Jane Austen’s Tea Things

I spoke recently to the North American Jane Austen Society at their annual convention in Minneapolis. My talk was on The Tea Things of Jane Austen. This Regency period writer often used tea as a literary tool to bring the sexes together, and the term “tea things” was sometimes used to set the stage for conversation.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Students of Austen and the American Revolution might find it interesting that the English 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 Beacon Street drawing rooms 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, hyson, congou – 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 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 thenineteenth 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 afterwards, 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.…” In Mansfield Park, “Dinner was soon followed by tea and coffee.…”

In upper-class homes, tea was still an after-dinner beverage taken in the drawing room in the late afternoon or early evening. Several of Jane Austen’s novels include scenes that center around the ritual. 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.”

Excerpt from A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson, (Benjamin Press, December 2013)