At Home in the U.K. - 2005-05-01(2)

South Wales

The Dinner Party

On a journey in Wales, Elizabeth West takes a page from Jane Austen

It was darkening in the Vale of Glamorgan as the shadows chased our coach down the drive of Fonmon Castle. With its thick, ivy-swamped walls and a turreted rooftop clearly constructed to keep outsiders at bay, the castle was an enigma of elegance and wariness: part Georgian manor, part Norman stronghold, built in the days of conquest. Its surrounding gardens, whose untrammeled beauty could not be hidden by the cloak of night, beckoned our approach.

Suddenly, a frisson of anticipation overcame me as the castle door was flung wide. A hush fell over our group as we were ushered down a slightly drafty corridor and into the presence of our host, Sir Brooke Boothby. From his surroundings of ancestral portraits and objets d'art, it was clear that Sir Brooke's lineage was long and distinguished; in fact, Sir Brooke is the namesake of the celebrated Regency poet and acquaintance of Rousseau, Brooke Boothby of Derbyshire (1743-1824). The portrait of that baronet by Joseph Wright (1743-97) is a treasure of the Tate; and Sir Brooke's sonnet, "On Life" (1796), written on the death of his daughter, appears to contain the first instance of the phrase, "the dreamer and the dream."

The present Sir Brooke is a seasoned host; his broad smile and boisterous laughter, echoing through the maze of thick tapestries and Georgian decor as we arrived at the dining hall, put us at ease. Not so the formally laid table, which—adorned with sumptuous china, dramatic candelabras, and even family heirlooms that once graced the table of Sir Brooke's ancestors—was more accustomed to hosting the ladies and gentlemen of society. As a reassuring aroma wafted in from the kitchen, our party was soon regaled with a procession of succulent comestibles. Sitting down to our meal, the gentle timpani of silver on crystal soon commenced, interspersed with the tinkling of polite conversation. But as I brandished an ornate spoon to dispatch with the first course, I hesitated . . .

Does a lady just dive into her soup? Unaccustomed to the protocol, I determined to err on the side of caution. Loosening my viselike grip on the utensil, I gingerly retreated from my meal and concentrated, instead, on my dining companions.

Sir Brooke was surely the center of attention. He peppered the evening with his opinions about Wales' current developments, like the new Wales Millennium Centre, a $180-million performing arts center that dominates the city's massive Cardiff Bay development; the recently opened 160-room Holland House Hotel, and the 129-room Park Plaza Hotel—and did not neglect mentioning that Fonmon is frequently used as an event venue.

The group eagerly gobbled up Sir Brooke's family anecdotes, historical trivia, and the gregarious manner in which he opened a window onto a slice of Welsh history, along with dinner.

Suddenly, dropping my gaze to my plate, I realized to my dismay that, in my effort to seem "ladylike," I had forgotten to eat.

No wonder ladies used to faint so often.