A dinner party may be considered as holding the highest rank among entertainments. In no other social function is etiquette so strictly observed. There are prescribed rules for the form of the invitation, the manner of assigning each guest his place at the table, the manner of serving the dinner, etc.; and when these rules are followed there need be no embarrassments.
It should always be remembered that the social part of the entertainment is on a higher plane than the gastronomic one, though the latter must by no means be slighted. A sentiment expressed by the wit who said, "A fig for your bill of fare, give me a bill of your company," is generally felt, and a hostess should bring together only such people as she believes will be mutually agreeable.
The idea, given by Goldsmith in his "Retaliation," of looking upon one's friends as so many pleasant dishes, is offered as a suggestion. He says:
If our landlord supplies us with beef and with fish,
Let each guest bring himself, and he brings the best dish:
Our Dean shall be venison, just fresh from the plains;
Our Burke shall be tongue, with a garnish of brains;
Our Will shall be wild fowl of excellent flavour,
And Dick with his pepper shall heighten the savour;
Our Cumberland's sweetbread its place shall obtain,
And Douglas is pudding, substantial and plain;
Our Garrick's a salad, for in him we see
Oil, vinegar, sugar, and saltness agree:...
At a dinner so various—at such a repast,
Who'd not be a glutton, and stick to the last?
The hostess should give her instructions for the details of the entertainment so explicitly that on the arrival of the guests she will have no care other than their pleasure.
If she is nervous, has wandering eyes, or shows constraint, it affects sensibly the ease of her guests. The spirit of pleasure is infectious, and upon the demeanor of the hosts the success of the evening largely depends. Much tact may be shown in placing the right people together at the table. If one is a great talker let the other be a good listener; if one is dogmatic let the other be without positive views, and so on; for as every one is happiest when appearing well, it is wise to consider the idiosyncrasies of the guests.
'T is a great point in a gallery how you hang your pictures; and not less in society how you seat your party.
The part of the hosts is thus well defined; but the guests, too, have their obligations, and in recognition of the compliment of being included in an entertainment where the number of guests is limited to very few, each one should make exertion to be agreeable, as a dull dinner companion is a recognized misfortune. At a dinner there is time, not given at most other forms of entertainment, for rational and sustained conversation, and this may be turned to durance vile if one victimizes by egotism or caprice the person who without power of withdrawal is assigned to his or her society for perhaps two hours or more. Also, if one finds oneself neighbor to some person for whom one has a personal antipathy, it must not be allowed to interfere with the general pleasure; and should such a situation occur, there is nothing to do but to make the best of it, and conceal from the hostess the mistake she has unwittingly made
And do as adversaries do in law,
Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.
Under these circumstances the discovery may possibly be made that an unfriendly person is more agreeable than was supposed, and a pleasanter relationship may be established.