Which of the great writers is most associated with tea? Jane Austen is a leading candidate. She epitomizes the English tradition of tea as social, elegant and refined. That’s a slight stereotype – Jane was more edgy, earthy and less dainty than the popular image. (From her letters: “I give you joy of our new nephew, and hope if he ever comes to be hanged it will not be till we are too old to care about it.” On learning of Mrs. Deedes’ eighteenth child: “I would recommend to her and Mr. D. the simple regimen of separate rooms.”)

Many of the key conversations in her stories use the conventions of the tea table as their framing. “Tea time” very much marks the rhythms of daily routines. She constantly places events as “before” and “after” tea. This captures one of the main factors that made tea so pervasive: it offered a refueling break in the day, an invitational marker – come for tea – and a definite sugar boost; the Austen teas always come with plenty of cake and biscuits. What makes them a little unusual is that they naturally include men; in the later 19th century, they became very much the “ladies’” space.

Dickens is another obvious choice. Tea pervades his work as part of his rich and sympathetic portrayal of English working class life, with subtle details such as the will of Old Dobbs, whose proud treasures included “real silver spoons to stir the tea with.”

Great Expectations, a book of compelling characterization and haunting compassion, uses tea again and again to capture the generosity and hospitality of the poor. There’s a telling contrast here in the snobbery of the central character, who disdains their simplicity and is embarrassed by them; in a key scene, he fusses about the stalks in the tea that he is served and the quality of service appropriate to his elevated status as newly affluent gentleman.

The most fulsome advocate for tea was Samuel Johnson, in the late 1700s. Johnson was the premier literary star of his age, immortalized in the biography by Boswell that in essence just reports him talking – and talking. He single-handedly wrote the first English dictionary, a monumental achievement of genius and extraordinary hard work. He loved tea and famously stated: “l am a hardened and shameless tea drinker, who has, for twenty years, diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant, whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes morning.”

Alas, Johnson was not at all a potential TV spokesperson for tea as a health aid: overweight, stricken by gout and dyspepsia, probably suffering from Tourette’s syndrome, and dominated by a deep fear of incipient insanity. But what a beautiful eulogy for tea: it solaces the midnight and welcomes the morning.

To these British writers can be added the American-British Henry James, whose prolix prose uses tea as almost a character in his meandering polysyllables, and the much underrated Edith Wharton, his American contemporary. Both of them capture the degree to which tea and its formal etiquette became a marked signal of social standing among the rich. Tea is ritual and convention. James lays this out in lengthy hauteur; The Portrait of a Lady opens with “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”  Note this is tea as ceremony. He loved it.

Wharton largely skewered it. She was born to immense wealth; her family was the source of the phrase “keeping up with the Jones” (her maiden name). She never fit into the artificiality and straitjackets of what was called Old New York society.  Tea is very much part of the texture of her novels but her most famous association with it is the disastrous and now legendary meeting for tea that she had with Scott Fitzgerald. They never spoke again.

A third devoted American tea lover is another writer too often dismissed as a “woman” author. Willa Cather. Her books are set in Nebraska and are a superb panorama of the pioneer life. But she was actually a New Yorker and tea was a central social factor in her personal and professional life as well as a background near-character in many of her stories. She and Wharton are giants, with The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome (Wharton) and My Antonia and My Mortal Enemy peaks in the literature of the English language.

Then there’s the famous French vignette of Marcel Proust’s inscrutable A la Recherche des Temps Perdus, where his effete hero dunks a biscuit in his cuppa – more accurately, dampens a madeleine in his tisane. While it is much admired, it’s largely unread and needs more than tea as an accompaniment to keep the average booklover non-comatose: a bucket of caffeine-packed coffee perhaps or some prescription happy pills.

But the best combination of tea as topic and great writing are Russian authors. Three contemporaries stand out: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and above all Anton Chekhov.  If there were to be a literary patron saint of tea, it would be Chekhov, arguably the greatest dramatist after Shakespeare, surely the most outstanding short story writer, and definitely one of the most admirable figures in literary history, in his extraordinary humanity, decency and treatment of others. Only in his elusive unwillingness to commit to women was he somehow incomplete. That is reflected in the fusion in his writing of caring and detachment, empathy and observation.

His life was as striking as his plays and stories. He worked devotedly hard from youth to death, even when wealthy and famous, to provide free medical treatment to the local poor. He thought of himself as a physician first and writer second.  A member of his household recalled that “From the first day that Chekhov moved to Melikhovo, the sick began flocking to him from twenty miles around. They came on foot or were brought in carts, and often he was fetched to patients at a distance. Sometimes from early in the morning peasant women and children were standing before his door waiting”.

He spent three months at the prison colony of Sakhalin interviewing inmates and wrote a devastating analysis with shrewd recommendations for social reform. (“On the steamer going to Sakhalin, there was a convict who had murdered his wife and wore fetters on his legs. His daughter, a little girl of six, was with him. I noticed wherever the convict moved the little girl scrambled after him, holding on to his fetters. At night the child slept with the convicts and soldiers all in a heap together.”)

His friends uniformly admired and remembered how he treated the most ordinary people with meticulous insight and respect, however uncouth, shy, self-important or deferential, drawing them out and giving them his time and attention. That transferred to his stories and plays: a combination of unsentimental, slightly fatalistic realism and poignant sensitivity.

Meanwhile, he transformed theater. What became known as Method Acting emerged from his showing how the inner lives of characters could be brought out on stage. There are several fine free videos online of the full performance of The Seagull, with the young Frank Langella and Blythe Danner, and Anthony Hopkins in Three Sisters.

Perhaps the best introduction to his work is his story The Lady with the Dog. It’s short and can be downloaded free from the Web. It is a wonderful work. In just a few pages he creates an entire novel of poignancy and evocative gentleness. Chekhov leaves readers haunted by the mood he creates and the dilemmas of his characters.

Chekhov loved tea and it is a topic embedded in his works. One of his characters remarks “What a fine weather today. Can’t choose whether to drink tea or hang myself.” That seems simple but as ever in Chekhov, it has layers of meaning within the play, by this writer. of whose many themes is the one captured as “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.”

The museum in his old house displays examples of his tea equipment.

At the Chekhov museum
At the Chekhov museum

Tea has long been as core to Russian culture as that of the other largest markets historically, Britain and Turkey. It is embodied in the samovar. This is the large half stove, half teapot vessel where the center is a pipe and chimney heated by coal or charcoal. The tea container surrounds this and makes a concentrated brew that is diluted in a pot for serving.

Many of the traditional samovars are works of the plumbing art, with faucets, vents, keys, caps and drip pans. Some were very ornate and crafted in combinations of copper silver, brass, tin and even gold. You can see these features in the photos above. They are functional, and not the displays and luxury versions like the ones below.

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In old Russia tea was more of a huddle than a serving at a high or low table. The samovar was a source of warmth to keep close to in the unheated houses of the serfs and peasants. Its large size – “40 pail” ones held 400 liters though 1-2 was more the standard – made it the center for family gatherings. Tolstoy, who built his day around his tea, was devoted to his large family of thirteen children and tea was very much part of their gatherings (his relationship with his wife is best described as somewhat unstable.) Tea is an intermittent character in his books and a visible one in his life.

Dostoevsky provided the most famous Russian writers’ paean to tea: “I say, let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.” (And vodka, his breakfast drink, pies, cognac, sweets, broths, meats and conserves. He was a gustatory vacuum cleaner.) From his daughter’s memoirs we know how meticulous he was in choosing and preparing his tea, how many spoonfuls he used and how much sugar.

One of the happy accidents of literary history is that Tolstoy’s wife. Sophia, was entranced by the new photo-camera device and anticipated the era of selfies, Instagram and Facebook. She clicked away to the extent that there are around 1,200 photos of Tolstoy at home. And of Tolstoy with his friends. The featured banner shows the grand old master at tea with Chekhov, who died at 44 after a lifetime of tuberculosis, half the longevity of Tolstoy.

Tea and literature go together. It’s not an explicit topic and there are very few grabber quotes or episodes, though a scene in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde stands out. It shows the great art form of England, the ability to be scathingly rude while seeming blandly charming. It is the two young lady heroines, Cecily and Gwendolyn, in deadly duel by sugar tongs at ten paces and, to mix a metaphor, with glares through clenched teeth. It includes the gem “When I see a spade, I call it a spade.” Sweet smile and simper. “I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade.”

Perhaps it is more tea and reading that go together. They are very much accompanists to each other. Each is part of the rhythms of daily life: relaxation, calm, savoring and enjoyable lingering. Together, they are a complement. So, here are two appropriate quotes to end with:

C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia Chronicles:  “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to please me.”

Anne Patchett, Truth and Beauty: “Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go to in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”

The banner features Anton Chekhov with Leo Tolstoy.

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