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Ladies, Literature and Tea

Ladies, Literature and Tea

In spite of the fact that coffee is just as important a beverage as tea, tea has been sipped more in literature.

Tea is certainly as much of a social drink as coffee, and more of a domestic, for the reason that the teacup hours are the family hours. As these are the hours when the sexes are thrown together, and as most of the poetry and philosophy of tea-drinking teem with female virtues, vanities, and whimsicalities, the inference is that, without women, tea would be nothing, and without tea, women would be stale, flat, and uninteresting. With them it is a polite, purring, soft, gentle, kind, sympathetic, delicious beverage.

In support of this theory, notice what Pope, Gay, Crabbe, Cowper, Dryden, and others have written on the subject.

“The tea-cup times of hood and hoop,
And when the patch was worn”

–wrote Tennyson of the early half of the seventeenth century.

What a suggestive couplet, full of the foibles and follies of the times! A picture a la mode of the period when fair dames made their red cheeks cute with eccentric patches. Ornamented with high coiffures, powdered hair, robed in satin petticoats and square-cut bodices, they blossomed, according to the old engravings, into most fetching figures. Even the beaux of the day affected feminine frills in their many-colored, bell-skirted waistcoats, lace ruffles, patches, and powdered queues.

Dryden must have succumbed to the charms of women through tea, when he wrote:

“And thou, great Anna, whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes take counsel, and sometimes tay.”

From the great vogue which tea started grew a taste for china; the more peculiar and striking the design, the more valuable the tea-set.

Pope in one of his satirical compositions praises the composure of a woman who is “Mistress of herself though china fall.”

Even that fine old bachelor, philosopher, and humorist, Charles Lamb, thought that the subject deserved an essay.

In speaking of the ornaments on the tea-cup he says, in “Old China”:

“I like to see my old friends, whom distance cannot diminish, figuring up in the air (so they appear to our optics), yet on terra firma still, for so we must in courtesy interpret that speck of deeper blue which the decorous artist, to prevent absurdity, has made to spring up beneath their sandals. I love the men with women’s faces and the women, if possible, with still more womanish expressions.

“Here is a young and courtly Mandarin, handing tea to a lady from a salver–two miles off. See how distance seems to set off respect! And here the same lady, or another–for likeness is identity on tea-cups–is stepping into a little fairy boat, moored on the hither side of this calm garden river, with a dainty, mincing foot, which is in a right angle of incidence (as angles go in our world) that must infallibly land her in the midst of a
flowery mead–a furlong off on the other side of the same strange stream!”

The Spectator and the Tatter were also susceptible to the female influence that tea inspired. In both of these journals there are frequent allusions to tea-parties and china. At these gatherings, poets and dilettante literary gentlemen read their verses and essays to the ladies, who criticized their merits. These “literary teas” became so contagious that a burning desire for authorship took possession of the ladies, for among those who made their debut as authors about this time were Fanny Burney, Mrs. Alphra Behn, Mrs. Manley, the Countess of Winchelsea, and a host of others.

One of the readers of the Spectator wrote as follows:

“Mr. Spectator: Your paper is a part of my tea-equipage, and my servant knows my humor so well that, calling for my breakfast this morning (it being past my usual hour), she answered, the Spectator was not come in, but that the tea-kettle boiled, and she expected it every minute.”

Crabbe, too, was a devotee of ladies, literature, and tea, for he wrote:

“The gentle fair on nervous tea relies,
Whilst gay good-nature sparkles in her eyes;
And inoffensive scandal fluttering round,
Too rough to tickle and too light to wound.”

What better proof do we want, therefore, that to women’s influence is due the cultivation and retention of the tea habit? Without tea, what would become of women, and without women and tea, what would become of our domestic literary men and matinee idols? They would not sit at home or in salons and write and act things. There would be no homes to sit in, no salons or theatres to act in, and dramatic art would receive a blow from which it could not recover in a century, at least.

Author | readingtealeaves Comments | 0 Date | 08/12/2016

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