A river of tea flows through English literature with the serenity of a summer afternoon ― sometimes in a stately manner, as in Portrait of a Lady (which is in fact American Literature though it claims literary kinship with its fore-bears) at other times simple, even meagre. But it is always there.
It represents different things of course. Virginia Woolf’s Helen Ambrose, ‘over two dishes of yellow cake and smooth bread and butter’, cries out with manic energy: ‘You look ill! …Come and have some tea.’(The Voyage Out)
Somerset Maugham reveals a young man’s class and his impoverished circumstances, in entertaining (well, seducing really) an older woman.
On the table was a plate of cakes and two cups, a sugar basin and a milk-jug. The crockery was of the cheapest sort… he came in with the tea in a brown pot. She ate a square sponge cake with pink icing. That was a thing she had not done for years. The Ceylon tea, very strong, with milk and sugar in it, took her back to days she thought she had forgotten.’ (Theatre, Penguin, pg. 84)
Rebecca West’s description is more dramatic.
‘Come, my love, let me put a well-fed cushion beneath your head. Are you better now?’
But her upward smile, though she nodded, was still some way from perfect serenity.
‘Ah, I have it!’ he exclaimed. ‘You feel the need of tea. Is it not so? I had forgotten the dependence of your sex on tea!’
‘Ah, yes,’ breathed Harriet meekly, ‘you are always right. I am feeling the need of tea!’ (Harriet Hume, Virago, pg. 133)
Barbara Pym’s characters (both male and female) often feel the need of tea. In fact, among the few passions (if they can be so described) she does portray, the craving for tea is among the strongest. ‘How I long for a cup of tea,’ Ianthe exclaimed within minutes of arriving in Rome (Rome!) for the first time.
‘Well, we’re just going to have one,’ said Penelope, thinking how typical it was that Ianthe should long for such a dull and essentially English thing as a cup of tea. She hardly liked to admit that she wanted one herself.
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