Published 3rd November 2022
Hostess by Constance Spry & Rosemary Hume, 1961
'This is surely the book for which anxious hostesses of every age have been longing.'
The coming months are considered some of the most social of the year. This never seems to be the case for me. That being said, the last two years have been drenched in the shadow of covid, so you, like me, might need to brush up on your hosting skills for the upcoming Christmas period. Who better to look to than the iconic florist Constance Spry. She released 'Hostess' in 1961 for the 'new generation of hosts'. Although the new generation of hosts might be a little older and wiser now, we could all do with a fine-tuning on etiquette, flower arrangements and any other morsels of wisdom that Mrs Spry might be willing to share with us.
The book consists of nine chapters, and I thought it best to pick my favourite and what I deem the most valuable tips. This is part one.
Some Aspects of Hospitality -
In the first chapter, Constance gently opens us up to the world of hosting, knowing that many of us will not have seen how a proper house will run. Although many things have changed since this book came out (the lack of help in our houses is a crying shame, but we struggle on), Constance's foundation for a good host still holds today.
"The very meaning of the word 'hospitable' implies a disposition to welcome all guests, and indeed all comers with generosity and warmth; based in temperament and personality, it is, in part, the gift of putting the highest degree of attention to your guests before all personal considerations/ If you can succeed in making the shy, the different, the unsuccessful, the plain and the badly dressed, all of them happy at ease, then you have been kind, clever and imaginative and you are likely to acquire warm and happy friendships."
Entertaining at Home
This chapter starts off by saying that however rich one might be, a luncheon not in the home can feel impersonal, 'I suppose all the best parties really are those given at home'. She suggests dishes for first, main and pudding, 'You may be able to find and to enjoy the luxury of fine smoked Parma ham on special occasions'. Once through suggestions on food, she follows by helping us with the table plan, something I always need assistance with.
"I should say now that the order suggested here is the usual one followed at home; protocol for banquets is another matter and beyond the scope of this book. On his right, the host has the woman of most importance; the woman next importance sits on his left, and usually the same pattern is followed by the hostess with regard to the men. Importance, a horrid word, may be a matter of rank, attainment or merely age, but it must be given due respect."
The takeaway from this is the minimal amount of time I have spent on the host's right. It will now be a seat I beadily eye when circling the dining table.
In this chapter, Constance says she finds the whole subject of etiquette too tricky to tackle as it's 'all too easy to become unconsciously funny about it.' Still, she kindly helps us with a vital hosting skill - introductions!
''Without being embarrassing, you can give a clue which will oil the wheels of conversation so much the better. An uncommon example of this happened to me at a dinner party. There was a preponderance of women, and a rather silent little old lady sat on one side of me. Suddenly a footman laid a note in front of me bearing this laconic message from my host: 'Dear C., the lady next to you is interested in goats.' Mercifully I kept an entirely impassive countenance under the impact of surprise, and I cannot remember how I got round to the subject of goats, but I did. After a bit, I discovered that this really fine old lady gave up her whole time and income to keeping herds of goats in a remote part of Ireland for the benefit of the poorest families and especially for undernourished children. And of course, when she came out of her shell of shyness, she was full of interesting and funny stories too."
She ends this chapter by reminding us to "beware of talking too much about yourself and of what you think and do" and that interruptions "come from people who, I believe, feel they may be thought insignificant if their voices are not heard at frequent intervals". Noted Constance, very much noted.
Some Principles of Flower Decoration for Various Occasions
As this is what she's best known for, you can only imagine how hard it must be to keep to one chapter. So I will try and sift through and find those magic tips straight from the horse's mouth -
"Given a choice between a limited number of greenhouse roses or carnations or similar flowers and a larger quantity of garden flowers, I should choose the latter for their purely decorative potentialities"
"For a party, one chooses for effect rather than for sentiment."
"To some people, it is still a matter for comment and surprise to find what really dramatic effects are to be achieved by the good use of the simplest flowers. As I have written in Favourite Flowers, for one of the most exciting parties before the war in a big London hotel, we used cow parsley from the hedgerows and simple marguerites. The delicate lace-like effect, thrown into relief by effective spotlights, was considered beautiful."
"Steer clear of affectation and any form of stylizing that leads to the mangling of flowers; bear in mind the object of arranging flowers, which for most of us is the adornment of our homes, and never, never by funny with flowers."
Stay tuned for the next instalment when I pick through the second half of 'Host' by Constance Spry. We will tackle house guests, tablecloths and the best tipple to serve your lucky guests!