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Reading the Tea Leaves: Sanditon’s Reflection of English Identity

Though perhaps not the first measure considered in discussions of national identity, tea plays a vital role in the formation of Englishness, and examining the writings of Jane Austen and her contemporaries reveals tea’s cultural saturation.  Ever aware of the shifting currents of cultural thought, Austen records various responses to the act of tea-drinking in her novels and particularly in her final work, Sanditon.1  Among other purposes, the drink measures personality, even nationality.  As various as are the personalities in Sanditon and in the larger England it represents, Englishness itself is defined by the one activity all enjoy:  tea-drinking.  According to Claire Lamont, Austen and her characters almost always call themselves English, not British, and unlike Britishness, Englishness traditionally has not “needed to be negotiated and defended” (304, 312).  Austen’s use of tea as a meter for measuring temperament and nationalistic impulse reveals her understanding of the beverage’s importance to the English both outside and inside the home, and for women and men alike.

Writing a generation before Austen, social commentators were generally suspicious of tea and its supposed feminizing, equalizing properties.  Jonas Hanway’s A Journal of Eight Days’ Journey from Portsmouth to Kingston up Thames, &c, to which is Added an Essay on Tea (1757) proclaims:  “I have long considered tea, not only as a prejudiced article of commerce; but also of a most pernicious tendency with regard to domestic industry and labour; and very injurious to health” (2: 2).  Hanway dislikes tea in part because “the laborer and mechanic will ape the lord” in drinking it, thus wasting time that should be used for work (272).  More than half a century later, William Spence in Tracts on Political Economy (1822) agrees with Hanway, questioning the “worth of tea” as an effeminate “weed” that fails to do man’s work:  “it does not enable us to fight better—to work harder; it does not feed us, or clothe us”; worse yet, by imbibing tea the women of England have become “a race of invalids” (170).  Importing tea provides “no nourishment” for the English, and consequently the masculine British national character will be injected with “over-carefulness, effeminacy and a general debility of constitution” (Spence 170; Winborn 120).2  Like Hanway and Spence, eighteenth-century economist Arthur Young, in his Farmer’s Tour Through the East of England (1771), sees the effects of tea-drinking on the nation proper as very bad.  Bothered by the new custom “of men making tea an article of their food, almost as much as women,” Young views tea-drinking as an effeminate activity that men should avoid if they wish to keep in good health and not waste “their time go[ing] and com[ing] to the tea-table” (4: 351–52).3 

tea 1786

Thomas Rowlandson, Tea (1786). 

Despite evoking worrisome notions of femininity, tea became a staple of every British home and tea-drinking an emblem of Englishness itself, if a problematic one.  In particular, eighteenth-century women’s identification with the tea-table ritual indicates that this “soul of Englishness” may have been a feminine one.  Markman Ellis writes in Empire of Tea, “As a vital element of domestic life, tea has long been at the heart of home and community, often (although not always) in harmony with the feminizing forces of politeness and civility” (13).  Ellis notices the eighteenth-century view that tea straightforwardly “turns robust masculinity into enfeebled femininity, while perversely (and indirectly) exposing feminine delicacy to masculine immoderation” (105).  The worry of social commentators over tea’s supposed feminizing properties did not decrease the beverage’s popularity, though their imaginary fears may have highlighted the real connections between tea and English women. 

In spite of these concerns, a fondness for tea came to characterize the English nation as a whole.  According to Maggie Lane, tea in the all-female Austen household at Chawton was the specific responsibility of the novelist herself (142).  Austen’s few domestic duties included making the breakfast tea and toast each day, thus allowing her time for writing (17).  Austen’s novels showcase this habit, though without the worry male critics evince about tea’s feminizing effects.  When exhausted Sir Thomas Bertram returns from his arduous two years’ journey to Antigua, for instance, he requests “‘nothing but tea’” (MP 211).  For Austen, tea appears fortifying for women and men of all classes, not something to provoke anxiety. 

That tea could be part of a discussion of gender roles is evident in William Congreve’s play The Way of the World (1700), which makes explicit women’s connection to the tea table.  Congreve’s heroine, Millamant, requests to be “sole empress of my tea-table” when she and Mirabell establish the rules for their marriage (167).  Mirabell agrees to submit “to the dominion of the tea-table” if his future wife will limit herself to “native and simple tea-table drinks, as tea, chocolate, and coffee” and refrain from intoxicating beverages, the “men’s prerogative” (168).  Later in the drama, the country bumpkin and xenophobe Sir Wilfull Witwould gets drunk and sings: 

To drink is a Christian diversion,
Unknown to the Turk and the Persian:
Let Mahometan fools
Live by heathenish rules,
And be damned over tea-cups and coffee.  (171)4 

With these lines, Congreve parodies the early eighteenth-century English view of tea-drinking as foreign and effeminate, unfit for male British bodies.  He seems, however, to support the prevailing view of tea’s fitness for women, given Mirabell’s acknowledgment. 

Like Congreve’s Millamant, Austen’s Fanny Price of Mansfield Park (1814) also discovers a refuge in tea time:  her unwanted suitor, Henry Crawford, offends her with his over-familiarity, calling her his “‘dearest, sweetest Fanny—,’” until “[t]he solemn procession . . . of tea-board, urn, and cake-bearers” frees the heroine from “a grievous imprisonment of body and mind,” as it gives her something to do (398).  The tea ceremony affords Fanny a type of protection, just as it does for Charlotte Heywood, who, tiring of Arthur Parker’s overly intimate discussion of his digestive system, is rescued by “the entrance of the servant with the tea things” (Later Manuscripts 196).  Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, however, argues that the respectability inherent in the ritual of the tea table comes at a high price, as it is the site where an upper class woman’s body is “disciplined” to join in a vain show of “availability” (12).  The tea ritual, which Fanny believes to offer her safety from Henry’s advances, in Kowaleski-Wallace’s interpretation only succeeds in advertising Fanny’s status as eligible wife.  By contrast, Jane Tompkins, writing about uses of tea in American Susan Warner’s 1850 novel, The Wide, Wide World, finds nearly religious importance affixed to the tea ritual, where women have power and control and are not simply identified with serving tea (168).  Even timid Fanny Price has the power to delay, if not extinguish, an unwanted proposal while she conducts the tea ceremony at Mansfield. 

The stakes surrounding the tea ritual are not always so high, or fraught with dangerous consequences.  Tea has practical uses as well:  Amanda Vickery’s findings reveal that ladies in Georgian England offered tea for easing business exchanges at home (208).  Whether as a lubricant for business transactions, then, or as a tranquilizer after the conclusion of the day’s activities, tea functions in important ways to guarantee the productivity and stability of English women’s, and sometimes men’s, interests in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Tobias Smollett’s 1771 novel Humphry Clinker critiques nearly every aspect of British culture, including—like Austen’s Sanditon—both tea as a luxury item and the trend of visiting spa towns for amusement.  For Alistair Duckworth, Sanditon follows Humphry Clinker in its “concern with disease not only as a device of characterization but as a possible cultural symptom, [and] in its distrust of luxury and of novelty” (219).  Scottish Captain Lismahago particularly criticizes the Scots to his friend English squire Matt Bramble for “purchasing superfluities from England; such as . . . silks, lace, furs, jewels, . . . sugar, rum, tea, chocolate, and coffee; in a word, not only every mode of the most extravagant luxury, but even many articles of convenience, which they might find as good, and much cheaper in their own country” (278).  It seems probable that tea, by Lismahago’s accounting, falls into the category of convenience rather than luxury; tea was fast becoming more affordable in Britain, as Smollett’s narrative makes clear.  Lismahago describes tea as being imported to Scotland from England, when in actuality England had to first import tea from China.5

Like Smollett before her, Austen uses tea to critique and categorize characters in her novels:  clearly the beverage held an important place in her own life as well.  In Mansfield Park, tea is served at the wealthy Bertram estate and also in the humble home of Fanny Price’s nearly indigent family in Portsmouth (429).  The well-off denizens of Sanditon likewise enjoy regular tea parties (171–72, 196–99), while Austen’s novel Emma (1816) contains a description of the Martins, who rent farmland from Mr. Knightley and “‘live very comfortably,’” with eight cows, two parlors, and a summer-house, where they plan to drink tea (30, 26–27).  Rugged Mr. Martin and his plan for a tea-house indicate that it is not from tea-imbibing that her incapable males are formed.  Mr. Woodhouse with his gruel (E 24), Arthur Parker with his globs of butter on toast (LM 198), and Robert Ferrars with his toothpick case, come to mind (SS 251), all of whom are associated with other markers than tea.  For them, too much attention paid to health, comfort, or status symbols marks the ineffectual man. 

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Although several scholars, including Virginia Woolf and, more recently, Clara Tuite, have viewed Sanditon as a turning away from the country house novel and an embracing of new socio-economic modes of being (“House of Friction”), the novel fragment appears commensurate with Austen’s full-length works.  The single heroine in a small village, making moral judgments on those around her, as much describes Charlotte Heywood as it does Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet.  As is the case with Emma and Elizabeth, Charlotte may also find she has been wrong about many of these judgments.  If the tea table is given pride of place, Sanditon also appears to be carrying on the themes of domesticity evident in Austen’s major works, such as Emma and Mansfield Park.  Along with the tantalizing first portion of a good story, Sanditon appears to give readers a “collateral inheritance” (LM 147), that of a strong dose of English pride with their tea. 

For instance, Charlotte Heywood astounds sedentary, cocoa-drinking Arthur Parker with her tea habits:  “‘What!’ said he—‘Do you venture upon two dishes of strong green tea in one evening?—What nerves you must have!’” (198).  Arthur here is a short step away from becoming a Mr. Woodhouse, who cautions his dinner guests against everything except an “‘egg boiled very soft’” and a “small basin of thin gruel” (E 24).6  John Coakley Lettsom’s The Natural History of the Tea-tree, with Observations on the Medical Qualities of Tea, and Effects of Tea-drinking (1772) contains the following description of an Arthur Parker type:  “One poor ‘young man of a delicate constitution’” discovered that “‘fine green Tea’ induced feelings of ‘dejection and melancholy, with loss of memory, tremblings, a proneness to great agitation from the most trifling circumstances, and a numerous train of nervous ailments’” (qtd. in Ellis et al. 107). 

Nervous Arthur presses Charlotte to accept a cup of cocoa, but she firmly tells him, “‘I prefer tea’” (197).  This preference denotes Charlotte Heywood, like Austen’s earlier heroines Emma Woodhouse and Fanny Price, as a true English protagonist.  Just as Emma runs away to laugh at Mr. Elton, Charlotte considers Arthur Parker only laughable and not suitor material, keeping “her countenance” with difficulty (196).  He is much more impressed with her, offering Charlotte his chair, apologizing for the overly warm fire in June, and toasting her bread perfectly at tea-time (195–97).  At Mansfield Park, the nationalistic heroine Fanny Price is also connected to tea through her private reading of her “‘great book,’” an account of Lord Macartney’s 1792 journey to China (183).  In Northanger Abbey, conversely, it is the villainous General Tilney who patriotically lauds tea drunk from the “‘clay of Staffordshire’” as much as that from “‘Dresden or Sêve’” (179). 

The non-availability of good tea means, for Mr. Parker at least, the downfall of an entire English town hoping to attract tourists.  In his eagerness to inflate Sanditon’s charms over those of other rival seaside villages, Mr. Parker enumerates the problems with the competition:  Brinshore, for example, possesses “‘a most insalubrious air’” while also lacking good roads, and, to compound these difficulties, Mr. Parker opines that it is “‘impossible to get a good dish of tea within three miles of the place’” (143).  Tuite defines Parker’s speculation project as the “commercial exploitation of nostalgia” (Sanditon 609).  Tea, a signifier for present comfort and past reminiscence, is assumed to be vital to any town’s success, but readers are not to take Mr. Parker seriously:  his ironic dismissal of those persons, himself unacknowledged among them, who “‘are trying to add to the number’” of seaside tourist resorts and are thus in his view “‘excessively absurd’” (143) forbids it.  Desiring wealth, Mr. Parker does not acknowledge the potential evils of his plan for expanding Sanditon into a tourist trap. 

Clear-sighted Farmer Heywood reasons that the English coast is “‘too full of [seaside resorts] altogether’” and cannot be persuaded to leave his comfortable home for this “‘new place . . . starting up by the sea’” (143, 142).  Sheryl Craig suggests that Mr. Parker’s speculation is actually “a threat to England,” with Sanditon’s new “service economy” wreaking havoc with the local fishing trade (160–61), exactly as Charlotte’s father posits when he derides fashionable watering holes like Sanditon as “‘Bad things for a country;—sure to raise the price of provisions and make the poor good for nothing’” (142).  For Tony Tanner, the previously agricultural village of Sanditon has been conquered and colonized, exhibiting “signs of a new consumer culture” as well as a growing “fashion and leisure industry” (255). 

Mr. Heywood’s critique of this process follows ideas presented a generation previously in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776):  “The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his hands; and to hinder him from employing [them] in what manner he thinks proper . . . is a plain violation of this most sacred property.  It is a manifest encroachment upon the just liberty both of the workman, and of those who might be disposed to employ him” (1: 188).  Smith acknowledges that “[s]udden fortunes” are occasionally made through speculation but only “in places of the most extensive commerce and correspondence” (175).  Mr. Parker’s speculation is damaging for all involved, both working and upper classes. 

By contrast, a service economy, including the buying, selling, and taking of tea, is the way of the future.  As Kathryn Davis explains, Austen is not trying to halt or lament the modern but is showing her readers that the honesty and other values of “rooted, limited Willingden” are needed in the modern world.  In “Jane Austen’s House of Friction,” Tuite brilliantly describes the novel fragment as offering an “inspired if enigmatic anatomy of capitalist desire.”  Mr. Heywood’s next question about how these towns can be filled, along with Sanditon’s comparative emptiness, reveals just how risky Mr. Parker’s seaside venture is:  even the two families Diana and her sister send there turn out to be one and the same party (200).  All the tea in China cannot turn Sanditon into Brighton, or even Bath.  Mr. Parker thus resorts to turning his wealthy bachelor brother into a commodity:  Sidney’s presence in Sanditon, it is hoped, will bring “many a careful mother, many a pretty daughter” their way (159). 

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In Sanditon, tea time and refreshments are enjoyed by all, yet they appear implicated in the cosseting of Arthur Parker.  Charlotte, observing him, decides that his “enjoyments in invalidism were very different from his sisters’—by no means so spiritualized.—A good deal of earthy dross hung about him.  Charlotte could not but suspect him of adopting that line of life, principally for the indulgence of an indolent temper—and to be determined on having no disorders but such as called for warm rooms and good nourishment” (198).  For Tuite, Arthur’s elder brother Mr. Parker is worse off because implicated in self-castration, with his sprained ankle serving metonymically for his patrimony, now a “mutilated estate” (Romantic 161). 

As embodied as his siblings Thomas and Diana, the one enduring, the other healing a sprained ankle, Arthur Parker enjoys a different variety of pleasures, mainly gustatory ones featuring a regular routine of tea interspersed by meals.  This Parker brother is generally content to be coddled by his sisters, though in the 1975 ending of Sanditon penned by Marie Dobbs (“Another Lady”), Arthur matures when he and an actual invalid, the “chilly and tender” heiress Miss Lambe, decide to wed; Arthur forgets his pseudo-invalidism in caring for his beloved (LM 202; Dobbs 264).  Though not Austen’s dénouement, it is one I like.  D. A. Miller sees in this ending of Sanditon that the “Lady” who finished it “understood something fundamental to the narrative of the novel as Austen left it”:  that in completing it with the “usual quota of couplings” and “dearth of disasters,” its pursuit of the marriage plot is a foregone conclusion (80).  If the inevitability of the marriage plot is lamentable, then at least the union with Miss Lambe, as Dobbs imagines it, saves Arthur from himself and the rituals of the tea table, which were seen as questionable, for men at least, into the nineteenth century. 

Austen follows a new line of thought with the creation of Miss Lambe, having referenced the West Indies only briefly in two previous works:  as the origin of the Bertram family’s wealth in Mansfield Park and as a destination Persuasion’s Mrs. Croft has not traveled to, though her brother Captain Wentworth has been ordered there, as has Fanny’s sea-faring brother William (MP 34; P 76, 70; MP 275).  The islands in the West Indies are also the site of the widow Mrs. Smith’s recovered property (P 274).  In these earlier novels, the West Indies is a region one might go to; in Sanditon, it is a place one comes from.7

In the West Indian mulatto Miss Lambe, Austen may be giving readers her version of Dido Belle, the daughter of an English ship’s captain and a slave woman:  Belle was brought to England, was treated as one of the Earl of Mansfield’s family, and eventually married a Frenchman working in London, having three sons with him.  Maaja Stewart, Christine Kenyon Jones, and Gabrielle D. V. White have traced Austen’s interest in the anti-slavery campaign, especially with regard to her naming of Mansfield Park after the first Earl of Mansfield, Dido Belle’s great uncle, who introduced two pieces of abolition legislation (Stewart 120, 185; Jones; White 5–6).  In his biography of Dido Belle, Fergus Mason states that she helped her uncle, Lord Mansfield, with high-level government correspondence (ch. 6, 8), and while Dido did not usually attend meals when guests were present, she did join them at coffee and tea-time afterward.  Austen’s Miss Lambe holds a place of greater prominence than her peers within the women’s seminary run by Mrs. Griffiths (LM 201), though her absence from her family of origin may indicate, among other possibilities, their discomfort with her mixed racial heritage or even “[t]he stain of illegitimacy,” to borrow a phrase describing Harriet Smith (E 526).  Another Lady’s match-up of Arthur and Miss Lambe may be forecast in his preference in Austen’s text for “very fine, dark coloured” cocoa rather than green tea (LM 197).  Here, Miss Lambe is commodified in a similar manner to the fashionable Sidney Parker:  both are valuable financial assets for Sanditon.  Like Miss Lambe herself, cocoa is a product of the West Indies, and Jamaican planter Bryan Edwards in his History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies (1773) hopes that its sale will overtake that of “the foreign commodity tea” (2: 428).  Edwards here attempts to cast tea as the foreign import and cocoa as the domestic one, a difficult argument to make considering that the English naturalization of tea had been occurring since at least the early eighteenth century.8  While Edwards’s hope goes unrealized, the union of England and its colonies at the tea-table is well underway in Austen’s last work. 

Despite doubts about tea’s unhealthy or emasculating properties and extrinsic origins, English people of every class, represented by the Martins in Emma as well as Lady Denham and her circle in Sanditon, came to rely on tea-drinking as an aid in conducting business, socializing with neighbors, and inducing comfort within themselves.  Authors writing throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, reference tea as a foreign luxury at first, and then—here we see Austen at work—gradually describe tea time as an ultra-English ritual, domestic in every sense of the word.  What modernity looks like in respect of tea is noted in Sydney Buxton’s 1888 treatise, Finance and Politics, 1783–1885, with his description of “the prosperity of the working classes” in the 1870s based on their high levels of consumption of “tea and tobacco” (2: 261).  This view provides a far different interpretation from one hundred, even fifty years earlier, with economists Young’s and Spence’s worries about the effects of tea on the working classes.  Tea-drinking seems to have become accepted, even lauded, by the mid-Victorian era. 

Tea’s lengthy immigration process thus complete, its English partakers gain a highly flavored, if troubled, identity along the way.  With her mixed English and slave ancestry, Miss Lambe stands as a symbol of tea-drinking’s acculturation, tea itself, though originating in China, symbolizing Englishness.  In the brief appearance Miss Lambe makes in the fragment that is Sanditon, the heiress is presented as eminently marriageable and, as such, points the way toward the future for an England that will embrace ethnic, if not fiscal, diversity.



1Austen wrote twelve chapters of Sanditon, from January through March of 1817.  Her final illness did not allow her to finish the novel, which remained unpublished until 1925. 

2The same worries also plagued Irish households of the time (O’Connell 33). 

3Young targets tea because the practice of drinking it twice daily is “universal and unceasing” and “no transitory or local evil.”  Tea alone, Young finds, costs many poor families “more than sufficient to remove those real distresses, which they will submit to rather than lay aside their tea” (4: 351). 

4With tea, Congreve presents a contradiction in terms:  the beverage is at once a “native” product and also a foreign commodity.  Millamant, a self-described “empress of [her] tea-table,” gives an early reference to the growing British Empire.  The common denominator in both examples, however, is tea’s unsuitability for English males. 

5For Austen and her generation, tea is solely a Chinese product.  The first tea from India was sold in London by auction on January 10, 1839, more than twenty years after Austen’s death (Ukers 1: 146). 

6E. M. Forster’s review of Sanditon includes a comparison of Arthur to Emma’s father:  “the gruel of Mr. Woodhouse mingles with the cocoa of Arthur Parker a just perceptible aroma” (177). 

7In Sanditon the term “West Indies” is not found, though “West Indian” is used eight times. 

8William Ukers’s evidence points to a Broadside ad from 1657, revealing that tea leaf and drink were first officially sold in England by Thomas Garway, at his Exchange Alley venue.  In 1717 Thomas Twining turned “Tom’s Coffee House” into the “Golden Lyon,” the first tea shop in England, and one patronized by both genders (1: 38, 46). 

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