Stately country homes have been part of the British culture for centuries, and for just as long, British men have been gathering at one manor or another to work out battle plans, political campaigns, or business ventures. It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that these gatherings took on a more social aspect—attended by both gentlemen and ladies. By the Victorian era, the onset of railways made travel from London to one’s country home a simple matter, and the house party became a staple of the autumn and winter months.
The twelfth of August marked the beginning of shooting season, but with the first few weeks reserved for family members, September marked the beginning of the shooting parties. Though some parties could be quite large, more often the hosts invited five guns (men) and seven ladies. The assumption was that at least two gentlemen would be invited from neighboring estates to even out the numbers. Though some house parties could last a week or longer, most shooting parties were “Saturday to Mondays.” At the time, the term “weekend” was considered a vulgar Americanism.
Ladies rarely joined in the shooting themselves but often accompanied the men out to the field and joined the shooters at luncheon. In the afternoon, the hostess might have planned activities, such as a ride to a neighboring town for some shopping, a trip to a local bazaar or flower show, or a game of croquet or tennis. Often, she simply let her guests choose their own entertainment, making horses available if they wished to ride, newspapers or books if they preferred to read, and, of course, extensive grounds for long rambles.
In addition to the above activities, eating and changing one’s clothes took up much of the ladies’ time. A morning gown would do for breakfast, usually served between nine and half past ten. The fare would be laid out on a sideboard and included a large assortment: breads, muffins, eggs, meats, fish, fruits, tea, coffee, and cocoa. Luncheon might be taken with the gentlemen in the form of a picnic, requiring a walking gown, sturdy shoes, and a hat to keep the sun off one’s face. Afternoon tea, whether served indoors or out, meant another change into something less structured and with more delicate footwear.
As relaxed and casual as the days were, the traditional rituals of dining were still observed. Formal attire was expected. Everyone gathered before dinner in the drawing room and proceeded to the dining room according to rank. Afterward, the more informal atmosphere returned, and guests retired to a drawing room or saloon for cards, charades, and other games, music, or even an impromptu dance. Gambling was very popular—baccarat at the beginning of the era and bridge toward the end and into the Edwardian era.
Coincidentally, about the same time house parties grew in popularity, arranged marriages were falling from favor. This is not to say prominent families allowed their heirs and daughters to marry anyone they chose, but rather that they now had to engineer opportunities for their offspring to meet the right sort. London balls or receptions were good venues for striking up an acquaintance, but the relaxed atmosphere of the country house party was the perfect setting to “seal the deal,” to use another vulgar Americanism.
As you can imagine, planning and organizing one of these house parties could produce a great deal of anxiety. With so many people to house, feed, and entertain, the potential for trouble was everywhere. I couldn’t resist using this setting for the third installment in the Countess of Harleigh Mystery series, A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Murder. After all, at a house party anything could happen—and so much could go wrong.
Dianne Freeman is the acclaimed author of the Agatha and Lefty Award–winning Countess of Harleigh Mystery series. A nominee for the prestigious Mary Higgins Clark Award from Mystery Writers of America, she is also a Macavity Award finalist. She spent thirty years working in corporate accounting and finance and now writes full-time. Born and raised in Michigan, she and her husband now divide their time between Michigan and Arizona. Visit her at DiFreeman.com.
The novels in Dianne Freeman’s charming, award-winning Countess of Harleigh Mystery series are set in Victorian-era London, where Countess Frances Wynn, a young American-born widow, has made a fresh start in the wake of her husband’s scandalous death. As a pampered aristocrat, Frances’s skills center on flower arranging and seating charts, but when a murder takes place within England’s upper crust, she’s prepared to call on her wits—and her circle of gossipy friends—to investigate.
Readers are introduced to Frances in the first Countess of Harleigh Mystery, A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder. In the second installment, A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder, Frances becomes immersed in a shocking mystery when investigating the death of a woman whose interest in the private indiscretions of society’s elite went far beyond polite gossip. For A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Murder, the third and newest Countess of Harleigh Mystery, Frances and her cohorts have gathered at a bucolic country estate in Hampshire to prepare for her sister’s wedding. But when mysterious accidents befall guests and staff alike, Frances must flush out the culprit, or the peal of wedding bells may give way to another funeral toll.