Jane Austen’s novels are filled with detailed tea scenes that help up know the tea habits of the British upper class in the early 1800s. In Northanger Abbey, Austen sets a scene in the Assembly Rooms of Bath where Regency-era rules of etiquette lead to an embarrassing situation at the tea table.
First, readers must know that the Assembly Rooms in Bath had both a large dance hall and a tearoom, just across the corridor, where dancers would adjourn for a tea break between dance sets each evening.
Once seated, rules of decorum dictated that women could not serve themselves from the large silver tea urns placed upon the central service tables. Ladies must be served by their male escorts.
When Catherine Morland attends her first assembly at the Upper Rooms, she has no male dancing partner to escort her to tea.
At intermission, she and Mrs. Allen find themselves tea-less. Austen paints a sad scenario:
Everybody was shortly in motion for tea, and they must squeeze out like the rest…
When at last arrived in the tea-room, she felt yet more the awkwardness of having no party to join, no acquaintance to claim, no gentleman to assist them. They…were obliged to sit down at the end of the table, at which a large party were already placed, without having anything to do there, or anybody to speak to, except each other.
It is an awkward situation indeed! One which Catherine yearns to escape.
“Had we better go away as it is?” asks Catherine. “Here are no tea things for us, you see.”
Eventually, a gentleman at the table takes pity on them and brings them tea.
Readers are relieved that the night is saved by the generosity of a kind gentleman and the women’s reputations remain untarnished – thanks to a cup of tea!
Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775. Lift a cup of tea to her this month in honor of her birthday.
Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson is the author of such best-selling books as Tea & Etiquette and A Social History of Tea, both published by Benjamin Press.