Today we welcome the lovely historian, writer and blogger, Anna Thane to our blog. Anna is the host of the blog ‘Regency Explorer‘ so if you haven’t taken a look at it, then we would highly recommend you take a peek at it, she has some fascinating information on there.
Imagine yourself a time traveller. It’s 10 February in 1756 in London. You are invited to a major event: The opening of Norfolk House, the London home of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk. Your hosts, Edward and Mary Howard, have just finished redecorating their house and are eager to present it to high society.
Here are 6 tips to make your evening a success.
- Dress to impress the “In” Crowd
A party at Norfolk House is a splendid affair. Mary and Edward entertain only the crème de la crème of high society.
“One might sooner be a knight of Malta than qualified for them,”
wryly notes author Horace Walpole (1717 –1797).
Dress in your most fashionable attire. Male time travellers should choose a richly decorated coat and matching waistcoat, breeches and silk stockings. Female time travellers will be envied by all other ladies when wearing a dress with a wide panier.
- Ignore the sticklers
Upon approaching Norfolk House, 31 St. James’s Square, you find the street a bustle of carriages, servants and guests. Countless torches lighten the way to the location. They also illuminate the new facade of the house. It looks austere. ‘Not fit for a Duke’, you hear some of the arriving guests mumble.
Don’t listen to them. These people obviously have no idea of architectural trends. The façade of Norfolk House was built in the style of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio: Tasteful, and the height of fashion!
- Don’t be afraid of ‘Mylord Duchess’
You enter the hall of Norfolk House and continue upstairs to the principal storey. Here, your hostess will greet you. Mary is said to be intelligent and forceful. Horace Walpole even calls her ‘My Lord Duchess’ – safely behind her back.
Mary’s reputation as ‘Power Woman’ is based on two aspects: She is more active in society than the Duke, and she has a keen interest in politics. As a matter of fact, Mary is the mastermind behind the political success of the family. In the early 18th century, the Dukes of Norfolk had Jacobite sympathies and played an active part in the affairs of the House of Stuart. Mary, however, realised that the Duke of Norfolk’s future is with the Hanoverians. Under her influence, her husband has been a loyal supporter of George II. for the past two decades.
When you meet the formidable Duchess, prove yourself worthy of her invitation by showing countenance and composure. If you want to ingratiate yourself with her, you can pay her a clever compliment. For example, congratulate her on the embroidered chair covers in the rooms. This will be received well, as Mary, an accomplished needlewoman, did many of the chair covers at Norfolk House herself.
- Mind your step
Mary, the driving force behind rebuilding Norfolk House, has spared no costs to decorate the interior in the latest fashion, Rococo splendour. Everything is magnificent and tasteful.
You can join in the “Oh” and “Ah”, but don’t get carried away and forget your manners. It’s vulgar to gawp, and you wouldn’t want to find yourself the object of Horace Walpole’s caustic comment on society: “You would have thought there had been a comet, everybody was gaping in the air and treading on one another’s toes”, he wrote about the opening party on 10 February in a letter.
- Boast with insider knowledge
A party is only fun when you know at least some of the guests. Being a time traveller, you are at a disadvantage: You don’t know anybody. How to make contact?
Apply a trick: Join a group of guests and remark that Norfolk House reminds you of famous Holkham Hall in Norfolk.
You can’t go wrong with this: Norfolk House and Holkham Hall were built by the same architect: Matthew Brettingham. – Okay, William Kent was in charge of building Holkham Hall, but Brettingham was his assistant. His architectural taste was formed there, and he derived most of the Palladian detail of Norfolk House from Holkham Hall (add this as additional information).
As you obviously are in possession of insider knowledge about the high society, people will consider you as a part of the ruling elite and thus worth being talked to.
- Be cosmopolitan and liberal
Mary and Edward are Roman Catholics, and they head one the most high profile recusant families of England. Being Catholic means that Edward can’t take his seat in the House of Lords. Nevertheless, Mary and Edward use their position as high-ranking peers to promote religious tolerance.
Mary, the charming hostess and a born diplomat, is totally at her ease at entertaining both catholic and protestant nobility. Her formula for success: cosmopolitanism. Nothing about her is ‘Popish’. Her talk is clever, and her political ideas are well balanced. Under her influence, the protestant ruling élite loses their suspicion of Roman Catholics.
Be smart, follow her lead, and help laying the fundament of religious tolerance. Besides, you will find many budding political talents among her guests, and most of them will be very influential in the decades to come. Wisely network: Your cosmopolitan attitude can secure more invitations to glorious 18th-century parties.
Alice Drayton Greenwood: Horace Walpole’s world – A sketch of Whig society under George III.; G. Bell and Sons: 1913
Clare Haynes: Of Her Making: The Cultural Practice of Mary, 9th Duchess of Norfolk; in: Tulsa Studies in Women’s’ Literature 31(1):77-98, March 2012
Matthew Kilburn: Howard [née Blount], Mary, duchess of Norfolk (1701/2–1773), noblewomen in: Oxford dictionary of National Biography: 2004.
Robert L. Mack: The Genius of Parody: Imitation and Originality in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century English Literature; Palgrave Macmillan: 2007.
Horace Walpole, John Wright, George Agar-Ellis Dover: The letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford: including numerous letters now first published from the original manuscripts; in six volumes; volume 3 (1753-1759); London: 1840.
British History Online, Survey of London, Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1
Victoria & Albert Museum, London