“THERE’S SOMETHING HYPNOTIC about the word tea,” says Lord Peter Wimsey, one of my all-time favorite fictional characters, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ incomparable 1935 novel, Gaudy Night.
In my Welcome post, I wrote about how I fell in love with the taste of tea at a young age. Like a well-steeped cup, my love of tea has only grown deeper and more intense with time. Though it was the taste of plain black tea (malty, tannic, curiously refreshing) that first drew me to it, the ritual surrounding tea drinking and especially the dainty and delightful accoutrements—teapots, cups and saucers, cream pitchers and sugar bowls, tiny silver spoons—simply sealed the deal.
I can measure periods of my life by certain teapots: the dark brown crockery teapot one of my friends gave me in college; the earthy Denby teapot I brought home for my sister from my first trip to England; the Sadler teapot with a rustic country scene from the early days of my marriage; the Burleigh blue Asiatic Pheasant teapot my sister sent me when she was working in Washington, D.C.; and eventually (when we could afford it) the creamy elegance of the Minton Bellemeade teapot in my wedding china pattern.
I have a gorgeous flowered Herend teapot I bought at Fortnum & Mason; a Queen Victoria teapot from Harrods; two Emma Bridgewater teapots (a small one with rosehips and a large one with sweet peas), and a much-used Johnson Brothers Rose Chintz teapot (with a chipped spout) that I love for summer tea parties in the garden. Currently, the two I use most on a daily basis are a Portmeiron Eden Fruits teapot that I bought in Victoria, B.C., and a vintage Wedgwood Edme teapot.
I like a stiff cuppa to get my mornings started; my current favorite is Revolution Tea’s English Breakfast. In the afternoons, I like something lighter, almost always Darjeeling, either Bigelow or Vadham.
According to hightea.com, “Sometime around 1840, Anna Russell, the seventh duchess of Bedford, complained of a ‘sinking feeling’ and requested that some light food and a pot of tea (usually Darjeeling) be brought to her . . . to help ward off her midafternoon hunger. The light food probably included bread, butter, and perhaps biscuits.” At that time, the English only ate two meals a day, an early breakfast and a late dinner, so no wonder the duchess had a sinking feeling round about four o’clock. I myself have a similar feeling (“Teatime is at the well-known ebb of the late afternoon,” wrote Joan Parry Dutton), even though I keep to the more usual three-meals-a-day schedule. Of course, once the duchess discovered how pleasant this respite was (and we mustn’t forget there were servants involved here), it was natural that she would invite her friends to join her, and a delightful new social event was born.
The duchess of Bedford was a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria, who uttered the memorable phrase, “Bring me a cup of tea and The Times.” I love the imperiousness of this command; how I long—just once!—to be able to say those words and have someone jump to fulfill my wishes. (Ha!) But I do think Her Majesty hit on something vital, which is the natural companionship between tea and reading. C.S. Lewis famously said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me,” and what reader with a large TBR stack would disagree with him?
I think another reason I find the whole ritual of tea so enchanting is just that: because it’s a ritual. Filling the kettle and choosing your cup and type of tea as you wait for the water to boil gives your mind a break from words and numbers and screens; a chance to catch your breath, look out the window, and consider what’s next—either in the day or in your life. It’s a small way of cherishing yourself by noticing the details of what makes you happy.
And of course, there is tea’s association with refined tradition and civilized ceremony which I always find deeply comforting—especially after all we’ve been through these last two years. After all, there’s a reason that children love tea parties (besides the pink-frosted cakes); they encompass the best parts of being a grown-up: inviting one’s friends to enjoy delicious food and convivial conversation in a relaxing atmosphere.
In Berlin during WWI, the poet Rupert Brooke found himself longing for England and the stability and civilization the ritual of tea represents:
“Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?”
There is something both soothing and majestic about joining this literary society of great tea drinkers. Like the poet, essayist and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who described himself in 1757 as “a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has for many years, diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes the morning.”
“I’m sure I shall feel better after tea,” says the charmingly hapless Bertie Wooster in P.G. Wodehouse’s Carry On, Jeeves.
Take comfort, my friends. When January’s storms howl outside the windows or the news is too depressing to contemplate, let us arise from our desks and go put the kettle on—and we’ll feel better too.
Tell me about your favorite cup of tea!