REVIEW: Tea With Jane Austen by Kim Wilson


The title of Tea With Jane Austen conjures up the most delightful fantasy: sitting comfortably by the fire in the breakfast parlor at Chawton Cottage as Jane Austen pours one a cup of steaming, fragrant tea and passes a plate of muffins and jam, then settles in for a cozy chat about Madame d’Arblay’s or Mr. Scott’s latest production. A lovely idea, indeed, but reason declares it impossible to fulfill — or is it?

Kim Wilson takes us back to Jane Austen’s time and shows us how the humble cup of tea formed an intrinsic part not only of Jane Austen’s life and works but of her society. The book is well-researched and wide-ranging, exploring the history of tea consumption in England and the culture that sprang up around it. Tea was not merely a beverage: it was a sign of social position and of fine hospitality as well.

We learn of the black market for used tea — yes, used tea! — as well as the nasty and even poisonous substances sold to the unwary as tea. We were particularly amused by Ms. Wilson’s report of the medical men who wrote in the strongest language of the health hazards of tea; amusing to us, with our modern knowledge of the many health benefits of tea.

The history and social customs of the consumption of tea in Jane Austen’s time touch on every aspect of life. Ms. Wilson relates the consumption of tea to meals, shopping, traveling, the army and navy — we loved the description of the soldiers at Waterloo enjoying a cuppa immediately before and after the battle — and social occasions such as picnics and balls. Plenty of period illustrations are sprinkled throughout the book, including some from Jane Austen’s novels.

The historical recitations are anything but dry. Ms. Wilson has an engaging sense of humor that shows itself continuously, but not uproariously; a true Janeite enjoyment of the ridiculous. Some of the most enjoyable reading is the period recipes, with their bewildering directions (precisely what is a “quick oven,” anyway?) and staggering proportions, particularly in a green tea punch that the Prince Regent was said to have enjoyed (and which explains a lot about the Prince Regent). If, like Louisa Musgrove, one is curious about what sailors ate on board, there is a recipe for “Catchup to Keep Twenty Years” that Captains Wentworth and Benwick could have used to spice up their shipboard provisions. There is even a recipe for a nice thin gruel; just the thing if Mr. Woodhouse is come to supper. Fortunately for the epicurially adventurous, Ms. Wilson recreates the recipes with modern proportions and directions. If one is so inclined, one could have tea and goodies very much as Jane Austen and her family enjoyed them.

There are also instructions for “Making the Perfect Cup” of tea. One cannot resist doing just that, and sipping that perfect cup while reading this fascinating book.