Cover image for The duchess who wouldn't sit down : an informal history of hospitality
The duchess who wouldn't sit down : an informal history of hospitality
Browner, Jesse, 1961-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Bloomsbury, [2003]

Physical Description:
198 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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BJ2021 .B76 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
BJ2021 .B76 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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From novelist and gracious host Jesse Browner, a fascinating guide to our real motives for entertaining.

When we think of hospitality- to "give food to eat, beer to drink, grant what is requested, provide for and treat with honor"-we generally like to picture it as a simple expression of generosity. In truth, something far darker and more elemental often lurks behind a host's best intentions.

Partisan, witty, and laced with astonishing historical detail, The Duchess Who Wouldn't Sit Down is dedicated to a new understanding of the art of hospitality. Jesse Browner leads the way back through Western civilization, from a present-day poker game where Browner's devastatingly delicious sandwiches leave the best players penniless, to the ancient Greeks, whose gods punished or exalted the mortals according to their excellence as hosts. On the way, we visit Hitler at his summer home (a staunch vegetarian, he liked to lecture his guests on the horrors of the slaughterhouse); Gertrude Stein (a marvelously successful hostess) in Paris and Lady Ottoline Morrell (a dismal failure) in England; Louis XIV at Versailles (whose opulent feasts and parties were matched only by his regulation of his courtiers' behavior, controlling even who was allowed to sit down); and the Roman emperors (for whom classic dinner-table entertainment was a good poisoning).

As delightful and edifying as an evening in favored company, The Duchess Who Wouldn't Sit Down is a must-read for everyone who's ever accepted an invitation-or wonders why they keep sending them out.

Author Notes

Jesse Browner was born and lives in New York City. He is the author of two novels, Conglomeros and Turnaway , and has translated works by Cocteau, Rilke, Eluard, and others.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

When it comes to the act of entertaining, there's making do, and then there's doing more. Long held to be the epitome of no-strings selflessness, true hospitality may become an endangered ideal in an increasingly jaded culture. Viewing such cynicism from an erudite historical perspective, Browner asserts that hospitality has always been about satisfying the needs of the host versus the wants of the guest, though such self-indulgence is not meant to be pejorative. From Epicurus to Audubon, Hitler to Huxley, Browner serves up arcane references to support his hypothesis, tracing the roots of contemporary society's angst to ancient Greek rituals, for instance. Throughout, he uncovers the scholarly precepts for the conventions of polite society, citing Nero's egotistical excesses or Gertrude Stein's celebrated salons to illustrate what works and what doesn't when it comes to interpersonal interactions. Lyrically recounting a family gathering shortly after the 9/11 tragedies, Browner's impassioned eloquence and sardonic understatement present a fascinating and factual study of the fine art of being friendly. --Carol Haggas Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Like an artfully served canap?, Browner's brief exploration of hospitality may seem light, but has a rich, lingering flavor. He works backward through time, beginning with Adolf Hitler's quirky type of hospitality at his retreat, at which every guest room had a copy of Mein Kampf and French pornography books on the bedside table. From there, novelist Browner (Conglomeros; Turnaway) wanders into the realm of Gertrude Stein, John James Audubon and Louis XIV, whose court witnessed the humiliation of a duchess who wouldn't sit because she was offered a stool instead of a chair. The book also explores Rome's Julio-Claudian dynasty and the rough days of Agamemnon's army. Browner plumbs these historical periods for hospitality anecdotes and finds some pearls, proving the host-and-guest relationship has never been particularly carefree. While directing the conversation, Browner proves an excellent host himself, throwing out delicious bons mots and peppering the work with personal details. Excursions into his daughter's teddy bear teas and his own propensity for weakening his poker buddies' resolve with homemade sandwiches give the book a sense of coherence and smooth charm. By the time he devotes an entire chapter to his family's Thanksgiving dinner, it's easy to see how his analysis of hospitality through the ages has shaped the event. He writes, "When I am a good host, I can order the world precisely as I believe it ought to be." It's no effort to delight in the fact that Browner is also a good storyteller, and the way he orders the world here is an invitation worth answering. (Oct. 1) Forecast: Browner's book has the quirky appeal to land it the book review sections of culinary and travel magazines, aided by blurbs from New York restaurateur Danny Meyer and Oxford Companion to Food author Alan Davidson. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved