Jackie Capita began her college career as a premed student, but after her first semester as a neuroscience major, she realized it wasn’t a fit. “That was one of the hardest semesters I ever went through,” she said. “I wasn’t passionate about it.”
Capita realized that many of her goals could be achieved with a degree in history, a subject she was passionate about. She reached out to several departments for more information, which relieved her fear that a humanities degree would be impractical. “There are so many more ways to help people than to be a doctor,” Capita said. “And passion means so much more than just making money.”
She went abroad to study theater, literature, and history in Rome, Athens, London, and Bath. Currently a Take Five Scholar, Capita is exploring Neo-French philosophy and its influence on the modern sociopolitical environment in France.
During her immersive senior thesis, Capita homed in on the Victorian dinner party.
Capita’s inspiration to pursue this topic came when she least expected it: on a trip to Toronto with her boyfriend. “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management,” an extensive Victorian-era guide to hosting a dinner party, caught her eye at The Monkey’s Paw, an antiquarian shop. She was captivated by the elaborate details and how the guidelines shifted within the era itself. “People always view the Victorian era as static,” Capita said, “but you definitely see the evolution of how things change.”
The dinner party showcased wealth and social standing for the extremely status-conscious Victorians. It was also an opportunity for social mobility, as the Industrial Revolution undermined the strict social hierarchy of the 17th century. Wealth became attainable through business rather than family. Grand gestures of wealth became integral to middle class families vying to improve their social status. “The dinner party served as an immense tool to ascend to those higher circles,” Capita said. “You see social mobility on steroids.”
From the invitations to the food, every detail directly reflected upon the host. These events would go on for several hours, including a prolonged greeting ritual and meals with up to ten courses. Demonstrating lavishness and social refinement was essential. “Everything was elaborate, everything was grandiose, everything was expensive,” Capita said.
Atmosphere was crucial. For example, rectangular tables were discouraged in favor of round, oblong tables to better facilitate conversation. “Everything is about discretion,” Capita said. “Everyone should feel at ease.”
For Capita, the dinner party serves as a fascinating case study of Victorian society. It reflects the materialistic values and social ambitions of the time period. She compares the Victorian displays of extravagance to modern-day expensive cars and luxury brands. “It’s a status symbol. It costs a lot of money, and people know how much it costs,” she said. “Money is still a very important part of how people identify themselves.”
Much like planning and executing a Victorian dinner party, writing up her thesis was laborious and time-consuming. “It was like producing a baby. It was my pride and joy,” Capita said. “I poured my heart and soul into those 60 pages.”
Yet, this project only skimmed the surface of social rituals and dynamics during the Victorian era. “There was so much I was unable to touch, and I want to revisit it.” Capita said.
Capita hopes to do a Fulbright masters and then a PhD in Victorian studies. Though she has found her focus, she maintains an appreciation for the broad education she received in the history and English departments at UR. “It was really eye-opening for me,” she said. “The humanities have taught me how to be human.”