Fantasy Dinner Party Part 1

Our leading journalists host a motley crew of characters from the past and present, while cartoonist Michael Heath draws the selfies

By Madeline Grant

July 5 2023

Jane Austen strides into the room clutching a bottle of Madeira and a sponge cake (after all, the OED credits her with coining the term). Aside from her literary exploits, I’ve long suspected that Austen was a lot more fun than people give her credit for. “I believe I drank too much wine last night,” she once wrote to her sister Cassandra. “I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand today.” We’ve all been there, Jane.

Next to arrive is the funniest man ever, Rik Mayall, who, like Austen, was cruelly snatched away from us long before his time – and who had, I suspect, much more joy and chaos to bring. He doesn’t arrive empty-handed either; though in lieu of booze, being unable to drink alcohol since a debilitating quad-biking accident, he brings an ironically signed photograph of himself.

Restoration playboy Prince Rupert of the Rhine swaggers in, immaculately dressed and clutching Boy, his white hunting poodle, to mop up any scraps. Rupert fails to bring a gift, but we can forgive this as he’s been up to important work gambling and chasing Puritans.

Next we have everyone’s favourite gap-toothed purveyor of innuendo – Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who I include because although technically a work of fiction, she’s described in such vivid detail that she could only have been a real person. Favouring quantity over quality, she brings a barrel of mead; this is Medieval England’s answer to an oversized bottle of Lambrini.

Madeline Grant’s fantasy dinner guests include Princess Margaret and comedian Rik Mayall
Madeline Grant’s fantasy dinner guests include Princess Margaret and comedian Rik Mayall

I desperately want to invite a gorgeous, booze-soaked young Princess Margaret, though this could be excruciating, given the size and shabbiness of my flat. Margaret was famed for her waspish insults, especially during dinner. “That looks like sick,” she sneered on a visit to Matlock, where a dish of Coronation Chicken had been prepared in her honour. My solution is to invite the handsomest man in history, Cary Grant, and seat him next to Margaret. Hopefully now she’ll be less scornful of my Ikea kitchen cabinets and John Lewis towels.

Given the differences in historical eras,I’d major in classic British fare – nothing too fancy or modern that might alienate older palettes. In a nod to Margaret’s mother and to make sure there’s at least one course she’ll eat, I’d start with Eggs Drumkilbo – lobster and egg encased in a sherry jelly, paired with champagne, followed by Beef Wellington served with buckets of fine claret. For dessert, my favourite pudding in the entire world – Boisdale sticky toffee. The cheese-board has a selection of soft and hard French and English cheeses from Partridge’s. Accompanying this, a choice of dessert wine, port, and, for Margaret, enough whisky and sodas to keep the Royal Yacht Britannia afloat for months.

After dinner we’d withdraw for a spot of music. (For the purposes of tonight, I’ve converted my bedroom into a music room, complete with comfy chairs and a piano.) Margaret would perform a rendition of cabaret songs and Jane would lead some country dances. Rik Mayall would regale us with raucous jokes; topped off by vulgar anecdotes from the Wife of Bath. Cary Grant, who swore by LSD, would whip out a few tabs of acid and proffer them around.

And what of the aftermath? Prince Rupert famously enjoyed a working-class wench (his long-term mistress was a Drury Lane actress called Peg) so I suspect the Wife of Bath would end the night back at his place, in search of husband number six. Margaret would stay well past 4am, necessitating several runs to the 24-hour ‘offy’ for emergency cigarettes, and complain if anyone tried to leave before her. The next morning Jane Austen would write a shaky-handed yet withering letter to Cassandra recording the whole evening – and one day Princess Margaret would be immortalised in fiction as Caroline Bingley.

Madeline Grant is columnist and Parliamentary Sketch writer for The Telegraph