The Victorian House Party
by Ellen Micheletti
When Queen Victoria withdrew from public and social life after the death of her husband Prince Albert, her son Albert Edward, (Bertie), Prince of Wales and his wife Alexandra became the leaders of Society. One reason the prince became such a social creature was that the Queen kept him isolated from government affairs. The prince was allowed no access to State information and no real responsibility. Some of the Queen's ministers tried to change her mind - after all he would be the next king - but Victoria adamantly refused to allow her son to take part in affairs of state. So he occupied his time with the affairs of Society.
The men and women who moved in the Prince of Wales' social set were not intellectuals. They were not well read, did not engage in serious conversation, but they did love to be entertained. One of the most common forms of entertainment during Victorian times was the weekend house party. The prince loved house parties and went to many of them during the social Season and since Society took its cues from royalty, house parties became all the rage.
To give a house party for His Royal Highness involved much planning and a large outlay of money on the part of the host and hostess. The hostess had to be sure the guest list would meet with royal approval. The prince had friends whom he would expect to be invited, such as Christopher Sykes. Sykes was a snobbish, sycophantic fellow who served as the butt of many a practical joke to which he would always reply, "As your Royal Highness pleases." His Royal Highness would laugh and play another joke on Sykes - get the same response, and laugh some more. The hostess had also to be sure not to invite a member of Society with whom the prince was on the outs. For a long time, Lord Randolph Churchill was not received by the prince and was never invited to a party where royalty was present. The prince was a rake and a womanizer and if he was currently involved with one of his lovers, she had to be included in the guest list. The prince was easily bored and had the attention span of a gnat. He did not like to read, and he could not bear to be alone. The one sure way to keep him happy was to have charming, witty women around. If at any time the prince began to look bored and drum his fingers on the table, the hostess began to worry.
Once the guest list was approved, the hostess had to have the rooms newly decorated and the train station festooned with banners and bunting. There had to be enough carriages for all the guests and enough game for the men to hunt. Then the hostess had to ensure that there would be plenty of food. The Prince of Wales was very stout, to be kind about it, and behind his back, he was referred to as Tum-Tum. He ate about five meals a day - breakfast, luncheon, tea, supper and a midnight snack. He was fond of elaborate food and rich sauces - the richer, the better - and if he took it into his fancy to have a lobster salad at midnight, the hostess had better be able to produce it.
Not only was it expensive to host a house party, it was expensive to be a guest as well, especially for the women. They had to have 4 or 5 changes of clothes every day and a party would usually last from Friday till Monday. At dinner, the guests would all dress formally. The men would wear their medals and orders and the women would be in full evening dress, dazzling jewels, and tiaras to boot. This could cause some anxiety among the guests because the prince was a stickler for correct dress. If he noticed a man wearing a medal incorrectly, he got very upset. At one party, a lady did not wear her tiara because it gave her a headache; instead she wore a diamond ornament in her hair. When the prince noticed it, he scolded her. "The Princess has taken the trouble to wear a tiara, why haven't you"?
So what did the guests do during the party? Usually the men would spend the day hunting. They would rise early, eat breakfast, then go out to the hunting field. The object of the hunt was to kill as many animals (rabbits, pheasants or grouse) as you could. They would stop the hunt for a picnic lunch with the ladies and this would be the only time the men would meet the ladies during the day - women did not hunt.
While the men were slaughtering wildlife, the ladies would read, write letters, converse, or take a walk or drive in the neighborhood in their morning attire. They would change into tweeds to have lunch with the gentlemen. The ladies would change clothes again to join the gentlemen for tea. After tea, they would rest and change clothing yet again for dinner.
After a long and rich dinner, the ladies would leave and the gentlemen would stay at the table for a time drinking and smoking, but the Prince liked the company of women and the gentlemen would soon go to the drawing room to join the ladies. The company would play cards (the prince was very fond of bridge) or they would play various parlor games. The descriptions of some of these games reminds me of The Three Stooges. The guests would get large silver trays, sit one them and slide down the stairs. Sometimes they would even squirt each other with seltzer bottles. They would also play charades, short sheet the beds and generally act silly.
No matter how silly the prince might be acting, the guests had to keep in mind that the gentleman on the other end of the squirt bottle was His Royal Highness Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and their future king. Although the prince enjoyed his fun, he was very conscious of his position and did not take his majesty lightly. During one party, the gentlemen were playing billiards and Sir Frederick Johnstone had had too much to drink. The prince said to him, "Freddy, Freddy you are very drunk." to which Sir Frederick replied "And Tum-tum, you are very fat." Sir Frederick found his bags packed and his carriage waiting. The next day. Before breakfast.
House parties were one of the most convenient times for ladies and gentlemen to meet their lovers. Most hostesses knew who was involved with whom and they would situate the bedrooms accordingly. If the locate of the rooms was changed unexpectedly, there could be some embarrassment. At one party, Lord Charles Beresford popped into a bedroom and jumped into bed expecting to find his current lover there, but instead found himself in bed with a very surprised Bishop.
After the party was over, the guests would go back home till the next weekend. The Prince and Princess of Wales would sign the guest book and leave a small token of appreciation, like a Faberge gift box or engraved silver tray. The host and hostess would be left with some newly decorated rooms, some memories and then next week, they would probably be guests at yet another party. Anything to keep boredom at bay.
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