Perhaps you have been watching the new Netflix adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion and you wondered about the type of tea her characters drank. And why was tea such an important ritual in the daily life of Austen and her heroines?
As portrayed on screen and in her novels, Austen used tea drinking as a setting to bring the sexes together, consequently, the term tea things was frequently employed to set the stage for conversation.
In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor attends a social gathering at Lady Middleton’s, eager to have a chat with Lucy, but “the insipidity of the meeting was exactly such as Elinor had expected; it produced not one novelty of thought or expression; and nothing could be less interesting than the whole of their discourse both in the dining-parlour and drawing room … they quitted it only with the removal of the tea things.”
The ceremonial brewing of the tea took place in the drawing room. A servant would carry in all the tea equipage and any food to be offered but would leave the lady or daughter of the house actually to brew and serve the tea.
In Mansfield Park, Austen wrote: “The next opening of the door brought something more welcome; it was the tea things… Susan and an attendant girl … brought in everything necessary for the meal….”
tea was an exotic accessory
Both students of Austen and the American Revolution might find it interesting that the writer was born on December 16, 1775, the second anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.
More interesting is the fact that the tea things of 1810 Bath and London were similar to the tea things found in the fine drawing rooms on Beacon Street in 1773 Boston. The Pembroke tables, Chinese silk wallpaper, wooden tea caddies, silver teaspoons, and porcelain teapots were all alike. Even the Chinese teas—bohea, souchong, congou, hyson, singlo—that filled the teapots on both sides of the Atlantic all came from the London warehouses of the East India Company.
References to tea in Jane Austen’s stories reveal the significant part that tea played, the times at which it was drunk, and the gradual shifting of mealtimes in late Georgian and Regency England.
Stylish cities like Bath always included tea drinking after a dance, which Jane wrote about in Northanger Abbey (1818). But at home, tea provided a reason to see neighbors. In Sense and Sensibility (1811), “Sir John never came to the Dashwoods without either inviting them to dine at the Park the next day, or to drink tea with them that evening.” On one particular occasion, “he wishes to engage them for both. ‘You must drink tea with us to-night,’ he said, ‘for we shall be quite alone – and tomorrow you must absolutely dine with us, for we shall be a large party.’”
TEa as refreshment
Tea was seen as a comforting, refreshing, recuperative beverage. In Mansfield Park (1814), Mrs. Price welcomes Fanny and William: “Poor dears! How tired you must both be! And now what will you have? … I could not tell whether you would be for some meat, or only a dish of tea after your journey. Tea meant rest and pleasure, and its absence would be a severe disappointment.
Austen’s work furthermore shows us when during the day tea was served. Dinner became more an evening meal rather than the midday or early-afternoon repast at the turn of the nineteenth century. In Emma (1816), Austen writes of “regular four o’clock dinner,” and references in several books show that dinner was not particularly late and tea was still served afterward, as in previous centuries.
In Pride and Prejudice, 1813, after dinner, “The gentlemen came … the ladies crowded round the table where Miss Bennett was making tea.…”
Where did Austen Buy tea?
Where did Jane Austen buy her tea?
She was known to purchase tea from Twinings in London where she could be sure of buying authentic unadulterated leaves.
In an 1814 letter to her sister Cassandra, she mentions:
“I am sorry to hear that there has been a rise in tea. I do not mean to pay Twining til later in the day, when we may order a fresh supply.”
Twinings’ shop on The Strand was one of the first coffee/tea establishments where women were welcomed. But don’t expect that Austen purchased Earl Grey because she died before that blend was created.
How about scones with clotted cream? Sorry that decadent delight was unknown in her day as well.
Teatime was a simple affair that sometimes included a small slice of cake, a bun, or bread toasted in the fireplace.
And of utmost importance, the Victorian term high tea would not appear for another 50 years!
Read more about the use of tea as a literary tool in nineteenth-century literature in A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson.