for writers and readers….
Mrs Finnegan housekeeper at The Regency Town House was invited to dinner last Saturday by Master Peregrine, the riding master (retired) residing at Number 61 Brunswick Square. She may have mentioned it once or twice.
An auspicious day as Spring had SPRUNG and the sun shined. Saturday was also the anniversary of the day I first set foot in Brunswick Square and put plume to paper. O happy day!
But how to tell you about Saturday….? I think all I can do is tell you BIT BY BIT as it happened.
I woke to a bright spring morning which matched my mood with EXTRAORDINARY precision. How to describe it? Dust motes waltzed in the primrose light and in the air there was a scent of….It’s no good I cannot write as the Romantics do.
Yes, it was bright and so was I. And yes, the sunlight showed up the dust on the window sills. The smell was not the kind of scent you dab behind your EARS. It was what you would expect at the start of a working day: salt from the sea, HORSE DUNG from the stables, soot from the grates and wet dog (from a wet dog next door). Above it all, just enough to make your nose twitch, the unmistakable odour of two day old bread being toasted to a clean, crisp charcoal – that came from the kitchen at Number 59. The housekeeping over there leaves A LOT to be desired.
Master Peregrine and I were due to dine at 5 O’ CLOCK. How to fill my hours until then? I have a SUPERSTITION – perhaps you share it – that if I PICTURE a calamity happening it will NOT occur, almost as if the imagining gives some kind of protection.
So, in my mind the FOLLOWING SCENES played out:
SAFE from such tragedies, I could get on with the rest of my day which included yet more demands from the lady presently lodging at Number 60 (with the D’Arthurs, the French mother and son). She is soon to be the live-in governess for a child we do not have (I wonder if I will need to BORROW ONE) because…
Oh, I can’t go into all that now. If you are interested in gossip you can catch up HERE.
Anyway, that young lady is worried about HER BED. She requires two chaff mattresses at the bottom, two mattresses filled with flock in the middle and on TOP of that two mattresses filled with feathers. That’s as good as my bed! (And better than my bed is supposed to be if I followed the Mistress’ decrees to the exact letter. I take her rules as GUIDANCE.)
(On the question of mattresses, I am aware that many ladies of good breeding follow this column, and you may not be aware of the EXACT NATURE of that upon which you sleep because of never having to probe deeper than the sheets.
Let me explain. Even in the finest homes, the bottom-most mattress is straw or chaff. Chaff is FINELY CHOPPED straw. Next comes one or two flock-filled mattresses. Flock is finely chopped wool fibres. Next one or two mattresses filled with feathers and in the wealthiest homes, the final layer would be a mattress filled with WONDERFULLY SOFT down. The Mistress has two down mattresses on her bed, or she will have when I put them back.)
This might have put me IN A MOOD but nothing could sully such a Spring Saturday, made all the better by the constant toing and froing at Number 61. The BUTCHER BOY was kept busy. He carried a tray of good things on his head, but even by standing on the table I couldn’t quite make out exactly what. Very soon Master Peregrine began to send over short messages:
Would I try some marinated whiting?
Did I have any objection to cauliflower, mushrooms or cardoons?
I did not
Did I like oysters, perch and pears?
Oh, yes. Very much.
TWO O’ Clock came and went. What to do with THREE HOURS before dinner? Well, of course, one of the things I could do was eat. No lady should go hungry to a dinner party. It’s in my guide. WHAT! You haven’t had your copy yet? Please click HERE with all due HASTE.
Many books have been written about giving a dinner party, but NONE on taking one. Read HOW TO BE A GUEST. It contains MUCH VALUABLE information such as the minimum amount of time you have to stay AFTER dinner, the danger to look out for when being seated at table and my RADICAL IDEA involving napkins. There is no cost. NO CHARGE. It is free as the salt breeze. So pick up your copy now. HERE. Thank you.
THREE O’ Clock a knock on my door. It is herself, the lady who may or may not be in a delicate condition that may or may not have SOMETHING TO DO with the eldest son of MY household. Did she want to move in now? Start governing the non-existent child? Horrors! Had she SUDDENLY thought of down mattresses?
The picture below shows how she looked on my doorstep, as if she was once startled by an owl and as a consequence the world no longer holds any TERRORS for her. But when she spoke there was little of the defiance that I believe burns inside.
She wanted to know if the notes she had sent were satisfactory and if I needed more. Madam D’Arthur TOLD HER that I required detailed instructions on every area of life, but she was at a loss to know what else to write. Madam D’Arthur had been very kind and DICTATED the first two letters, but did I truly want to know the exact temperature of the water for morning ablutions?(Madam D’Arthur suggested a little warmer than the blood but not so warm as would wilt a lily in five minutes).
I SEE Madam’s game. She wants to HOLD ON to her lodger for as long as she can. Better still, she hopes to RILE me so that I dismiss the poor girl before she starts. I sent the young lady away greatly reassured with a broad smile upon her face which should wipe the one off Madam D’Arthur’s. The new governess will be moving in at the end of the week by which time I shall have thought what to do with her.
FOUR O’clock. I am dressing. The older I get the longer it takes for me to decide I don’t like what I am wearing.
Half past the hour. Another message arrives from Number 61. The conversation tube is TOO SHORT. Did I have any objection to us SHOUTING at each other?
I race across the Square for I had absolutely no idea what he was about. Gentle reader, I may have MENTIONED IN THE PAST that Master Peregrine has been mightily worried about the contagion, keeping to his room since the summer. I thought this dinner was to be his first tentative step back into a more social way of living – at a distance of course. But no.
It turned out that Master Peregrine planned to dine in the bay window of his dining room while I would dine off a table set up in the basement courtyard directly below. (That is his description, any servant calls it the AREA. A lot of work goes on down there. It is where coal and wood and all manner of things are stored beneath the pavement.)
I have sketched the scene so you can picture what he meant. (Forgive the POOR DRAUGHTMANSHIP, my hand was shaking a little as I drew.) I do not have the skill to include the stable boys hanging off the railings and jeering. Nor have I drawn the gentry walking past who would stop and stare and then move on quickly, sure to tell the next couple they met. Or yet the other housekeepers in the Square and the butlers and footmen, parlour maids and kitchen girls who would have laughed to see such a sight.
I imagine that Madam D’Arthur would be the last to join the throng. Pretending to have been disturbed by the crowd – and oh yes, it would have amounted to a crowd – she would emerge from next door with her scraps of antique rabbit fur around her neck and sniffed.
Dear reader, what would you have done? Would you have eaten in the Area?
Master Peregrine still thought it a splendid idea. I explained it was impossible. This was not easy for, although I was inside Number 61, I was standing in the hall and he was on the first floor. It is so very hard to be tactful in a VERY LOUD voice.
But even from that distance I saw the very moment his face BROKE as understanding flooded his being. I felt such sorrow for him – nearly as much as I pitied myself – for a HEADY MIX of kitchen smells were seeping up through the floorboards at the same time. He had gone to the expense of hiring a cook for the occasion.
On the hall table was the menu
Followed by tempting titbits from
A fricassee of calves tongues, with cauliflowers
Fillets of whitings marinaded, and fry’d with parsley
Eggs a la Provincial, with cullis
Perch in the Dutch Fashion
And then the main course
Roast Leg of Mutton stuffed with Oysters ( Master Peregrine would have carved that himself)
Fricassee of Mushrooms
Cardoons with Piquant sauce
Pears in the Portuguese Fashion
Macaroons with Cream
Nuts and fruits
Pistachio ice cream
I wanted to discover the Dutch way of cooking perch and the mutton sounded a delight. But readers, pistachio ice cream…I have ALWAYS wanted to taste pistachio ice cream.
And so we parted. He agreed that we would be ridiculed. In truth, I think he rather more than me. After all, he was dining with a mere housekeeper.
I came back to my little room. Somehow it had shrunk while I was away. The walls had lost their colour and spring had gone from The Square.
There was another knock on the door. I was tempted to ignore it. Or to dismiss the caller with a flick of my hand. But no, that would not do. I COULD be Mrs Finnegan on the morrow, but last Saturday night I was a different kind of woman.
I opened the door to a rough looking stable boy with bright eyes. He was clutching an almost empty bowl and a tray. White soup was trickling down his leg. On the tray was pink slices of mutton jumbling alongside morsels of perch and calf tongue.
It was a kind thought.
There was no pistachio ice cream.
Mrs Finnegan is the creation of Bridget Whelan and Paul Couchman, The Regency Cook who devised the menu for the feast that Mrs Finnegan SHOULD have had, but didn’t.
And if you think you might be invited to a dinner party yourself any time in the future click HERE for your copy of How To Be A Guest. Mrs Finnegan thinks you may need it.
SHE WILL BE REPLYING TO READERS’ LETTERS NEXT WEEK AND THE WEEK AFTER AND THE WEEK AFTER THAT…