Friday, April 9, 2010

The Qualifications for Being an Amphitryon

Isn’t Amphitryon a lovely word? I came across it this week while doing research so of course I had to follow the path where it beckoned and see where it led. While the word is the name Hercules’ father in Greek mythology, in early nineteenth century England, it meant a person who was an exceptional host or hostess. Every young lady of quality aspired to being an Amphitryon.

Unfortunately, it appears that few succeeded. Take this diatribe from the editor of La Belle Assemblée, the premiere ladies' magazines, in March 1807:
“It is the opinion of the vulgar, that to be rich and liberal is the only requisite to become a good Amphitryon; but those who have weighed this matter, and reflected on the qualities that are indispensable to merit this title, in all its extent, are soon convinced that Heaven bestows this gift on very few persons, and that a good Amphitryon is almost as rare as a good roaster of meat.”

(I’m not sure how rare a roaster of good meat would be—and isn’t that a pun in itself—but apparently they too were few and far between!)

So what did it take to be a hostess without? La Belle Assemblée suggests the following:

  • Money (note to self—so that’s my problem!)
  • An excellent cook (do husbands count?)
  • Good tradesmen (hey, I can shop with the best of them)
  • An intelligent housekeeper and a clever butler (um, not at my house)
  • A long study of the elements that create a good table (are we talking Master’s degree or doctorate?).

However, the most important criteria for being an Amphitryon, according to La Belle Assemblée, was to select the right guests and place them appropriately at the table. I must admit that's not my forte. I must admit that’s not my forte. I tend to seat people from more practical considerations (left handers where they won’t feel cramped by bumping into right handers, mothers near children, children where spills are easily cleaned, etc.). But apparently there is a fine art to arranging people at table.

Here’s an example of what happened when a nineteenth century host invited 24 individuals from various walks to life to dinner and took no care as to where they sat:
“During the repast, nothing scarcely was heard but monosyllables, and the noise of plates and covers was almost the only conversation at this misplaced dinner. The poet attempted to speak of his tragedy that had been damned to the minister, who entertained him with an account of his last sermon, and who comprehended nothing of what the actor had been saying on the intrigues of the stage. One of the authors had commenced a grammatical discussion with a merchant, who answered him by complaining of the stagnation in the sugar and coffee trade. The artist was describing to the contractor an historical picture which he had in contemplation, while the contractor was regretting former times and complaining bitterly. All the guests rose from table disgusted with each other, and consequently with themselves.”

Now certainly, at some high dinners, rank dictated where one sat. At a dinner among acquaintances, however, the guests needed some clue as to which seat was theirs. The Amphitryon was careful to orchestrate seating, either by sending prearranged couples in together or putting name tags of some sort at each spot at the table. The result? People enjoyed themselves more, praised their hostess, and even ate more.

So, my dears, what are your qualifications for this exalted title? Do you have what it takes to be an Amphitryon?

8 comments:

Dara said...

Ha, no I do not have what it takes. My house is too tiny for one (it would be cramped if there were more than eight people) nor do I have any good china--actually I don't own any, so they'd be eating off of my Pfaltzgraff ceramic plates :P

And I still have to remind myself every time which side the fork goes on...

Regina Scott said...

Hey, Dara, where I come from Pfaltzgraff IS the good china. :-) It was only recently I inherited my Grandmother's Franciscan Ware (Desert Rose). I always wanted to host a big dinner party with lots of family and friends. The most I've managed is 10 people. But it was fun!

Marissa Doyle said...

I like to have people over occasionally--it's the best way to make sure the house gets a cleaning. :)

QNPoohBear said...

Wow! That's a word I've never heard before and certainly not a skill I have though having upwards of 12 people at one meal is pretty normal for holidays in our family. I think these 19th century hosting skills could come in handy for weddings. People agonize over who to seat with whom for the best possible outcome and it doesn't always work.

ChaChaneen said...

ha ha Indeed I don't qualify although by today's standards, I do alright for the middle class. ha ha

Your post reminded me of the mini series 'The Buccaneers' where many scenes were devoted to the ladies doing the seating arrangements for dinner parties.

Rachel said...

Nope, I'm out of the running on that one.

Thanks for the fun topic!

Alice said...

I find it funny that in the US couples usually sit together at dinner parties, while in England they are generally separated. We have friends on both sides and it's amusing when we get together.

My mother used to have a New Years Party with twelve couples. Even though they were all friends (mostly her sewing club and spouses) it is an amazing amount of work to prepare.

But then, the ladies in these books don't have day jobs, and as you noted, a good housekeeper is essential!

Peggy Jo said...

I love and enjoy a fine dinner party. Thank you for sharing this story of a time gone by when ladies had expectations to serve a wonderful meal to guests...and really worked to do so. I am not wealthy, nor married, and and iffy cook at best but I aspire to be a good hostess.