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. Continue reading “On the propriety of urinating in the dining room”