Completed: Tea with Jane Austen

Tea with Jane AustenTea with Jane Austen
Kim Wilson
2004, U.S.

OK, I confess up front: I read this more for the tea than the Austen! Does that make me a bad participant in Adam’s Austen in August? Yes? Then perhaps I should cave to temptation and re-read Northanger Abbey after all. Or Mansfield Park. No, Pride and Prejudice. No,….

Well, that aside, I think there is plenty in Tea with Jane Austen for fans of both tea AND Austen. Wilson’s book is not a comprehensive history of tea nor a biography of Austen, but rather a glimpse into daily life of those living in the Georgian and Regency eras, framed by the history of Austen herself.

Given the strong association of the British and tea to this day, it is no surprise to learn that Austen and her contemporaries were mad about tea. What is perhaps more surprising is realizing that it was only a relatively new beverage to the British. (Ditto for coffee and chocolate.) It wasn’t until the Europeans started exploring and conquering other nations that they were introduced to beverages from the Middle East, South America, and–most importantly for this book–Asia. What seems so quintessentially British today was once a novelty–and for some time even considered by some to be a dangerous drink!

Some Britons viewed tea’s growing popularity with disfavor, sneering at is as unmanly, untraditional, and un-British…. One particularly indignant fellow wrote a furious letter to Gentleman’s Magazine, claiming tea caused feebleness, cowardice, poor blood, barren women, and dissatisfied servants.

p. 57

Of course, much of the objection to tea turns to have come from those whose income was negatively impacted by its growing popularity–that is, brewers.

By the day of Austen, however, tea was firmly ensconced in English society–so much so that it was both highly taxed and highly smuggled. Interestingly, to me, and likely to anyone reading novels from the Georgian and Regency eras, is the meaning that was given to tea in literature:

In each novel, tea is used by the author as a sign of character: to know and approve of tea aligns one with civilization, and, by implication, with the good and the right. Those who spurn tea are backward and unenlightened at best; their rejection of it may even be a sign of doubtful morals. It’s hard to argue with such logic.

p. 46

Indeed, as a tea lover myself I find it hard to argue with such logic!

But Wilson doesn’t limit herself to talking just about tea. Rather, tea forms the framework for the book, which is divided into chapters according to the different meals served with tea or the different locations where tea might have been offered. Thus we learn what tasty treats might have been served for breakfast or at a dance–modernized recipes even included. (Although, I find it difficult to convince myself that any recipe involving both one pound of butter AND twelve eggs is a good idea.) And all those confusions of meal times are explained: why can Elizabeth Bennett leave home after breakfast to find the Bingleys still sitting at theirs, despite what must have been at least an hour between?

I rather enjoyed this breezy and informative little read. Best served with a cup of good breakfast tea–fresh brewed from loose leaves, hot and strong, of course!

(Bonus: This is my second completed (first blogged) book for the 2013 TBR challenge.)