Enjoy this draft excerpt from the upcoming Ghastly Affair supplement “A Ghastly Companion to Castles, Mansions, and Estates”.
What follows is a brief and general overview of a day in a typical European grand house of the late 18th (or very early 19th) century. You can use it to plan the timing of dramatic events in a story, or to know where the Player Character might encounter certain NPCs. Naturally, there will be some variation in schedule from country to country, and even from house to house. The general British system of household management, for instance, differs in some particulars from the French. Also, servants in houses outside of France and England often do not have clearly-defined duties, but perform whatever work they are assigned from day to day. However, the enthusiasm among European aristocrats for all things Gallic means that the French system of servants and household management might be imitated anywhere in continental Europe (or even in Britain itself).
In general, country houses will only be occupied from late spring to early autumn, while urban mansions are inhabited from late autumn to early spring. While some families may indeed stay in a single primary residence for the entire year, the usual pattern for aristocrats is to spend the winter in town, and the summer in the country. When the family retires to another of their own residences, usually the entire staff of house servants will go with them (with the possible exception of a Manservant and / or Maid-of-all-work, who remain behind to maintain the house). Grounds servants (such as the Gardener and Gamekeeper) will generally remain on an estate all year. It is not unknown, however, for a particularly nasty family to just terminate the entire staff’s employment and hire a new staff at the residence they will be occupying. An interesting series of Affairs could consist of the mundane and supernatural troubles faced by the skeleton staff of a country estate during the long and lonely winter.
To modern eyes, a grand house of the Ghastly Age functions like a combination of small village and vacation resort. Even the houses and estates of the modern rich who have household staff usually operate in a very different manner than those of the late 18th century. For one thing, the actual family members inhabiting an 18th century grand house are usually outnumbered by the servants. Each house and estate has its own schedule of meals, legends, peculiar customs, and even uniform (livery). Indeed, many of the practices of the modern hospitality industry have their origins in French noble households. There are usually more servants living the house than family, and the spouses and children of the grounds servants will often be living in cottages on the property. It is not unknown for the same family to have been in service to an aristocratic house, and residing on the estate grounds, for many generations. Visiting guests, even unexpected ones, can expect to be kept occupied with scheduled activities and entertainments (attendance at which is not, however, always optional). Most striking to a modern mind is the practically nonexistent level of privacy, where servants may be listening and waiting outside your door even when you are engaged in the most personal and intimate acts. Or even be in the room with you…
The servants generally awaken about 5 AM. They are expected to clean and dress themselves, and begin their work. The Housemaids must open the windows (if it is summertime), clean out the fireplaces and heating stoves, and clean up from whatever the family and guests were doing the previous night. Candles, lamps, fireplaces, and stoves will be lit as needed. If guests are expected their rooms need to be prepared. Buckets of water must be brought into the house (unless there is a pump or tap in the Scullery). The Footmen will begin cleaning the artworks and expensive decorations. On a country estate, eggs and milk must be collected from the Farmyard, and herbs, fruits, and vegetables taken from the Kitchen Garden. In the city, the Housekeeper or Cook will need to obtain food from the market (or receive deliveries). The Kitchen staff will begin making breakfast for the family, guests, retainers, and house servants. The day’s bread must be baked. On the grounds, the Gardener will begin his work. The Groom and Stable Boys will feed and prepare the horses for the day, while the Coachmen clean and make the carriages ready for any trips. If there is going to be hunting that day, the Gamekeeper will set traps and lures to ensure that one or more animals will be in a convenient location later in the day. A bell may be rung early in the morning, as a warning for extramarital couples to return to their own beds (so everyone can pretend no impropriety has occurred).
If this is a laundry day, the Laundry Maids (or Scullery Maids) must begin their washing first thing in the morning. Laundering of household linens is done once a week in an English style house, but once a year in a French château (with the soiled linens stored in a large Lingerie [Linen Room]).
Breakfast for the family, guests, and retainers will be served anywhere from 7 AM to noon – generally earlier in the years before the French Revolution. It is considered déclassé for family members and guests to awaken and attempt to start their day more than an hour before breakfast – both because the servants need time to prepare the house and grounds, and because early rising implies that the person needs to work for a living (like some kind of common tradesman). It is the job of a Lady’s Maid (Femme de Chambre) or Valet to see that a fire is lit in their master or mistress’ bedchamber, wake them at the proper time, make sure warm water is brought to their room, wash and groom them, and dress them them to a presentable degree. Breakfast may be served in bed, or in a dedicated room. Even when breakfast is served in a dedicated Dining, Breakfast, or Morning Room, guests (especially female guests) can usually elect to instead take their breakfast in bed. In English practice, a breakfast not taken in bed is served on a sideboard, and guests are expected to help themselves (or be served by their own servants). Already in the Ghastly Age, English breakfasts are a substantial mix of meats, cooked vegetables, eggs, and breads – while in France, petite dejeuner (breakfast) might be nothing more than a pastry and a hot cup of chocolate. Women who attend breakfast wear a morning dress (much simpler and more covering than evening wear), and are not expected to be fully made-up, or have their hair done. They just need to look reasonably presentable.
Retainers (such as the Governess, Estate Manager, and possibly a live-in Mistress) may breakfast with the family, or separately. While the family, guests, and retainers are occupied with breakfast, all the chamber pots will be emptied. Female guests and family members may attend to the remainder of their toilette (which is often stretched out to occupy up to two hours) after breakfast, or delay it until the hours before dinner. The Governess, however, must begin giving lessons to the children. The servants will then have their own breakfast in the Servant’s Hall (or Salle Commune). If luncheon is going to be served, the Kitchen Staff must begin preparing it as soon as the servants have finished eating breakfast. Whether or not luncheon is served, the Kitchen must also begin work on the longest-cooked dishes for the house’s dinner. Cookies and pastries may be placed in the boudoirs of the house, ready to be eaten by any ladies who plan later in the day to storm off in tears and pout over some trifle – an antic that eighteenth century men often considered irresistibly attractive.
Any entertainments or activities scheduled for the morning will be those that require the most daylight – shooting, touring the gardens, or setting out to visit a local site of picturesque beauty. Any hunting expedition will begin after breakfast (and will basically consist of dressing up in special hunting outfits, riding out to the spot where the Gamekeeper has previously lured one or more animals, and killing them). Most of the sport in aristocratic hunting actually consists of riding horses through rough terrain. Women who don’t join in activities with the men may tend a personal flower garden, draw, or embroider together. In the city, aristocrats will often promenade until the afternoon along a tree-lined avenue, or in specially dedicated public gardens. If the master of an estate takes an interest in it’s agricultural produce, he will attend to the Farmyard after breakfast. Lady’s Maids and Valets will usually accompany their mistresses and masters on any excursion outside the house. In particular, a man’s Valet will be expected to load and hold his guns during any shooting or hunting session.
Before the afternoon the Housemaids must prepare a Drawing Room or Salon so the mistress of the house can be ready to formally receive any important travelers who might arrive unannounced.
Tables for determining the circumstances of breakfast, and the morning’s activities, will be found in “A Ghastly Companion to Castles, Mansions, and Estates”.
Luncheon (dejeuner) is not always served in they years before the French Revolution, because dinner was often in the afternoon. After the Revolution it becomes more common to serve a luncheon between noon and 2 PM. Such a Luncheon may take the form of a picnic on the lawn, or an alfresco meal in a garden. Oysters are a popular luncheon choice, when they are available.
Often, ladies will still be déshabillé (only half-dressed) at luncheon, and will probably not have their hair fully dressed in any event. Afternoon activities in general will be similar to morning ones, or even just the continuation of the morning’s entertainments. In fact, if there is going to be a formal dinner the women will usually spend the remaining hours leisurely dressing for it, and having their hair and makeup carefully done while a retainer or servant reads from a book, or a plays music for them. Male guests might be invited to attend the later part of such a long toilette, or continue with their hunting or lawn sports.
Any new visitors to a country estate will usually arrive early in the afternoon, since they will probably have spent the previous night in a coaching inn and set out in the morning. As guests arrive the Porters must bring their luggage to their assigned rooms, the Stable Boys and Postilions must stable the carriage’s horses (with the carriage being brought into the carriage house). The visitors’ Coachmen, Footmen, and Pages will be quartered with the houses’ servants. A Lady’s Maid or Valet may sometimes be given a small room adjoining the one assigned to their mistress or master. Any visiting Retainers will be treated as guests, but their bedchambers will be the least grand ones.
At this time, the Kitchen Staff must begin dinner. The house servants may have their dinner in the afternoon before the family, or simply eat the leftovers of the family’s dinner later on. Either way, servants will usually only only have two actual meals in the course of the day.
Tables for determining the circumstances of luncheon, and the activities scheduled after it, will be found in “A Ghastly Companion to Castles, Mansions, and Estates”.
All family members and guests will be expected to be fully dressed in formal evening wear for dinner. The time of dinner could be as early as 2 PM in the late 18th century, but after the French Revolution it becomes fashionable to eat dinner much later, around 6 PM. Whatever time it is served, dinner is the most elaborate meal of the day, consisting or three or four “stages” (or courses) of up to twenty dishes each. It is presided over by the Butler (or Maître d’Hôtel), with the dishes delivered to the table (and cleared away) by Footmen. The servants of visiting guests will stand behind the chairs of their masters and mistresses at dinner, to serve them the dishes they desire from the selection offered. In France, it is usual for the master of the house to personally pour the dinner’s best wine for his guests, and dinner will be punctuated by several ritualized toasts. After dinner, women and men retire to separate rooms to relieve themselves. Often, the men remain in the Dining Room, because chamber pots for their use will be located there (usually hidden behind a panel). After the first retiring, the company may either be expected to reassemble together in a Drawing Room, or retire again to separate rooms according to their gender. Coffee, chocolate, or tea will be served, and the evening’s activities commence. Meanwhile, whatever leftovers cannot be converted into breakfast dishes (or sold) will usually be eaten by the servants. In a French-style household, the higher ranked servants (Maître d’Hôtel, Femmes de Chambre and Valets de Chambre) will get first pick of the leftovers (and eat in the Office [Butlery] where the fine serving ware is kept), while the remainder is left for the rest of the house staff in the Salle Commune. The Kitchen Staff must then begin preparations for the night’s supper at least two hours before it is to be served, while the Housemaids mend curtains and linens in the Sewing Room while daylight remains.
Often the hours between dinner and supper will be occupied by playing cards and board games (especially chess and backgammon). If there is to be a ball or dancing, the guests will assemble in the ball room (or embark for the city’s Assembly Rooms) after dinner and coffee. In an urban mansion, people will leave to attend the opera or theater after dinner. Even if a dance is being held at the house, there will always be people not actually dancing, but playing games and conversing on the side. Guessing games such as charades (the eighteenth century version is very different from the modern one) and “proverbs” are popular. In many houses there will be amateur dramatics and musical performances, in which guests may be expected to play a role. Whether all the household retainers take part in the same evening activities as the guests will vary according to the customs of the house. Meanwhile, the Housemaids will be emptying the chamber pots used after dinner, and the dining room will be cleaned. They will also draw the house curtains, close any open windows, and make sure every bedchamber is ready for its assigned occupant.
Tables for determining the circumstances of dinner, and the activities scheduled after it, will be found in “A Ghastly Companion to Castles, Mansions, and Estates”.
The final meal of the day is supper, which can be served anywhere from 8 PM to midnight. In fact, if a dance or ball is being held, it might conclude with a supper as late as 1 or 2 AM! Conversation is often the favored activity for the hours between supper and bed, but card and board games are also usual. It is likely that the Governess will retire to her bedchamber after supper, to prepare the next day’s lessons (and perhaps write in her journal as she ruminates sorrowfully on her impossible love for a member of the household). Guests might read to each other, or listen to the Reader specially employed for that purpose. New and interesting drugs (like nitrous oxide) might be indulged in. Events after supper will in any case be more relaxed than at other times. Naturally, any licentious activities will also usually commence at night. Unless the explicit purpose of the gathering was carnal indulgence, propriety demands that guests keep such matters discreet, and be back in their proper assigned beds before breakfast. Finally, the Estate Manager, Butler, or Maître d’Hôtel will lock up the house for the night, while any Guards (or Porters doubling as Guards) keep watch for intruders.
Remember that before the late 19th century is was usual to sleep for a few hours, wake up for a time, and sleep again until morning. People spent the time in-between their two sleeps reading (if they could), talking, doing light chores (if not aristocrats), or having sex. The period of night wakefulness is also the time when guests (or new servants) in haunted houses will probably first notice any spectral activity!
Tables for determining the circumstances of supper, and the activities scheduled before bedtime, will be found in “A Ghastly Companion to Castles, Mansions, and Estates”.
Naturally, the typical day’s schedule may be disrupted by special events like weddings or all-day regattas, but generally the rhythm of the day is set by the time required for the servants to perform their myriad tasks. It will be noted that aristocratic life (like the architecture of a grand house) is about indulgence and splendor, not efficiency. The toilette can last for hours not because it needs to, but because a lady has the time to turn the process of getting dressed into a leisurely indulgence. Aristocrats hunt in a ritualized and ostentatious manner that should prevent them from actually encountering any prey, if they didn’t employ Gamekeepers to ensure that animals will always be placed in the path of their hunting parties. A servant’s life, on the other hand, is generally busy from morning to night, with a perhaps a half-day off on Sundays.