulous delicacy on which the English pique themselves.” For example:
Towards the end of dinner, and before the ladies retire, bowls of coloured glass full of water are placed before each person. All (women as well as men) stoop over it, sucking up some of the water, and returning it, perhaps more than once, and, with a spitting and washing sort of noise, quite charming,—the operation frequently assisted by a finger elegantly thrust into the mouth! This done, and the hands dipped also, the napkins, and sometimes the table-cloth, are used to wipe hand and mouth.
Victorian delicacy and manners, in short, had not yet crept into fashionable dining rooms and straitjacketed the pleasures of the table. As a practical matter, with no bathrooms to offer, a host had to provide her guests with some means of washing up after the meal, especially given that much of the dinner was still intended to be eaten by hand, and surely postprandial conversation could only be made more pleasant if everyone washed the remains of roast joint and flummery out of their mouths. There being no good place to do this discreetly, discretion simply wasn’t thought necessary. Everyone knew that everyone else got a bit greasy at dinner; why not wash up in the same room? The colored glass bowls indicate that these were elegant people, dressed for dinner, knowing themselves to be on display and washing up, therefore, as elegantly as they could. But there was no pretense of being unaware of one another’s bodily functions. No seeing a man about a horse, or any such nonsense.
Speaking of which, washing-up wasn’t the only bodily function of which everyone was openly aware. Simond continues:
This, however, is nothing to what I am going to relate. Drinking much and long leads to unavoidable consequences. Will it be credited, that, in a corner of the very dining-room, there is a certain convenient piece of furniture, to be used by any body who wants it. The operation is performed very delicatedly and undisguisedly, as a matter of course, and occasions no interruption of the conversation.
Pisspots in the dining room, in other words. Simond explains that “in former times, when good fellowship was more strictly enforced than in these degenerate days, it had been found that men of weak heads or stomachs took advantage of the opportunity to make their escape shamefully, before they were quite drunk; and that it was to guard against such an enormity that this nice expedient was invented.” Even in houses where no man ruled the dining rooms contained chamberpots; “the mistress, therefore, must be understood to have given the necessary orders to her servants, — a supposition rather alarming for the delicacy of an English lady.” Not that men used such implements while ladies were still at table: in these days the women retired from the dining room after dessert and left the men alone to dive wholeheartedly into the port and madeira. Even confirmed drinkers like the essayist William Maginn held it “a proof of utter want of politeness to get drunk before women” — although, on the other hand, “not to get drunk at all, proves a man to be equally unfit for a state of civilization.”
Women weren’t unaware of what they left behind in the dining room; they just hadn’t banished it from the house yet. This was a quarter century before Victoria ascended the throne, after all, when Virtue was still portrayed in masculine terms, before Woman had been enshrined as the protector of hearth and home and all things right and polite and decent and stuffy. In 1811 Woman seems to have been more concerned that masculine virtue didn’t get drunk and piss all over her expensive upholstered furniture. In another generation, though, Woman would send virtue and civilization out to the office to work all day and keep the house to herself, and a generation after that she’d be railing against the evils of drink and writing complicated etiquette manuals. And, well, you can kind of see why.
Then again, I’m thinking a set of those colored glass bowls has got to be worth a fortune on eBay, and that they’d be worth every penny.