The Reluctant Hostess by Ethelind Fearon

Reviewed by Simon

reluctant hostess (521x800)I have a definite weakness for spoof etiquette guides and the like – such as Bed Manners, reviewed in the third issue of Shiny New Books – and I leapt at the opportunity to review Vintage Books’ reprint of Fearon’s 1954 book The Reluctant Hostess. I was especially drawn in by the jolly striped cover, and the image of an impossibly thin woman dancing through life carrying a tray of cocktails.

How quickly did I realise that it wasn’t actually supposed to be a spoof? Well, it took me a while.

That’s not to say that Fearon is straight-faced. She is anything but, and her opening section on ‘The Theory and Practice of Entertaining’ is, indeed, very entertaining, from the opening sentence onwards (‘In the Stone Age people lives in their own caves, stalked their own food – a fair contest between man and beast with no holds barred – and ate it themselves, habits with much to recommend them.’)

But by the second section, Fearon has moved onto practical manners. The witty tone is retained, but it is clear that this is no ridiculing of the attempt to be a domestic goddess. It’s more a case of making sure the reader knows how to be a domestic goddess, since society has determined that such is required. And that is when things become more amusing for a modern audience, perhaps not quite in the way that Fearon intended.

There is plenty of sound advice, about when to serve food, looking after visitors, how to maintain your coconut matting (this is a constant concern for all of us, I’m sure). I’m a sucker for parlour games, so I enjoyed reading about these, and tips for the unexpected guest are just as apt as ever. As I say, it’s all delivered with tongue-in-cheek, even if the advice is still intended to be taken:

And see that the light is suitable both for the dressing-table and reading in bed. If not, move either or both of them. You can’t move the light, and there is nothing more exasperating to a guest than being unable to see (a) her nose, and (b) her book, however unworthy of regard either of them may actually be.

But when she turns her attention to food… Well, it makes me glad not to have been attending dinner parties in the 1950s. Some of our older readers may recall these – and, please, let us know in the comments if you have sampled anything along these lines:

Curried dates are stuffed with a mixture of cream cheese, mayonnaise, or sandwich spread, grated cheese or anything white that comes handy mashed with a little lemon juice and enough curry powder to be interesting but not enough to make the victim yell.

‘Anything white’? Can you just fling in some emulsion, and hope for the best? It could scarcely be worse than curry powder and mayonnaise in a date… and, indeed, might have much the same nutritional value. But it gets worse. How revolting does this sound?

A candle salad is a ring of pineapple with a peeled banana (dipped in lemon juice to prevent discolouration) stuck in the hole, surrounded by lettuce, mayonnaise, and cubed ham, with radish ‘fuchsias’ for a garnish. It looks party-ish and tastes very festive too.

It’s good to know that people didn’t have to wait until the 1970s to discover the full delightful possibilities of the pineapple. Perhaps, in a world where memories of rationing were only just beginning to dim (and, I believe, still existed for some commodities?), the new-found freedom with food was so exciting that any combination was a welcome opportunity?

So, while you may not leap at The Reluctant Hostess as your go-to guide next time you’re hosting a dinner party, I think it’ll be extremely amusing for any modern-day reader – both intentionally and unintentionally on Fearon’s part. Since she is not being unduly serious in her style, I don’t feel bad being amused by those moments when she doesn’t realise how silly her advice will come to sound (for, which of us has not been tempted to decorate a sardine ‘cocktail snippet’ with an egg and leek flower?) I could perhaps have done without the list of cocktail recipes, which are fairly unalleviated with humour, but the rest rather delighted me.

So, anybody for a curried date?

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Simon is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Ethelind Fearon, The Reluctant Hostess (London, Vintage, 2015), 978-178487030, 129pp., hardback.

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