Trollope and Tea


WHO thinks of an Englishman’s daily round without thinking of afternoon tea? From Buttons to Duke, from charwoman to Queen, from staff officers in Paris to Tommy in the trenches, from a Mayfair drawing-room to the cuddy of a tramp freighter, five o’clock means tea: tea with biscuits or bread and butter, with crumpets, muffins, Sally Lunns, toast and jam, currant cake, or whatever other prescribed goodies the larder may afford — but tea at five o’clock.

Naturally one thinks that a custom so universal among so conservative a people as the English, if not dating from Magna Carta, must be at least as old as the importation of tea. The days of Queen Anne are inevitably associated with ‘chaney’ cups and tea. All through the eighteenth century the beaux and belles and wits, in their powder and brocade, drank tea — Dr. Johnson drank it by the jorum. Was it not one of Richardson’s heroes who lamented that ‘My angel would not stay; she sipped a dish of tea and flew’? And does not Miss Austen picture, entering the Mansfield Park drawingroom, ‘the solemn procession, headed by Baddely, of tea-board, urn and cakebearers ’ ?

Tea, yes, and tea on a tray in the drawing-room, with the regulation accompaniments; but not afternoon tea.

Clearly tea was an evening, not an afternoon, custom in the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth. Sometimes, in the simpler households, it was the evening meal, following a mid-day dinner, as among the Cranford ladies in the days of William IV and Queen Adelaide. Did afternoon tea as a stop-gap between lunch and dinner come in, then, with Victoria? Some time in her long reign, of course, for it was firmly established by the early eighteen-eighties — but when? Do those admirable Victorian housewives and novelists, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, serve their tea before or after dinner? After dinner, as a rule, I think. As for Dickens, the fragrance of tea is almost lost in the fumes of brandy-punch, as it is in Thackeray in the aroma of old port; but when either mentions it, it is the evening meal, as in the six o’clock tea-drinking that the faithful women gave their shepherd, when Mr. Weller, Senior, was called a ‘ wessel of wrath’; or as at Fairoaks, when Pendennis blushed to have Wagg and Pynsent discover the simple customs of his mother’s house; or after dinner, as when, in a London hotel, Pen and Warrington are summoned to the Major, and leave Laura at the tea-tray.

But in Trollope, that accurate photographer of Victorian domestic life from 1850 to 1880, the very decades in which the five-o’clock-tea habit was developing, surely the people have tea. We remember the dim old dragon cups of Plumstead Episcopi, ‘worth a pound apiece, but despicable to the uninitiated; the thick and solid silver teapot, cream-ewer, and sugar-bowl; the breadbasket of a weight really formidable to any but robust persons; the tea which was of the very best; the cream the very thickest; the dry toast and buttered toast, the muffins and crumpets, hot bread and cold bread, wheaten bread and oaten bread.’ We follow the family through the day: they meet, tempers permitting, at lunch and at dinner, but not at afternoon tea.

That was in 1857. In the middle sixties, at the Countess de Courcy’s house in Portman Square, the tea-tray comes in after dinner; at Guestwick Manor the earl half rouses from his post-prandial nap, drinks a cup, and falls asleep again, to the dismay of his young guests; and Apollo Crosbie, in his dreary married days, after dining dully with his wife, drinks first a cup of coffee and then a cup of tea in the drawing-room.

In the novels of the late sixties tea is offered to guests arriving in the afternoon at country houses: Alice Vavasor is greeted with a cup in Lady Glencora’s dressing-room at Matching, while her maid has hers in the ladies’ maids’ own room, and one was sent to Clara Amedroz’s chamber at Aylmer Park. The Trefoil ladies offended old Mrs. Morton at Bragton by asking to have theirs sent to their room, though at Rufford Hall they graciously take it in the drawing-room. That, to be sure, was in the late seventies, and I suspect the whole household was drinking it, as well as the new arrivals. For in Trollope’s later novels he occasionally alludes to afternoon tea as a feminine habit, or as a cheap way of entertaining. Lizzie Eustace’s sponging friend, Mrs. Carbuncle, made no other return for dinners, mounts in the hunting-field, and visits at country houses, than cards for ‘At Homes’ at five o’clock. True, Mme. Melmotte also was at home at five o’clock, and her establishment was far from parsimonious in hospitality; but then, neither she nor Mrs. Carbuncle was English, nor, what I suspect was more to the point, were they favorites with their author.

Trollope never brings his characters to the tea-table with the zest of his devoted disciple, Mr. Archibald Marshall, nor allows the heroines dear to his heart to preside, or a favorite hero to hand about the muffins. Silverbridge, one of his latest, and, I believe, dearest heroes, certainly refuses to stay to tea with Lady Mabel Grex, and promises to return to dinner, showing that it was the meal and not the lady he spurned. I think Trollope would have done the same. Dinner was a meal he delighted to describe in detail, luncheon scarcely less so, and his breakfast-table pictures are many; but he never mentions afternoon tea with any enthusiasm. I think in regard to that new-fangled custom, as with Hopkins and his new orders about ‘the doong,’ Trollope’s feelings were too much for him. I believe he expressed his own heart in describing that delightful old lady, Miss Jemima Stanbury of Exeter Close, to whom ‘Tea with buttered toast at half-past eight in the evening was the great luxury of her life, but afternoon tea was a thing horrible to her imagination.’