However, if you had asked someone in Regency England what they considered the most important meal, they would have said dinner, by which they meant the meal they ate in early evening.
It was certainly the heaviest meal of the day and quite complex, consisting of several courses. It was also an important social occasion, whether because it was a chance for the family to come together after a day apart, or because there were guests sitting down with you. The political classes used it as a time to discuss policies, forge alliances and do what we would call networking today.
In “Incognito”, Grace and Luke first meet at a dinner party, and in my upcoming novel, “A Good Man”, a dinner party provides Harry Robinson with the perfect opportunity to try and wreck his friend’s betrothal.
Dressing for dinner was obligatory. Nobody in Regency Society would think for a moment that they could turn up in the clothes they had worn all day and just sit down to eat, even if their only companions for the meal were close family members.
When staying in the country, people often kept country hours, sitting down to eat between 4.30pm and 6pm. There were a number of reasons for this: people in the country tend to rise earlier because the work requires them to do so, and evening entertainments often started earlier than entertainments in Town would have done, so one needed to be ready earlier. Those entertainments finished earlier, too, not just so people could get to bed ready for the next day’s work, but because travelling home along unlit country roads in the early hours was not always safe.
When in Town – London, or perhaps Bath – things were different. The fashionable hour to be seen in Hyde Park began at 5pm. It was crowded with ladies and gentlemen, strolling or riding on horseback or in open carriages. They’d meander through the park, meeting and greeting friends, and making sure they were seen.
As well as the social aspect, the exercise and fresh air prepared them for the huge meal to come, sharpening their appetites. They’d then go home to change and eat, and dinner would begin between 6pm and 8pm.
The meal could be expected to last for two to three hours if it was a small affair, somewhat longer for a grand dinner party. Among the various courses on offer rich people could expect pork, partridge, pheasant, steaks, tongue and jugged hare. There would also have been quiches, white soup, mutton, chicken and duck, and various fish dishes.
Dinner for the poor was simpler, and mostly made up of pork products. A large ham would often be turned into a stew and cooked with peas, which made it go further.
Wine was drunk at dinner and there would often be different wines with different courses. I’ve often thought they must have been perpetually inebriated!
After dinner, traditionally the ladies would retire to the withdrawing room, where they would be served tea while they chatted, played cards, sang and played the pianoforte or, if they were en famille, did some embroidery or read a book.
The men would stay at table and enjoy a rummer of brandy and perhaps some tobacco, and talk of subjects not considered fit for delicate feminine ears. After which they would join the ladies and the evening proper would begin.