Lord and Lady Grantham regret to inform you they will not be inviting you to dine at Downton Abbey anytime soon.
If you want to enjoy dinner Downton style, you’ll just have to do it yourself.
Throwing a dinner party as lavish as the Crawleys’ soirees may be well beyond the reach of most of us commoners, but you can still put together a bash elegant enough to wow the Downton Abbey fans among your friends. All it takes is a little creativity and some knowledge of how the aristocracy dined at the time, said Charles MacPherson, a longtime butler and author of The Butler Speaks: A Guide to Stylish Entertaining, Etiquette and the Art of Good Housekeeping (Random House).
Oh, and throw in some willingness to have a little fun. Nobody expects this to be a dinner worthy of the dowager countess, after all.
(Of course, you can take pointers on Lady Violet’s masterful haughtiness when the popular series returns for its fourth season Sunday on PBS. It will air locally at 9 p.m. on WVIZ [Channel 25] and WNEO/WEAO [Channels 45/49.])
So polish the silver, starch the linens and send out the engraved invitations. It’s party time.
The Edwardian era, when the Downton Abbey story started, was all about excess, MacPherson said. It was the fanciest period England had seen for several centuries, even more ornate than the Victorian era that preceded it.
So think big. The more elaborate you can make the table, the better.
The British nobility at the time was also highly concerned with status, which would have dictated even where people sat. Consider assigning your guests titles, and perhaps make name tags indicating them, MacPherson suggested.
Ask them to dress for dinner, but remember the rules of etiquette: no hats for women after 5 p.m., and no gloves at the table, he said.
Music at an Edwardian-era dinner party would have been provided by a soloist, usually a piano player, MacPherson said. So a CD of piano music by a single pianist would be appropriate for a Downton-style dinner.
But music would have been only for the pre-dinner cocktails in the drawing room, he said. Turn off the music when it’s time to sit down for the meal.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a zillion different kinds of forks and knives. While excessively specialized cutlery did have its beginnings in the Edwardian era, MacPherson said it was marketed to the nouveau riche, not old-money people like the Crawleys. The newly wealthy bought all that fussy silverware to show off, which was beneath the dignity of the nobility.
Instead, dinners at Downton probably would have featured simpler place settings. In fact, MacPherson said diners might even have kept their knives and forks between courses, although it’s probably best at your party to provide fresh cutlery for each course.
Lay out the cutlery in the order in which it’s used. Put the pieces that will be used first on the outside, and work your way in.
White linens are “really what’s done” among the aristocracy, MacPherson said. That goes for both the tablecloth and the napkins.
You can rent white linens if you don’t have them, or just substitute a flat white bedsheet for a tablecloth, he said.
Napkins would have been heavily starched and folded into an elaborate shape, he said, so go online to find instructions for a fancy napkin fold, or borrow a book from the library.
Place the napkin on the bread and butter plate, not in the center of the place setting. Why? If an ill-mannered guest doesn’t put his napkin in his lap, the butler will have nowhere to set the guest’s plate, MacPherson explained. And the butler would be far too genteel to embarrass the guest by telling him to move the napkin.
MacPherson said the Edwardians loved expensive hand-painted china and decorative transfer ware, which was new at the time. So patterned china would be most appropriate for your Downton-style dinner.
Haul out Grandma’s dishes, or borrow some from a friend. You can probably also buy china inexpensively at a secondhand store.
An elegant place setting has three footed glasses — a white wine glass, a red wine glass and a water glass. They can be arranged in a diagonal line or clustered in the upper right part of the place setting.
MacPherson recommended using cut crystal, which was the style of the day. If you don’t own it, shop the secondhand stores, but don’t worry about finding a matching set. Mixing and matching is fine, MacPherson said. After all, Queen Victoria brought it into style because she didn’t have enough matching pieces for everyone at big dinners, he said.
Still, mixing has its limits. He would either use one pattern for each guest or one pattern for each type of glass.
Flowers were abundant in England at the time, so they were nothing special, MacPherson said. Fruit, however, was another story.
“Fruit is actually the extravagance of the period,” he said. Fruits that weren’t grown in England had to be shipped by sea and were consequently expensive, so that’s what a family like the Crawleys would have liked showing off.
He suggested creating a fruit arrangement as the centerpiece. Make it abundant, and use fruits that would have been exotic at the time — things like bananas and oranges and pineapple.
Use candles in abundance. Remember that electricity was still new in the early 20th century, and many people were afraid of it, MacPherson said. Elegant dinners would have been eaten by candlelight, since electricity was thought to give off harmful vapors.
Ivory candles are most authentic, he said, since candles at the time would have been the color of the fat from which they were made. But he said white candles are a good choice, too, and can be bought inexpensively at places like dollar stores.
Proper seating puts the hosts at the two ends of the table, MacPherson said. The Crawleys’ guests would then have been seated according to their status: The most important female guest to the right of the male host, the second most important female guest to his left, the most important male guest to the right of the female host, and the second most important male guest to her left.
From there, the seating would continue male-female from most to least important, so the people with the lowest status would be at the center of the table.
The dining scenes on Downton Abbey usually show the guests helping themselves from serving dishes offered by the servants. But MacPherson said the style of the Edwardian era was for the kitchen staff to put the food onto the guests’ plate and the butler to place the loaded plates in front of the guests.
What, you don’t have servants? Hire your kids to serve, or maybe find some neighborhood teenagers willing to do the job.
Servants at the time would have worn morning suits, probably made by the same tailor who made the lord’s clothing, MacPherson said. The fancier the uniform, the higher the master’s status.
You don’t need to rent tuxes for your servants, but maybe have them wear blazers adorned with fake medals. “Just have fun with it. … The more ornamented you can make it, the better,” he said.
After an Edwardian dinner, MacPherson said, the women would have moved to one room for tea and gossip, while the men would have retired to another room for cigars, liqueur and perhaps some pool and political talk.
If you want to be truly authentic, you would divide your guests likewise — provided they don’t rebel, that is.
The success of your party depends largely on your mindset, MacPherson said.
“The most important thing is to have self-confidence,” he said. Explain to your guests the history and reasoning behind your choices, from the fruit in the centerpiece to the folds in the napkins.
“Don’t apologize and say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry this doesn’t match or that doesn’t match,’ ” he said. Instead, project all the self-assurance that befits a host.
Would the Crawleys do it any other way?
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.