Taking Tea with Jane Austen – Blend of Propriety & Pleasure

Who would not want to sit down with author Jane Austen (1775-1817) and join her in a cup of tea? What lively conversation would likely to be had. As a drink of choice tea figures prominently in many of her novels.

In fact many successful social occasions depend upon it. In Emma, does Miss Bates drink coffee? No, of course not: ‘No coffee, I thank you…a little tea if you please.’

In “Pride and Prejudice,” one of the supreme honors Mr. Collins can envision Lady Catherine bestowing on Elizabeth Bennett and her friends is inviting them to join her in a cup of tea. Drinking tea with her ‘at home’ was to be a huge honour they were all to feel very keenly.

‘Thank God for Tea! What would the world do without tea. How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea’’ *

Delightful English Chelsea porcelain teapot with applied and painted decoration

The taking of Tea with Jane Austen and the heroes and heroines of her novels begins in the morning and ends in the evening. It takes place at balls and all other gatherings where good friends and polite society mix.

Taking tea with Jane Austen is all about stylish good behaviour, propriety and pleasure all coming together in an ultimate blend we would surely all enjoy.

The tiny country of Holland was politically affiliated with Portugal when tea first arrived in Europe and in England during the first decade of the seventeenth century.

However it would not be until the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660 that a great impetus for change and a good deal of optimism about the future would be revived and tea would become an integral part of the culture.

Gone were the austerity measures of the Puritans, which were swept away with the lavishness and easy living style that the exiled Charles had enjoyed at the French and Dutch courts. With it came the taking of tea.

It seems that when Catharine of Braganza, the new King Charles II’s prospective bride arrived at Portsmouth on 13th May 1662 on route to her new home, she asked first for a ‘cup of tea’, thus ensuring its popularity at court. By 1680 the French social critic Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Seven was making mention of adding milk to tea and sugar would follow.

The acquisition of ‘china’ to drink their tea from became a craze among the fashionable, especially after it was mentioned in two of William Wycherl’s plays ‘The Country Wife’ and ‘The Plain Dealer’, which were published in 1675 and 1676 respectively.

English author and adventurer, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), writing at a later date, talks about ‘the Queen….furnishing her houses with chinaware… setting up shelves’… and it becoming…‘a grievance in the expense of it and injurious to their families and estates’.

Lord Willoughby and his Family taking tea by Johann Zoffany

My sister“, Lady Elizabeth Finch told the Countess of Burlington in 1735 “is become China mad“. And went onto relate the story of her cup collecting purchases.

In England at this time a new class of people emerged, one whose wealth was based on business and trade rather than inherited land as it had been since William the Conqueror in 1066. 1660 was also the year that the English diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the pleasures associated with the taking of what he described as ‘this China drinke’.

As the craze for all things oriental swept Europe, tea became part of the way of life; it was served in the Chinese manner, accompanied by an assorted assemblage of tea wares. And, gradually the Chinese tea culture was turned into the British institution for the taking of tea

Tea Table with Chinese fretwork in the Chippendale taste 20th century copy

Eighteenth century English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale; ‘published many designs for small tables that …may be used as Tea Tables’…

He added ‘they looked very well when rightly executed’.

Tea tables had a top not unlike a shallow tea tray surrounded by a gallery of Chinese style fretwork to prevent the cups and saucers from sliding off. Then there were the slop basins, the sugar pot, the milk jug and the spoon trays to consider.

Only a tiny stratum of society enjoyed tea at first, because its cost was extremely prohibitive.

As it started to flow freely the acquisition of ‘china’ to drink tea from included beautiful blue and white wares, colourfully enameled wares and simple blanc de chine tea wares imported from China at great cost.

Meissen Tea Service complete with slop bowl, containers, plates and so forth

That is until the German ceramic factory of Meissen perfected its new hard paste porcelain wares and took on the eastern trade both in products and design.

The arrival of George 1 the first Hanoverian King on the English throne in 1714 would improve trade relationships with Europe and the quality of life for the ‘Georgians at Home’ well into the nineteenth century.

Throughout the eighteenth century in England it was the French or Italian cut of your clothes, with perhaps a partiality for prattling about poetry that provided physical evidence of your ‘European’ enlightenment.

You could engage in conversation over tea about your collections of antiquities, curiosities, medals, gems, statuary, books, paintings and prints brought back from your Grand Tour, which became increasingly important.

These were required to fit out your new, classically inspired home with goods that reflected correct taste – correct being the key, taken from the correctness of classical architecture.

If they weren’t in correct taste, whether it was good or bad taste became irrelevant and not really worth considering at all.

When the English aristocracy began their daily ritual for the taking of tea from fine china wares two varieties dominated the early China trade.

Meissen porcelain teacup circa 1730

Meissen Teapot with gilded decoration and eagle spout circa 1720-1725

Bohea a choice black tea until the turn of the eighteenth century when Hyson, which translates to “Flourishing Spring” became the luxury tea.

Tea mania swept England, as it had earlier in France and Holland. 20,000 lbs of tea at the beginning of the eighteenth century and by the end of it over 20 million tons.

Tea imports rose in weight from 40,000 pounds in 1699 to an annual average of 240,000 pounds by 1708.

Hyson was so highly favoured that during the eighteenth century the British Tea Tax was levied at a higher rate for it than any other variety.

To show off their own fashionable style to advantage the elite went off to promenade in Vauxhall Gardens or Ranelagh Gardens where the Rotunda recorded by Canaletto in 1754 provides evidence of the work of a hereto relatively unkown Palladian style architect, William Jones.

At Ranelagh Gardens the most elegant and most fashion conscious, though not necessarily the wealthiest, Londoners gathered to drink tea, listen to music, swap gossip and arrange assignations.

Bottger Brilliance – A White Meissen porcelain teapot with applied leaf decoration and silver capped spout

Taking High Tea…all the rage then, and now

In America throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch East Indian ships plied their trade at Boston, New York and up the Hudson River to Albany, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Williamsburg and Charleston in the Americas.

It also included tea.

Initial contact was at New Amsterdam and the first Williamsburg settlement as early as 1620.

A considerable volume of porcelain was bought at auction in Europe by China wholesalers and shipped to flourishing cities on the East Coast, where they adorned many a fine table and the distribution point for ‘China’ became one of the causes of complaint leading to the War of Independence in 1775.

On April 1, 1774, a posse of Bostonians disguised themselves, not too convincingly, as Mohawk Indians and merrily dumped cargoes of Hyson tea into the Boston Harbour.

Enjoying a Tea Party at Boston Harbour, although repercussions would follow

The mood that moonlit night was jubilant. One merry maker exclaimed, “Boston Harbor a teapot tonight! Hurrah!” But the morning after was entirely sobering.

When the party was over they had to give up their beloved, ancient tea, made of cured dried Camellia sinensis leaves, which posed a practical problem: what to drink instead?

Taking tea on a ‘Boston’ tea table

After all, noted British author Samuel Johnson, the average colonist, including himself was “a hardened and shameless tea-drinker’ and forsaking the ritual and comfort of a nice cup of tea was sure to be difficult

Jane Austen (1775-1817) was born into the world the year after the much debated Boston Tea Party and when the taking of tea was well established in England.

In a new book entitled “Tea with Jane Austen” each chapter includes a description of how tea was taken at a particular place or time of day, along with history, recipes, excerpts from Jane Austen’s novels and letters and illustrations from the time.

If you are cold, tea will warm you,
if you are too heated, it will cool you;
if you are depressed, it will cheer you;
if you are exhausted, it will calm you’….
William Gladstone (1809-1898)

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011-2013

*Reverend Sidney Smith (1771-1845)

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