The London Season might have been the pinnacle of the social year, but a family’s showplace and the source of much its prestige (and income) was the country house (and the estate it sat on). Even in America, Astors, Vanderbilts, DuPonts and Belmonts aped the British aristocracy by building lavish homes on Long Island and in Newport, Rhode Island. Diantha, the American heroine of my March 2011 release, Her Scottish Groom, belongs to a family who aims to belong to this social elite. Her husband, the aristocratic Lord Kieran Rossburn, already does. Much of the action takes place during a country house visit hosted by Diantha and Kieran at his home, an estate near Scotland’s Grampian Mountains.
As my story takes place in 1875, the Scotland portrayed in it differs sharply from the many excellent portrayals of Highland life before and immediately after the Battle of Culloden over a hundred years earlier. The social rituals involved are decidedly Victorian. Having sent out invitations to their guests, both the host and hostess then have to think of ways to amuse them for weeks on end.
Travel in that era involved arranging transportation not only for the invitees, but for their maid and/or valet and their wardrobe. Even after train routes developed, carriages often had to be hired at the station for further travel. In the early 1800s, and for isolated locations later in the century, it didn’t make sense to travel only for a week’s stay. Nevertheless, invitations to a country estate were prized for the social cachet they bestowed.
Polite guests arrived in the late afternoon so their clothing could be unpacked and that evening’s dinner ensemble pressed and laid out. Dinner was the grand event of each day of a country house visit unless a ball was planned. Men and women dressed as formally as they would in London at the height of the season, including jewels and accessories. No lady wanted to appear in the same evening ensemble more once unless necessity forced her to it.
The day began with breakfast, served for the female guests around 10 a.m. The men might or might not breakfast earlier, depending on their activities. For shooting parties and on hunt days, they left house early in the morning. The opposite of dinner, everyone served him- or herself and sat where they wished.
While men engaged in fishing, hunting or shooting, the women seldom had any vigorous activity to look forward to. Their day consisted of walks in the garden, letter writing, gossip, or for the really ambitious, reading or needlework. At five o’clock, everyone gathered in the drawing room for tea.
In Her Scottish Groom, I took the liberty of allowing Diantha to arrange such genteel events as sketching parties and lawn tennis for the ladies, as well as a picnic by the seaside for everyone. And with a Scottish setting I could even include a golf game. (Naturally instigated by Kieran.)
Once the gentlemen had enjoyed their port and cigars, everyone mingled over tea and coffee for light conversation, or cards. A lady was expected to have some musical accomplishment and might that time to demonstrate her skills (or her lack thereof) on the piano. Victorians amused themselves by singing, so she might end up providing accompaniment to others. Games like charades or twenty questions were not unusual.
House parties often revolved around events like a shooting party or fox-hunting. In populous neighborhoods a hostess might plan a hunt ball for her guests and nearby friends, or a smaller dance for an evening’s amusement. For political figures, a house party could function as a strategic planning conference.
Best of all for me as a writer, house parties are rife with possibilities for meetings, flirtations, making or missing assignations, mistaken bedrooms and countless opportunities for romantic mayhem. What kind of activity do you would have enjoyed while visiting a country house?