As people who have read my blog before may realise, my study is a little cluttered, OK very cluttered. For this reason when I am looking for something in the back of a cupboard, or a draw, I often find something I had either forgotten I had, or which I thought I had lost. This happened the other day when I came across a box containing a group of old, miniature, china.
Now I had been looking for this group of china ever since I saw a compete set in Lytes Cary, a National Trust house not too many miles from here. There it was suggested that it dated from about 1800 (with which I would agree) and was a travelling tradesman’s sample set (with which I disagree). The pottery is simply too coarse to be a sample set of anything other than the roughest kitchen china, and who would carry around a set of that. No, I suspect that it is an educational toy, to help a young Georgian or Regency lady learn the complicated business of laying a table.
Today we dine in courses, a dish of fish or meat or something similar is served with a range of accompanying vegetables. These are all placed on the table, served, then the table would be cleared before the next course. This is technically called dining ‘à la russe’, however in the eighteenth century the practice was for dining ‘à la française’ where all the dishes, savoury as well as sweet would be laid on the table at once, the diners would then sit and serve themselves. If there were a large number of dishes, or the dinner was very formal or elaborate there would be two or three removes, when all the dishes would be cleared and a fresh set of dishes laid on the table.
This system was so complicated that cookbooks and advice manuals gave outline plans of how the table should be laid.
From; The Female Instructor or Young Woman’s Companion being a guide to all the accomplishments which adorn the female character C1811
And this is where I think the miniature china comes in. I believe that it would have been used by a girl in about 1800 to lay out an imaginary meal, I like to think of Georgiana Darcy with such a set, laying out an elaborate dinner, under the helpful eye of Mrs Younge (before she turned bad and tried to arrange for Wickham to seduce her). Then nervously using this knowledge to plan the dinner at Pemberley for Elizabeth and the Gardiners, that they were never to eat as the letter from Jane announcing Lydia’s elopement arrived at just the wrong time.
But what was it like to go to a real dinner at this time, that will be the subject of a later blog.
In May 1812, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy is walking down a London street. As has been his practice of late, he had been turning over the words of Elizabeth Bennet in his mind. ‘Had you acted in a more gentlemanlike manner’. Distracted, he doesn’t notice a shabby young man in a long coat brush past him. Israel Fagin, at the beginning of his long and disreputable career (which was to lead to literary fame and the condemned cell at Newgate), had taken something from his pocket – but what?
In the case of these toys, perhaps it is in about 1820, and Mr Darcy has just seen a group of china in a shop window, remembering the set his sister once owned he buys one for his own, or Jane Bingley’s, daughters.