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The social tea-table is like the fireside of our country, a national delight; and, if it be the scene of domestic converse and agreeable relaxation, it should likewise bid us remember that every thing connected with the growth and preparation of this favorite herb should awaken a higher feeling—that of admiration, love, and gratitude to Him “who saw every thing that he had made, and behold it was very good.”


George Sigmond praised the “tea-table” as a site of domestic felicity in 1839, four years after the East India Company lost its monopoly on the China tea trade.  His specific occasion was the discovery of a native tea plant in Assam, India, which Sigmond interpreted as a divine justification of the English habit; tea was now an even more British beverage because “the hand of Nature has planted the shrub within the bounds of the wide dominion of Great Britain” (3).  The true domestication of tea, however, was not its cultivation within the borders of the Empire, but its absorption into the essential feminine.  “Nature meant very gently by women when she made that tea-plant,” observed Thackeray in The History of Pendennis  1850. Not only was tea a female comfort, it was the “allay [sic] of woman in the work of refinement,” claimed Leitch Ritchie in 1848.  While the tea-table had always been a site of female power, in the 1840s and ‘50s, it became identified with middle-class female “influence.”  Women serving tea displayed the beauty of their arms and hands as well as the elegance of their equipage[2] while inviting sympathetic confidences from men to women.  Lacking the animality of the dinner table, the tea-table encouraged a man to feel “a kindliness, amounting to warmth of regard, for all around him”.  Tea as the emblem of female sympathy figured most prominently in Annie Swan’s column “Over the Teacups,” an advice column “where women could exchange confidences as equals and friends” in Women at Home in the 1890s.[3]  On the surface, tea and tea-drinking, a sign of safety in class and gender, fixed an essential feminine.


However, the very prominence of this sign as an emblem of an essentialist quality invited the subversion of the sign and thus the deconstruction of the essentialist reading.  Four examples, from 1860 to 1895 use the domestic “tea ceremony” to reveal the custom as a performance not a reality and thus undermine its “civilizing” function.  Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley's Secret (1860) transformed the tea-table into a siren’s fascination of her victim, emphasizing the commodification that underlay this domestic ceremony.   Also from 1863 to 1868, the short-lived satiric periodical the Anti-Teapot Review aimed itself at the moralism implicit in the praise of tea by social critics such as Ritchie and Sigmond. The civilizing function of tea was ironized in 1886 by Robert Louis Stevenson in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Ultimately, Algernon Moncrieff usurps the female tea-table in 1894 in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest. The space is now effeminate as well as feminine, and Wilde replaces benign female influence with a serious game of class. 


The affinity of female sympathy with tea-making and tea-drinking has distinct class associations that Braddon and Wilde in particular exploit to undermine the essentialism of the sign.  When Thackeray praises nature for making the tea plant, calling it a “confidante” for women, he has specific scenes in mind:


Poor Polly has [the teapot and cup] and her lover’s letters upon the table; his letters, who was her lover yesterday, and when it was with pleasure, not despair, she wept over them.  Mary comes tripping noiselessly into her mother’s bedroom bearing a cup of the consoler to the widow who will take no other food.  Ruth is busy concocting it for her husband, who is coming home from the harvest field. . . . (353)


This rhapsody is occasioned by Mrs. Shandon’s need for comfort.  She is the wife of the drunken Captain Shandon, a jobbing journalist, who is in jail for debt.  Comfort is directly associated with the consumption of tea as “food.” Similarly, when the farm girl Susan in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Half a Lifetime Ago is comforted by old Peggy because her lover Michael has abandoned her, she is comforted by the sensation of tea:  “she was surprised by the touch on her mouth of something. . . . It was a cup of tea, delicately sweetened and cooled” (Lady Ludlow, ch. 3).  Perhaps the middle-class ascribed comforting consumption to the lower classes to recuperate or react to a long-standing argument that tea-drinking was “bad” for the working class, “bad” in two senses.  As far back as 1744, Eliza Heywood in The Female Spectator hosted a discussion of the economic hazards of tea drinking:  “it is the utter Destruction of all Oeconomy,--the Bane of good Housewifry,--and the Source of Idleness, by engrossing those Hours which ought to be employed in an honest and prudent Endeavour to add to, or preserve what Fortune, or former Industry has bestowed.”[4]  Tea was also thought to be unhealthy, causing weakness and “nerves.”  While such debilitation might be acceptable in the leisure class, it would seriously harm the economy if Britain’s laborers were so weakened.  This attitude persisted into the 1880s when the Dean of Bangor argued that for the working classes, “too much tea-drinking, by destroying the calmness of the nerves, was acting as a dangerous revolutionary force among us.  Tea-drinking, renewed three or four times a day, made men and women feel weak, and the result was that the tea-kettle went before the gin-bottle, and the physical and nervous weakness that his its origin in the bad cookery of an ignorant wife, ended in ruin, intemperance and disease” (qted. in Reade 124).[5]


Tea and sympathy did, of course, reach into the middle classes, but as it did, there began a distancing of presentation from consumption—and that gap will be the site of subversion and irony. 

Mina Harker in Dracula provides tea as well as the “mother-spirit” for the Crew of Light in preparation for their hunt for the vampire.  Seward, the scientist whose asylum is headquarters, remarks, “Mrs. Harker gave us a cup of tea, and I can honestly say that, for the first time since I had lived in it, this old house seemed like home” (ch. 18). Here the associations of tea are less with its physical comfort as with Mina’s motherly ministrations. However, Mina is ascending class positions:  she has been an assistant schoolmistress and Jonathon, her new husband, has just been (rather miraculously) promoted from law clerk to partner to sole owner of a law practice.             


When tea is clearly a sign of middle-class femininity, consumption is just about non-existent.  As Margaret Beetham has discussed, Annie S. Swan (Mrs. Burnett Smith) became the first “’agony aunt’ in the modern sense” (166) in her column “Over the Teacups” in Women at Home.  As the title of the magazine suggests, the target audience was the middle-class woman.  Beetham points out that “[f]ew working-class women appeared among the correspondents and none of the non-white women from around the world.  The letters came from middle-class women, usually married or expecting to be, living at home . . .” (168-69). Harkening back to Thackeray, Swan’s mythical tea-table was an exclusively female, egalitarian, space; however, for them, afternoon tea “hardly ranked as a proper meal” (166), but was a site of female authority.  The illustrations to “Over the Teacups” emphasize the genteel situation not the vulgar (because bodily) consumption of tea—and there is no evidence of bread and butter, crumpets, or anything edible.  And for the upper-class women surrounding Hadria in Mona Caird’s Daughters of Danaeus (1894), the tea-ceremony is an abstract site:  “The vicar’s wife and the doctor’s wife and the rest of the neighbours compared their woes and weariness over five o’clock tea. . . (24.221)


Thus, form takes precedent over physical function as tea-drinking became a middle and upper-class ceremony.[6]  Emphasizing tea as an abstract occasion for sympathy and female companionship will allow Braddon and Wilde to turn the tea ceremony into just that:  an aesthetic performance instead of an act of comfort and communion.  In these examples, the feminine itself is theatricalized.  As the sign that is the tea ceremony loses its anchor in physical comfort, it can lose its ethical function and so be appropriated, ironized or parodied.  Appropriation that subverts takes two forms. In Lady Audley’s Secret and the Anti-Teapot Review the sign is turned against itself.  The participants experience the situation as the traditional female moral site but the interpreters (the narrator in Lady Audley’s Secret and the anonymous writers of Anti-Teapot Review) re-interpret the sign.  By emphasizing the performance, they can “empty” the sign of its conventional significance and re-interpret it for their readers who are not participants. In these cases, the participants misread their own participation.  In contrast, Stevenson creates a nearly tragic irony by maintaining the moral implications of the ceremony but juxtaposing them with the horrific death of   Jekyll/Hyde.  When Wilde empties the ceremony of any moral content, it becomes a Geerztian art form that re-assures its audience of their own exclusivity, partly by re-inserting physical self-gratification precisely in the class that has denied its basis in appetite.


All these subversions of the tea-ceremony require what Bourdieu calls “cultural competence” on the part of the reader.[7] One must know the code of female domestic tea before one can “misread” as these authors desire.  There is, then, a kind of aesthetic competence demanded of the reader that is in itself a class sign, an invitation to the “game of knowingness.”[8]  This shift from physical and emotional necessity to an abstract performance connects to an on-going discussion about the demise in the quality of consumption precisely because of the separation between consumption and presentation.  Sigmond, for example, criticizes the use of tea urns because urns do not keep the water at the rolling boiling commonly believed to produce the best-tasting tea (Sigmond 88).  Moreover, ladies, in their pursuit of “despotic fashion,” have relinquished their duty of making the tea to their housekeepers (Sigmond 88).  The Daily Telegraph complained in the early 1880s that “it is surprising in how few houses a good cup of tea can be obtained now that it has become unfashionable for the mistress of the establishment, not only to preside over her own tea-table, but to have complete sway over that most necessary article, a kettle of boiling water.”[9]  The Telegraph sees the custom of footmen or maid-servants handing tea around as a diminishment of literal taste and female authority.  “Taste” has been sacrificed for “Distinction.”


Braddon re-integrates tea-making with the tea-ceremony only to mystify the practice, turning the site of female sympathy into a Vivien-like enchantment of the male. 


[Lady Audley] looked very pretty and innocent, seated behind the graceful group of delicate opal china and glittering silver.  Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea.  The most feminine and domestic of all occupations imparts a magic harmony to her every movement, a witchery to her every glance.  The floating mists from the boiling liquid in which she infuses the soothing herbs; whose secrets are known to her alone, envelope her in a cloud of scented vapor, through which she seems a social fairy, weaving potent spells with Gunpowder and Bohea.  At the tea-table she reigns omnipotent, unapproachable.  What do men know of the mysterious beverage?  Read how poor Hazlitt made his tea, and shudder at the dreadful barbarism.  How clumsily the wretched creatures attempt to assist the witch president of the tea-tray; how hopelessly they hold the kettle, how continually they imperil the frail cups and saucers, or the taper hands of the priestess.  To do away with the tea-table is to rob woman of her legitimate empire.  To send a couple of hulking men about among your visitors, distributing a mixture made in the housekeeper’s room, is to reduce the most social and friendly of ceremonies to a formal giving out of rations. . . . .

            . . . My lady was by no means strong-minded. The starry diamonds upon her white fingers flashed hither and thither among the tea-things, and she bent her pretty head over the marvelous Indian tea-caddy of sandal-wood and silver, with as much earnestness as if life held no higher purpose than the infusion of Bohea.[10]


The “diamonds,” “scented vapours,” and “sandal wood and silver” denote economic power, while Braddon’s allusion to Hazlitt’s clumsiness establishes the prerogative of the female. This passage naturalizes the socio-economic status of this tea ceremony, but Braddon’s emphasis on Lady Audley’s performance marks her out as an infiltrator into this elite. Lady Audley’s Secret was published in the context of the emergence of women’s magazines such as Samuel Beeton’s The Queen, launched in 1861, which was a “class” paper, designed for the “lady” wherein the home was “neither the product of woman’s moral management nor of her practical skills but a domestic theatre in which her femininity—defined in terms of beauty, dress and deportment—was displayed” (Beetham 89-90). By the 1860s, women could purchase most of the accoutrements of the lady, including lessons in behavior, from such magazines a The Queen. Acting successfully in this domestic theatre, Lady Audley denies the correlation between this activity and the essential female. Her mysterious witchery disguises the real Lady Audley, a bigamist and would-be murderess.  The “mystery” and “authority” behind this performance is her ruthless ambition to use her beauty to attain a life of luxury.  Her “secret” is that she is not insane but, as her doctor says, “cunning” and “with the prudence of intelligence. . . She is dangerous” (249) because she combines these qualities with a will to act on her desires.  This masculine capacity hides under an angelic countenance in a performance that Braddon explicitly suggests denies any such masculine power:  “Better the pretty influence of the tea cups and saucers gracefully wielded in a woman’s hand than all the inappropriate power snatched at the point of the pen from the unwilling sterner sex.  Imagine all the women of England elevated to the high level of masculine intellectuality . . . above taking the pains to be pretty; above tea-tables . . . and what a drear, utilitarian, ugly life the sterner sex must lead. (147). Lady Audley’s career ironizes this masculine point of view because her survival has depended precisely upon a masculine capacity to understand her position as a commodity and use it to her own advantage.  She realized young that she lived in a predatory world that she calls a “lottery” (231) where, with only beauty, her “ultimate fate in life depended upon [her] marriage” (231).  And indeed, her first husband, who abandoned her to make his fortune while professing to love her, describes his “courtship” in the irreconcilable languages of love and money.  Lady Audley’s father was “a drunken old hypocrite, and he was ready to sell my poor little girl to the highest bidder.  Luckily for me, I happened just then to be the highest bidder; for my father is a rich man. . . and as it was love at first sight on both sides, my darling and I made a match of it” (13).  Her current marriage to Sir Michael Audley is also called by the besotted baronet, “a bargain” (8).  Lady Audley’s performance gives the male the image he desires while her life reveals the necessity of hypocrisy and repression that, in conflict with her equally necessary will to survive, requires her to be shut away from the world.  She is dangerous because she reveals the acting necessary for any “good woman” who lives in this patriarchal world.  If a woman can act feelings, can use this conventional expression of sympathy and the nurturing female (they are having tea in her boudoir), she cannot, as Martin Meisel points out, “be known to have [feelings], or can dissemble those she has.”[11]  Thus the depository of sympathy and purity is no longer secure.  Aesthetic virtuosity and virtue had been identified since Shaftsburian moral philosophy. As Terry Eagleton, put it, “The morally virtuous individual lives with the grace and symmetry of an artefact, so that virtue may be known by its irresistible aesthetic appeal.”[12] This identification is the basis for the “natural” virtue of the “lady” and is the reason that female performance is forbidden. If you reverse the process to move from aesthetic appeal to moral virtue and discover ruthless selfishness, then morality is not grounded in the body and cannot be definitively located in anyone. The “je ne sais quois” evidence of eighteenth-century virtue has become lethal in Braddon. Lady Audley’s aesthetic dexterity in the context of her history, turns the nurturing beverage into an opiate, lulling the male by satisfying his own aestheticized desires. 


Lady Audley’s tea ceremony undermines not only the moral purity of the act but also suggests the instability of tea as a class sign.  Is it a site of “vulgar” consumption, rendering comfort by means of physical satisfaction?  Is it an occasion wherein physical comfort is abstracted into sympathy and a willing ear?  Or is it an opportunity for a sexual-aesthetic performance where the empress of the tea-table displays herself as another commodity among her equipage?  The tension among these ways of reading the ceremony reflects our own habits of reading.  How do we know, reading Lady Audley, that her actions are simultaneously aristocratic and falsely so? 


Equally hypocritical and threatening to the security of class status were “moral tea-drinkers.” Tea kept working men out of taverns and encouraged middle-class men to leave their bottles of port (Ritchie 67).  Denys Forrest points out that by 1820, tea was “the temperance reformer’s No. 1. weapon.”[13]  Temperance reform must be understood in the larger context of civilization.  “Civilization” of the lower classes was a demand for a self-imposed political and social control.  For the upper classes’ it was a feminization of society, transforming the Regency dandy into the Victorian gentleman of “character” who cultivated the softer emotions.  Temperance’s connection to the development of moral character actually connected to the Victorian concern with what G. R. Searle has called the “morality of the market-place.”[14]  From a temperance point of view, tea was not only a lucrative trade but could be seen as a moral trade.  Many of the 19th century treatises use the civilizing argument as the basis to argue against tea duties and to praise the economic benefits of the tea trade not only in itself but as the tea trade encouraged the sugar trade and the English potteries.  The moral discourse is almost always accompanied by an economic agenda.  Gideon Nye in 1850 quoted Edward Brodribb’s 1849 claim that tea has been the salvation of the state:


perhaps nothing has tended so much to civilize and soften the ruder manners of the uneducated classes as the use of these foreign products.  They have carried refinement with them, both of habits and mind, wherever their use has been continuous; the pot-house and the wrangling club [both potential sites of political agitation] have found in them their greatest enemies.  The drunkard by them has been reclaimed—the truant from home restored.  Desolate hearths have been made glad, and weeping eyes dried up, as, by their influence, husband, son, or brother has been won back to the endearing delights of home.  Many is the child who dates from such a period the first anxious care of a father regarding his education and morals.  From that day the father discharged his highest duties to the State; and how has the state repaid him?  By taxing these three articles [tea, sugar, and?] together to the amount of L11,000,000 annually.[15]


Leitch Ritichie claimed “that the moral reform and social improvement for which the present age [1848] is remarkable have had their basis in TEA” not the least of which benefit is that the making of one teacup will, “before it is finished, employ forty hands” (65).  The moral and economic arguments are presented equally strongly and, in fact, as inseparable:  the tea trade was one area of expanding British commerce wherein free-trade could cause general moral improvement instead of rampant greed.[16] 


However, this discourse with its emphasis on trade and morality represented to a more traditional Tory audience the antithesis of civilization.  The masculine “character” produced by moral tea-drinking was a hypocritic who asserted his own superiority by criticizing his social betters.  The Anti-Teapot Review, a short-lived periodical running from 1864 to 1868 took to task “Teapotism,” the “Teapotty woman,” and, most particularly for my purposes, the “male Teapot.”  The periodical was printed in Oxford and has a distinct Oxbridgean aura about its attitudes and authors.  The authors sign their articles with initials, often with their University affiliation, or professional identifications such as “M.A., Oxon.”  Anti-Teapots are anti-Sabbatarian, anti-Low Church, anti-Evangelical, whose self-defined purpose was “to make a stand against the vulgarity, rebellion, and profanity of the nineteenth century.”[17]  Class was the central issue, and tea-drinking was the symbol of hypocritical class pretension. The “purely metaphorical” title is appropriate because it points out the “perversion of tea as the symbol of a mawkish, puritanical sentimentalism, to its abuse as a medium for originating and promulgating petty slanders on the characters of unostentatious neighbors, or vicious misrepresentations of the characters of those who do not move in the narrow-minded, illiberal family circle of which Mrs. Grundy is the nursing mother, and the professional religionist the foster-father.”[18]  The tea-table has returned to its Restoration function as a place of gossip, but instead of the witty repartee among equals as in The Way of the World or The Batchelor, this gossip masquerades as moral discourse. The male Teapot is “essentially illiterate,” and “snivels and talks cant on Sundays, and would faint at the sight of an ‘altar.’ He detests the ‘landed gentry,’ generally grinds down the poor, and abhors young curates from Oxford.  He can seldom row, ride, or play cricket; he grows stout on country air and good living, so he frequently objects to dancing on principle, and thinks the theatre next door to a very warm place.”[19]  In contrast, the true gentleman, a great “rarity,” is


well-educated, traveled, accomplished, and conversant with the ways of mankind--. . .ladies should admire him, and . . . his intercourse with them should always be marked by a kind of homage—he must also be courteous on principle, honourable and just in all his dealings, tender of the feelings of others, and doing to them as he would be done by.[20]


While neither the Teapot nor the Anti-Teapot were directly connected with “trade,” the Anti-Teapot Review makes it clear that the Victorians were very aware of the moral implications of their tea-drinking.  This feminized morality lies at the heart of Stevenson’s irony in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  “Tea” seems an impotent beverage compared to the mysterious mixture of “impure” salts that bifurcates Dr. Jekyll’s identity.  However, tea makes a pointed appearance at the end of the story, not in the discourse, but in the plot.  Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, and Poole, Jekyll’s servant, have broken into the doctor’s laboratory to save, as they think, Dr. Jekyll from Hyde.  Hyde lies dead, contorted in “clothes far too large for him, clothes of the doctor’s bigness” with no sign of Jekyll.[21]  After searching in vain for the doctor, Utterson and Poole return to the laboratory and find on a table remnants of a “white salt,” “the same drug,” Poole says, “that  I was always bringing him . . .


And even as he spoke, the kettle with a startling noise boiled over. This brought them to the fireside, where the easy chair was drawn cosily up, and the tea things stood ready to the sitter’s elbow, the very sugar in the cup.  There were several books on a shelf; one lay beside the tea things open, and Utterson was amazed to find it a copy of a pious work, for which Jekyll had several times expressed a great esteem, annotated, in his own hand, with startling blasphemies.


The juxtaposition between tea and Hyde is, I suggest, intended to be read as commentary upon Dr. Jekyll’s descent into vice.  In a discarded draft of the story, Stevenson had written:  “The kettle had by this time boiled over; and they were obliged to take it off the fire; but the tea things were still set forth with a comfortable orderliness that was in strange contrast to the tumbled corpse upon the floor.”[22]  The published version replaces the directive “contrast” with the subtler implied difference between the twisted corpse and the image of “the tea things” standing “cosily” “ready to the sitter’s elbow, the very sugar in the cup.” 


Jekyll, a confirmed bachelor, had conceived of his experiment as a way to free himself from his conscience in order to pursue mysterious pleasures (never specified).  Jekyll’s separation of self from self is possible because he lives in an all male world without the intimate husband/wife relationship that would have either inhibited Jekyll’s experiments or rendered them unnecessary, for his isolation may contribute to his need for such experimentation.  Katherine Linehan has argued that Stevenson saw  “secrecy and a withdrawal from human bonds as pre-conditions for a form of self-alienation disastrous to psychological and spiritual well-being.  Viewed in this framework, the absence of women from the plot as sex objects may be less of a clue to Hyde’s violent nature than their absence as love objects.”[23]  Heterosexual love, for Stevenson, was a way toward healthy self-regulation. He wrote in the posthumously published Reflections and Remarks on Human Life:


To take home to your hearth that living witness whose blame will most affect you, to eat, to sleep, to live with your most admiring and thence most exacting judge, is this not to domesticate the living God?  Each becomes a conscience to the other, legible like a clock upon the chimney-piece.[24]


In Jekyll and Hyde, the “cozy” tea service is the sign of the absent female, the lack of the feminized moral sense.  Tea-drinking is the symbol and method whereby appetite is controlled. Jekyll’s lack of the feminine allows Hyde the primitive to emerge.  “Civilization” controls the body and its appetites through its aestheticisation.  Jekyll’s potion separates his appetites from his moral sense, simultaneously “de-asetheticising” himself.”  As a pre-aesthetic, pre-social being, Hyde appears “deformed,” primitive, apelike, and atavistic to all who see him.  To Jekyll, his double finally devolves into “the slime of the pit” and “amorphous dust” (60).[25] The “impure” potion is the addictive drink (similar to gin) that by its uninhibiting action reveals the necessity of the ideological work of manners: aestheticised behaviour that is internalized self-control.  “The ultimate binding force of the bourgeois social order . . . [is] habits, pieties, sentiments and affections.  And this is equivalent to saying that power in such an order has become aestheticised.  It is at one with the body’s spontaneous impulses, entwined with sensibility and the affections, lived out in unreflective custom” (Eagleton 20).   Terry Eagleton is describing the inception of aestheticised morality in the eighteenth century, and Stevenson dramatizes the necessity of it in the nineteenth century.  Once released, Hyde pursues ever-darker pleasures, turning “toward the monstrous,” trampling a child and murdering a venerable old man, basic violations of the code of gentlemanly behavior.  The primitive usurps the civilized, and at the death scene, the only remnant of the once-respectable doctor is his tea equipage, ironic symbol of the female presence that might have protected him.


An incongruous transition from Dr. Jekyll and his horrific alter-ego to Jack Worthing and his comic alter-ego, Ernest.  “My name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country,” he explains to Algernon, who promptly identifies this self-serving game as “Bunburying,” naming his own alter-ego, the invalid Bunbury.  Just as Jekyll feels “an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul” when he first becomes Hyde (50), both “Ernest” and “Bunbury” are identities that free Jack and Algy from the strictures of respectable behavior.  The three tea scenes in The Importance of being Earnest are games of Wilde’s serious frivolity.  In the opening scene, Algy confronts Jack with his Bunburying and eats all the cucumber sandwiches. In act 2, Cecily uses the tea ceremony as a comic weapon against Gwendolyn, and at the end of act 2, after Algy and Jack have been caught in their masquerades as “Ernest” by Cecily and Gwendoly, Algy consoles himself by drinking tea and eating muffins, much to Jack’s irritation.  All three scenes emphasize the expense and elegance of the equipage and the fashion underlying the customs of consumption.  George Alexander and his St. James Theatre were the perfect vehicle for this self-conscious fashion.  Alexander himself was a scion of male fashion and his wife, Florence, made sure the actresses presented themselves as fashion-plates.  The St. James’s elaborate interior decoration mirrored to perfection the people who patronized its stalls.  No one knew better, that the stalls enjoyed the gilded pill of romance about themselves, and that the gallery loved to see the stalls swallow it.  No real medicine was possible, for his audiences wouldn’t pay to be choked or for the privilege of having a nasty taste in the mouth . . . . it was the drama of the genteel—the apotheosis of the Butterfly.[26]




Wilde’s plays were games for an audience “in the know.”  His well-dressed characters with their artificial dialogue, worked out their aggressions in that most innocuous of activities:  tea-drinking.  Each of the three scenes is a site of aggression, a same-sex battle over heterosexual rights, a battle created by the conflict between Jack and Algernon’s double identities.  When we first meet Algy, Lane, the butler, has just brought in an elaborate tea service including cucumber sandwiches—a recently introduced delicacy.  Jack accuses Algy of “eating as usual” to which Algy replies “stiffly”: “I believe it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o’clock.”  This refreshment is reserved only for Algy as he punctuates his interrogation of Jack—to find out who “Little Cecily” is, by eating all the sandwiches he originally had designed for Aunt Augusta.  Their discussion is marriage, divorce, and sexual deceit mixing with Algy’s eating exclusively for himself mingles a war of words with a war of bites.  Who gets to consume—here Algernon—is also the victor in the battle of wits.


Algy:  Divorces are made in Heaven—[Jack puts out his hand to take a sandwich.  Algernon at once interferes.] Please don’t touch the cucumber sandwiches.  They are ordered specially for Aunt Augusta. [Takes one and eats it.]

Jack:  Well, you have been eating them all the time.

Algernon:  That is quite different.  She is my aunt. [Takes plate from below.]


In act 2, Merriman, Cecily’s butler, and the footman, lay an elaborate tea, restraining the imminent battle between Cecily and Gwendolyn over their rights to “Ernest.”  As Cecily serves tea, the battle begins:


Cecily: May I offer you some tea, Miss Fairfax?

Gwendolyn [With elaborate politeness.] Thank you. [Aside.] Detestable girl!  But I require tea!

Cecily [Sweetly.] Sugar?

Gwendolyn [Superciliously.] No thank you.  Sugar is not fashionable any more. [Cecily looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup.]

Cecily [Severely.] Cake or bread and butter?

Gwendolyn [In a bored manner.] Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.

Cecily [Cuts a very large slice of cake, and puts it on the tray.] Hand that to Miss Fairfax.

Merriman and the footman serve and leave, and Gwendolyn discovers she has been insulted.

[Gwendolyn drinks the tea and makes a grimace.  Puts down the cup at once, reaches out her hand to the bread and butter, looks at it, and finds it is cake.  Rises in indignation.]

Gewendolyn.  You have filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake.  I am known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far. 

Cecily [Rising.] To save my poor, innocent trusting boy from the machinations of any other girl there are no lengths to which I would not go. 


The plethora of etiquette books and ladies magazines with instructions about what is fashionable to serve and how to serve it indicate that this knowingness is a serious business of class placement. Cucumber sandwiches are a purview of the elite as are elaborate equipages.  We have seen Gwendolyn in act 1 preferring bread and butter to anything else, so her rejection of cake is a true assignment of a fashionable value.  Cecily is a less sophisticated country girl, although well-bred and witty.  Wilde recuperates the tea ceremony from its middle-class domestic functions of moral influence and comfort to recast it as an exclusive, decorative activity assuming a “je ne sais quois” from its participants.  Algy’s consumption is not vulgar because it is totally aestheticized in its performance and self-consciousness as a performance (Bourdieu 228).  His His appetite parodies the superfluous desire of the upper classes who have no “needs” but still have desiares (Eagleton 201).  These scenes emphasize a conscious over-consumption in which serious self-parody establishes a purely aesthetic practice that marks an exclusive class status.  None of these scenes have any sense of “playing mother,” that is the female presence who dispenses moral goodness with bohea.  While there is nothing remotely “deadly” about these scenes, certainly no sense of Lady Audley’s siren seduction or Dr. Jekyll’s lack of the essential feminine, Wilde’s frivolity affirms the class statues of the original audience, the in-group reassuring themselves of their own aesthetic thus elitist status.  Ironically, of course, the rules of the game are established by an outsider. 


The luxury is not in having tea—it was widely available by 1894 and was a social inevitability, as evidenced by such columns as “Over the Tea Cups”—but in the exaggeratedly artistic inutility of tea drinking that suggests how serious is the maintenance of exclusivity.  To apply a definition from Terry Eagleton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic, these tea ceremonies are commodified art forms. Artifacts become commodities when “they exist for nothing and nobody in particular, and can consequently be rationalized, ideologically speaking, as existing entirely and gloriously for themselves” (Eagleton 9).  Thus art for art’s sake depends upon commodification.  These tea ceremonies are art forms in that they are “conveniently sequestered from all other social practices, to become an isolated enclave within which the dominant social order can find an idealized refuge from its own actual values of competitiveness, exploitation, and material possessiveness” (Eagleton 9).  Wilde ridicules these values while affirming their propriety as aestheticized behaviors, confirming the values that, ironically, underlie the “wide dominion of Great Britain” in the age of the New Imperialism.


Judith L. Fisher

Trinity University

San Antonio, Tx

[2] “Equipage” is the standard term for the accoutrements of the tea-table:  pot, cups, saucers, creamer, sugar, tongs.

[3] Margaret Beetham.  A Magazine of Her Own  (London:  Routledge, 1996), 166.

[4] Gabrielle M. Firmager.  The Female Spectator.  Being Selections from Mrs. Eliza Haywood’s Periodical First Published in Monthly Parts (1744-46) (London:  Bristol Classical Press, 1993), 90.

[5] Arthur Reade, Tea and Tea Drinking (London:  Sampson Low, 1884), 124.

[6] The irony of this separation is that the advent of afternoon tea was an aristocratic innovation based completely the satiation of one’s appetite.  To quote Edward Bramah’s version of the oft-told story about Anna, the Duchess of Bedford: “In her day [1840s] it was customary to eat a huge breakfast, lunch was of little account and dinner was at eight o’clock or thereabouts.  It was not surprising that round about five o’clock in the afternoon the Duchess used to get what she described as a ‘sinking feeling.’ She therefore ordered tea and cakes to be served in the afternoon and the fashion spread among those of her acquaintance who had noticed the same uncomfortable symptoms.  Fanny Kemble, the actress, first encountered afternoon tea at Belvoir Castle while she was visiting the Duke and Duchess of Rutland and believed that afternoon tea as an established meal probably originated around that time; it was essentially a female ritual” (Tea and Coffee.  A Modern View of Three Hundred Years of Tradition [London:  Hutchinson, 1972], 133).

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, Distincton:  A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984), 2.

[8] Nicholas Dames, “Brushes with Fame:  Thackeray and the World of Celebrity,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 56 (June 2001): 40.

[9] Qtd in Arthur Reade, Tea and Tea Drinking (London:  Sampson Low, 1884), pp. 55-56.

[10] Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret (New York:  Dover Books, 1974), pp. 146-47.

[11] Martin Meisel, Realizations:  Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England (Princeton:  Princeton UP), p. 333.

[12]Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Cambridge, MA:  Basil Blackwell, 1990), 35.

[13] Denys Forrest, Tea for the British, the Social and Economic History of a Famous Trade (London:  Chatto and Windus, 1973), 87.

[14] G. R. Searle, Morality and the Market in Victorian Britain (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1998).  See particularly chapters 1 and 2.

[15] Gideon Nye Jr., Tea and the Tea Trade, Parts First and Second, 1st Published in Hunt’s Merchant’s Magazine, 3rd edition.  New York, 1850. 

[16] Searle argues that a major problem for the growing capitalist class in Victorian England was “for such people . . . to reconcile their economic convictions with their ethical principles, the new world-view which had emerged to explain modern society with the social values which they had inherited from their ancestors,” ultimately  for capitalists “to justify their preferences” (7).  One can see just this at work in Nye’s conflation of moral and economic discourse in a tea-trade magazine. 

[17] “The Principles of Anti-Teapotism,” Anti-Teapot Review 1.3 (Nov. 1864) :37.

[18] “What is an Anti-Teapot?” Anti-Teapot Review 1.4 (Aug. 1865): 109-110.

[19]  “Teapots and Anti-Teapots,” Anti-Teapot Review 1.1 (May 1864): 1.  This characterization is reminiscent of the Rev. Mr. Slope of Trollope’s Barsetshire.

[20] “The Grand Old Name of Gentleman, Anti-Teapot Review 2.18 (Oct. 1868):147.

[21]  Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, ed. Katherine Linehan (New York:  W. W. Norton, 2003), 6 9.

[22] Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Katherine Linehan, ed. (New York:  W. W. Norton, 2003), 69. 

[23]  Katherine Linehan, “Sex, Secrecy, and Self-Alienation in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, ed, Katherine Linehan (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 205.  I use this version of the essay because it is significantly different than the first version, published in Robert Louis Stevenson Reconsidered:  New Critical Perspectives, ed. William B. Jones, Jr. (Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Company, 2003).

[24] Robert Louis Stevenson, “Reflections and Remarks on Human Life,” qted in Linehan 208.

[25] A Reverend Dr. Nicholson preached a sermon in Leamington on the story wherein he described the transformation as “the enswining of a nature.”  See Norton Critical Edition, 104.

[26]  Hesketh Pearson, Modern Men and Manners (81-82) in Donohue 50.

Jackson Pollock - Tea-cup (1948)

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