Lauren here! In the beforetimes of January 2020, I travelled to Bath, England to study literature.
Why Bath? Because Jane Austen lived there for three years while working on her first novel(s), The Watsons (unfinished) and Susan (which later became Northanger Abbey), and what is more romantic than reading Austen in the very city where she started writing?
I read a ton while abroad, but to be honest, I spent most of my time going out. I was a huge party animal back in those days! Not for clubs though - for cafes and tea parties, of course!
Visiting Bath taught me a lot about literature and tea, and with vaccinations on the rise in the US, I look forward to attending & hosting some tea parties myself in the near future.
For now, I’m going to take you on a tour of 19th century tea culture in Great Britain, according to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens:
- The role of tea for social standing in the world of Pride and Prejudice
- Which scene in Pride & Prejudice is the best example of tea culture?
- Tea and the great class divide with Great Expectations
- Which scene in Great Expectations is the best example of tea and class in 1800s London?
This is the third installment in our Steep and Stream series. For some book and tea pairings, check out “5 Best Tea + Book Combos: Thrillers, Comedy, Classics and More!”, and for some book and tv pairings check out “Steep & Stream: Best 10 Teas for Binging 6 Must-See Netflix Shows”!
The role of tea for social standing in the world of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen pairs well with tea. And her characters drink a lot of it! There are 16 references to tea in Sense and Sensibility, 15 in Pride and Prejudice, 31 in Mansfield Park, 27 in Emma, 12 in Northanger Abbey, and 2 in Persuasion (Prince).
Why so much tea? We know from Austen’s letters to her elder sister Cassandra, that the writer loved tea. In one letter, she writes “Let me know when you begin with the new Tea...My present Elegancies have not yet made me indifferent to such Matters. I am still a cat if I see a Mouse” (Martyris, 2017).
According to Kim Wilson’s 2011 book Tea with Jane Austen, Jane kept the Austen family tea under lock and key to prevent servants from pilfering and bought and prepared tea herself (Wilson). In the Regency era, good tea was so expensive and valuable that aristocratic families often didn’t trust their cooks and maids to handle it, preferring to trust a poor relative instead (Martyris, 2017). You probably feel the same way about your MatchaAlternatives tea I expect. ;-)
This practice may seem extreme, but it makes sense when you consider the importance of cafes and tea parties to the Regency social structure. In letters to her sister Cassandra, Austen describes tea as a social lubricant, the perfect accompaniment to turn any dull affair into a captivating social performance (Prince).
At the time, cafes were exclusive to men. London bachelors treated cafes like raucous daytime bars where young men made business connections and discussed philosophy. In a very real way, coffee, tea, and sugar fueled Enlightenment philosophy.
Tea parties in the home, on the other hand, were co-ed events for families to socialize, share stories, and of course, arrange marriages.
This is not to minimize the importance of tea parties. On the contrary, these tea parties were complex rituals that evolved to support the marriage institution.
Tea was served early in the evening between dinner and late night activities like dancing and cards. Tea was also served as a refreshment at aristocratic balls where gentlemen might escort young ladies to the tea-room for some alone time together (Martyris, 2017). In a society where interactions between the sexes were rare and very scripted, these brief moments could make or break a potential marriage. (Sound like Bridgerton, anyone?)
A Scene-ic Look at Tea in Pride and Prejudice
The romantic and economic tensions of the regency tea party are on full display in my favorite Austen tea party, the tea at Longbourn at the climax of Pride and Prejudice.
The relationship dynamics at this point in the narrative are messy. Lydia Bennet and Mr Whickham just eloped and are blissfully unaware of just how much everyone disapproves of their relationship.
Unbeknownst to all but Elizabeth Bennet, Mr Darcy has agreed to pay Mr. Whickham a yearly salary to keep the Bennets from ruin, blaming himself for not exposing the soldier as a liar and a scoundrel. All the while, Elizabeth is finally realizing she loves Mr. Darcy after refusing his proposal earlier in the novel.
Elizabeth desperately wants to speak to Mr Darcy, to thank him for saving her family’s reputation and to reconcile her feelings, however, the other women present refuse to give her the chance:
“The gentlemen came; and she thought he looked as if he would have answered her hopes; but, alas! The ladies had crowded round the table, where Miss Bennet was making tea, and Elizabeth was pouring out the coffee, in so close a confederacy that there was not a single vacancy near her which would admit of a chair.”
The ever-awkward Mr Darcy can only manage to make longing eye-contact with Elizabeth, briefly standing close enough for her to pour him a cup. Does Mr. Darcy prefer coffee? Of course not! He prefers the woman pouring it.
And it is this very moment when Elizabeth moves from despondency lamenting “A man who has once been refused! How could I ever be foolish enough to expect a renewal of his love?” to hope feeling “a little revived” by his “bringing back his coffee cup himself” (Austen).
Austen uses the function of the tea in high society, as a transition from the serious dinner to the lighthearted games and dancing, to represent this in-between stage of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship, when their marriage looks inevitable to all their friends and family (and the reader!) but neither party is quite ready to confess.
Our lovers need a cuppa’ something to help digest their food and their feelings!
How to host a Pride & Prejudice-worthy tea party
How can you host such a thrilling Austean tea party at home? Easy! First, refuse your lover’s advances. Then enmesh them into your absurd family drama. Once they’re too involved to leave, invite them over for tea after dinner and make sure to bet your family’s reputation and life savings on your social performance. Sounds fun, right?
Tired of waiting for your crush to make the first move? Serve them our Richly Rose Cherry Sencha Green Tea for peak romance!
Tea and class in Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, 1861
Same century, different location; welcome to London’s working class!
As a young man, Charles Dickens made the same journey that so many of his protagonists make, crawling his way up from poverty to fame. At the age of 12, Dickens was sent to work in a shoe-blacking factory while his father remained in debtors’ prison.
The novelist’s experiences with hunger and poverty during this period color the ways he discusses food, often using it as a means to expose social hypocrisy (Martyris, 2018).
Tea is a particularly interesting food to look at when critiquing the social order of Victorian London. During the mid-nineteenth century, the price of tea had dropped significantly thanks to British imperial power in India and China.
No longer a luxury of the rich, tea loses its association with frivolity and becomes the sober alternative to alcohol, giving us the term “teetotaler”. However, the equipment used to prepare it and the cultural knowledge necessary to really flourish at a tea party, were still reserved for the middle and upper classes of society (Fromer).
This is also before health codes and food inspections were a thing, and there are reports of cheap tea from this time being adulterated with everything from arsenic to sheep’s dung (Martyris).
Other cheap tricks included mixing tea leaves with leaves from random bushes, and re-drying used tea leaves to re-sell - as fresh new leaves, of course! Side note: these tricks were one of the reasons teabags were invented, as the customer could trust they were getting what it said on the tin, and the manufacturer could be confident their customers would actually receive their product! But I digress… (Griffith)
When did this switch happen exactly, when tea became an everyday drink? It’s hard to put an exact date on it however... To give this research the real Dickensian flavour it deserves, I looked into the food offerings at Victorian workhouses. These institutions represented the bottom of the Victorian social hierarchy, just slightly above prisons, and residents were provided the bare minimum accommodations necessary to keep them laboring. Workhouses in Brighton began offering tea to women, children, the aged, and the infirm in 1834 (Higginbotham).
It is thus safe to say that tea went from being considered a luxury product to an absolute necessity sometime in the three decades after the turn of the century. The powers of caffeine!
The scene in question: Do you take tea, or coffee, Mr Gargery?, by F. A. Fraser, c. 1877
A Scene-ic Look at Tea in Great Expectations
The class anxiety created by this shift is really on display in the tea party in chapter 27 of Great Expectations.
To set the stage, the orphan Pip is now a teenager, and he’s training to become a gentleman while receiving funds from a mysterious benefactor. It is at this point that Pip’s poor but kind brother-in-law Joe comes to London to visit. Pip is embarrassed by Joe’s working class manners but introduces Joe to his new upper class friend Herbert anyway over coffee and tea.
From the moment Joe enters the room, it’s clear to everyone present that Joe does not know how to conduct himself:
“Joe, being invited to sit down to table, looked all round the room for a suitable spot on which to deposit his hat,—as if it were only on some very few rare substances in nature that it could find a resting place,—and ultimately stood it on an extreme corner of the chimney-piece, from which it ever afterwards fell off at intervals.”
Despite his best efforts, Joe fails all the little tests Herbert throws at him. He can’t even order his own drink without assistance:
‘Do you take tea, or coffee, Mr Gargery?’ asked Herbert, who always presided of a Morning.
‘Thankee, Sir,’ said Joe, stiff from head to foot, ‘I’ll take whichever is most agreeable to Yourself.’
‘What do you say to coffee?’
‘Thankee, Sir,’ returned Joe, evidently dispirited by the proposal, ‘since you are so kind as make choice of coffee, I will not run contrary to your own opinions. But don’t you never find it a little ’eating?’
‘Say tea then,’ said Herbert, pouring it out.
This moment contrasts the scenes we get from Pip’s childhood where Joe drinks his tea casually from a mug while working or doing other activities (Dickens).
Poor Joe! To him, tea is a nice drink. To these London aristocrats, it’s so much more! It’s all about defining your social position not just by what you consume but also how you consume it.
I can’t help but feel for Joe here. As tea quickly transitions from being an exotic luxury to an everyday item, these posh London-folk keep making up new rules about what to drink and when and what you can eat with it and how it can be arranged just to keep the rest of us from keeping up! How can something be so important yet so arbitrary at the same time?!
How to host an even-greater-than-expectations tea party...
With that in mind, I say the best way to host an authentic Dickensian tea party is to make up an arbitrary set of rules, tell half your guests what those rules are, then kick out anyone who unknowingly violates them.
If people start catching on too quickly, randomly change the rules half way through the evening without telling anyone, and while you’re at it, don’t bother telling people what’s in the tea. Who needs food safety anyway, am I right?
Need your friends to think you’re cultured? There’s nothing classier than our Classy Earl Grey Rooibos.
A Note From Lauren
First of all, thank you for reading this far! I really hope you enjoyed this little literature lesson. By the time you’re reading this, I will have just received my second dose of the vaccine. I have to say, I’m a bit scared - not because I think there are evil robots in the shot or whatever, but because I’m certain I’ve lost what little social skills I had during quarantine!
Alas, the only way to rebuild that confidence is to gird my loins and attend a tea party. I’ll be taking my copies of both books with me for emotional support - plus multiple bags of MatchaAlternatives looseleaf so I KNOW I’ll impress.
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Read more in this series:
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Steep & Stream: Best 10 Teas for Binging 6 Must-See Netflix Shows
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References & Further Reading for a Literary Tea Party
Prince, Emily. “Issue 8: Coffee, Tea and Visuality - The Art of Attraction in ‘Pride and Prejudice.’” Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, 21 Feb. 2017, janeaustenlf.org/pride-and-possibilities-articles/2017/2/21/issue-8-coffee-tea-and-visualiy.
Martyris, Nina. “It Is A Truth Universally Acknowledged That Jane Austen Pairs Well With Tea.” NPR, 18 July 2017, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/07/18/537247637/it-is-a-truth-universally-acknowleded-that-jane-austen-pairs-well-with-tea
Wilson, Kim, and Tom Carpenter. Tea with Jane Austen. Second Edition, Frances Lincoln, 2011.
Austen, Jane. “Pride and Prejudice.” The Project Gutenberg, 28 Jan. 1813, www.gutenberg.org/files/1342/1342-h/1342-h.htm#link2HCH0054.
Martyris, Nina. “Coffee or Tea: In Dickens’ World, It Might Be A Choice Between Good And Evil.”
NPR, 7 Feb. 2018, choice.npr.org/index.html?origin=https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/02/07/58400673/coffee-or-tea-in-dickens-world-it-might-be-a-choice-between-good-and-evil.
Fromer, Julie. “Introduction.” Tea a Necessary Luxury, Athens, Ohio, Ohio University Press, 2008, pp. 1–25.
Griffith, John. Tea: A History of the Drink That Changed the World, London, André Deutsch, 2007.
Higginbotham, Peter. “Workhouse Food.” The Workhouse, 2021, www.workhouses.org.uk/life/food.shtml.
Dickens, Charles. “Great Expectations.” Project Gutenberg, Chapman & Hall, Aug. 1861, www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1400.