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  • The Empire of the Tea Table
  • Judith Fisher (bio)

In the famous “proviso scene” in Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700), Millamant demands “to be sole empress of my tea-table” (380). Millamant’s tea table did become an empire: by 1871, the United Kingdom was consuming 171 million pounds of tea yearly (Cassell’s 1138). It is little wonder then that tea drinking is ubiquitous in Victorian fiction, which features scenes that include the Dickensian fireside, the country meat tea, the middle-class kettledrum, and the aristocratic five o’clock tea, the last of these purportedly invented by the Duchess of Bedford in the 1840s (Bramah 133). Mirroring the omnipresence of tea in everyday life, fictional tea scenes authenticated characters for readers, placing characters in specific social classes and geographical milieus. As Julie Fromer succinctly puts it, “Nineteenth-century representations of tea highlight the role of the tea table in forging a unified English national identity out of disparate social groups, economic classes, and genders separated by ideologically distinct spheres of daily life” (11). The intimate tea table, whether by the fire or not, creates affective connections [End Page 208] through the inclusive conversation and the acts of pouring out and handing around tea. As a space where intimacy can be performed for the reader without seeming theatrical, it is, perhaps, an essential enabler of domestic fiction. William Makepeace Thackeray’s illustration of “Laura’s fireside” in The Adventures of Philip (1862) presents the quintessential positive image. Pen is the protective, productive man (he has provided the means to acquire the tea), who, once he has been served, watches over Laura enclosing her children in her domestic temple (fig. 1). Importantly, no servants are present, implying, as readers would know, that Laura made and served the tea herself.

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Fig. 1.

“Laura’s Fireside,” from William Makepeace Thackeray, The Adventures of Philip.

Author’s collection.

Tea scenes told readers where in the social world they were. Two practices in particular distinguished the class status of tea drinkers: the presentation and the food. The “elite” classes (or those with pretensions) displayed elaborate equipage and ritual combined with very little food—or at least very little emphasis on food; the “lower” classes, in contrast, had simple manners (but still a degree of ritual) and a plenteous table. Such recognizable class distinctions allowed authors to use tea to establish class status and [End Page 209] pretensions. For instance, an 1887 short story in Every Week, “A Five O’Clock Tea,” depicts the upwardly mobile pretensions of Sarah Hopkins, a farmer’s daughter who, much like Rosamund Vincy, has been sent to school and has come back with her head full of “genteel” notions. When we first meet Sarah, she is playing her piano while her mother, guilty of the same verbal sole-cisms as Mrs. Vincy, pounds away on her sewing machine. Sarah introduces her mother to the idea of tea at five that is not a “supper”: “And, ma, I mean one of these new kind of teas, where you don’t get supper at all, but have a cup of tea and bread and butter, or biscuits, or sandwiches. Just one plate of something, and have the maid bring it into the drawing-room, and I’ll pass it round the room; and the green china tea-set is just the thing, and we can talk and have splendid fun. It’s the latest style” (94). Of course, the neighbours who receive the daintily written cards do not understand the new style and show up expecting a country meat tea, which Mrs. Hopkins miraculously produces.

While refined tea-drinking emphasizes performance and delicate and expensive equipage, often authors disguise the fact that the brewing, pouring, and handing around of tea are learned practices. Elizabeth Gaskell, for example, in North and South (1855), mystifies the required skills and thus naturalizes the ladylike femininity of Margaret Hale, who daintily pours tea for Mr. Thornton. Similarly, Thackeray, in The Adventures of Philip, presents Laura Pendennis as a natural lady, exemplified by her graceful tea-making. Margaret Oliphant makes the class contrast between “appetite” and...


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pp. 208-211
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