Throughout the novels of Jane Austen, detailed tea scenes help up know the tea rituals of the British upper class in the early 1800s. In Northanger Abbey, Austen sets the stage in the Assembly Rooms of Bath, where Regency-era rules of etiquette leads to an embarrassing situation at the communal tea table.
First, readers must know that the Assembly Rooms in Bath had a large dance hall and a tearoom, just across the corridor, where partiers would adjourn for a tea break between dance sets each evening.
Second, once seated, decorum rules dictated that women could not serve themselves from the large silver tea urns placed upon the central service tables. Their male escorts must fetch refreshments for the ladies. That protocol sets the scene for an uncomfortable evening for the novel’s protagonist Catherine Morland.
When Catherine attends her first assembly at the Upper Rooms, she has no male dance partner, which means she has no one to escort her to tea.
At intermission, she and her chaperone Mrs. Allen make their way into the tearoom where they hastily find two empty chairs at an occupied table, but they have no tea.
Austen paints a sad scenario…
Catherine began to feel something of disappointment—she was tired of being continually pressed against by people, the generality of whose faces possessed nothing to interest, and with all of whom she was so wholly unacquainted that she could not relieve the irksomeness of imprisonment by the exchange of a syllable with any of her fellow captives; and when at last arrived in the tearoom, she felt yet more the awkwardness of having no party to join, no acquaintance to claim, no gentleman to assist them. They saw nothing of Mr. Allen; and after looking about them in vain for a more eligible situation, were obliged to sit down at the end of a table, at which a large party were already placed, without having anything to do there, or anybody to speak to, except each other. "How uncomfortable it is," whispered Catherine, "not to have a single acquaintance here!" "Yes, my dear," replied Mrs. Allen, with perfect serenity, "it is very uncomfortable indeed." "What shall we do? The gentlemen and ladies at this table look as if they wondered why we came here—we seem forcing ourselves into their party." "Aye, so we do. That is very disagreeable. I wish we had a large acquaintance here." "I wish we had any—it would be somebody to go to." "Very true, my dear; and if we knew anybody we would join them directly. The Skinners were here last year—I wish they were here now." "Had not we better go away as it is? Here are no tea-things for us, you see."
It is an uncomfortable predicament, indeed! One which Catherine yearns to escape. And it is a situation that was easily understood by Austen’s female readers in 1803.
After some time they received an offer of tea from one of their neighbors; it was thankfully accepted, and this introduced a light conversation with the gentleman who offered it…
Ah, the night is saved!
At the end of the soiree, Mr. Allen inquires about their evening.
"Well, Miss Morland," said he, directly, "I hope you have had an agreeable ball." "Very agreeable indeed," she replied, vainly endeavoring to hide a great yawn."
Austen’s readers are relieved that the generosity of an empathetic gentleman saved the night and Catherine’s reputation remains untarnished—thanks to a cup of tea!
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.