Monday, 17 March 2014

Jane Austen locked her tea up and hid the key

Tea box, with key hole
Tea was so valuable once upon a time that the servants were not permitted access to it. They could get to the silver, to the jewels, to the wine, but not the tea. It fell to the family to make the tea themselves, the youngest daughter in general, and in Jane Austen's case, she was the one. She made the tea in the mornings for breakfast, and kept the key herself.

Tea was so valuable that it was used and re-used by the family, then when it was done, it was given to the servants, who used it until it was really done, and THEN, the servants mixed it with sawdust and went to peddle it to the servants of lesser households.

I was told at an event at the Jane Austen festival that it is this practice which gave rise to the use of the phrase "char lady" to refer to the cleaning lady. "Cha" is Chinese for tea. I have also considered the alternative explanation for this term, which is that old tea leaves were used in cleaning floors. If you have read Longbourn by Jo Baker, you might recall her description of this activity.

Georgian Tea Set
Note the large slop bowl at top right, and the handleless cups
Initially, tea cups did not have handles, but were more like Chinese tea cups. Handles were around in Jane Austen's time, but there were plenty of tea sets at her time that had handle-free cups. Tea sets also included, in addition to very large sugar bowls, another large bowl called a slop bowl, for sloshing the last few drops of tea and little bits of tea leaves at the end of a cuppa. Then, when you poured a fresh cup, it did not mix with the cold drops of the previous cup.

As I have said before, tea was not always synonymous with British life. I read one story in Bill Bryson's book "At Home" (an excellent read, which I thoroughly recommend) about the early days of tea in England. He shared a letter from one society lady to another thanking her for sending the tea, saying that she wasn't quite sure what she was supposed to do with it, so she boiled it up and spread it on toast, but found that it wasn't really to her taste. Thanks anyway.

 Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

Read Chapter 1      Watch the Trailers      Download eBook      Order Paperback

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