Books and tea are a match made in heaven. Since the invention of reading for leisure and easy access to a hot mug of something tasty, there’s been no better feeling than to curl up, open up a book and enjoy a cup of tea. It’s no wonder, then, that some of history’s greatest authors have drawn inspiration from tea for some of their masterworks.
There are many examples of tea in books. Whether it’s the careful etiquette of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, the absurdity of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the kookiness of Harry Potter’s Professor Trelawney, tea is a staple literary motif.
We’ve put together a list of some of the very best scenes featuring tea in books – but do note that there are some spoilers ahead!
1. Pride & Prejudice
One of the greatest literary romances in history, Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice combines fiercely witty characters with the suffocating rigors of aristocratic etiquette – and nowhere are these two poles of English society more evident than in scenes in which Elizabeth serves tea and coffee to her guests, including the brooding Mr Darcy.
She was in hopes that the evening would afford some opportunity of bringing them together; that the whole of the visit would not pass away without enabling them to enter into something more of conversation than the mere ceremonious salutation attending his entrance. Anxious and uneasy, the period which passed in the drawing-room, before the gentlemen came, was wearisome and dull to a degree that almost made her uncivil. She looked forward to their entrance as the point on which all her chance of pleasure for the evening must depend.
“If he does not come to me, then,” said she, “I shall give him up for ever.”
The gentlemen came; and she thought he looked as if he would have answered her hopes; but, alas the ladies had crowded round the table, where Miss Bennet was making tea, and Elizabeth pouring out the coffee, in so close a confederacy that there was not a single vacancy near her which would admit of a chair. And on the gentlemen’s approaching, one of the girls moved closer to her than ever, and said, in a whisper:
“The men shan’t come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?”
Darcy had walked away to another part of the room. She followed him with her eyes, envied everyone to whom he spoke, had scarcely patience enough to help anybody to coffee; and then was enraged against herself for being so silly.
Bennet and Darcy constantly find themselves together despite not much liking each other at first. You might argue that it’s tea that transforms their acrimony into love (with a little help from Darcy’s Byronic handsomeness).
2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Featuring quite possibly the most famous tea party of all time, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland takes the Victorian tea-drinking tradition and savages it with silliness and nonsense.
The Hatter was the first to break the silence. “What day of the month is it?” he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and then, and holding it to his ear.
Alice considered a little, and then said “The fourth.”
“Two days wrong,” sighed the Hatter. “I told you butter wouldn’t suit the works,” he added looking angrily at the March Hare.
“It was the best butter,” the March Hare meekly replied.
“Yes, but some crumbs must have got in as well,” the Hatter grumbled: “you shouldn’t have put it in with the bread-knife.”
The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily: then he dipped it into his cup of tea, and looked at it again: but he could think of nothing better to say than his first remark, “It was the best butter, you know.”
Alice had been looking over his shoulder with some curiosity. “What a funny watch,” she remarked. “It tells the day of the month, and doesn’t tell what o’clock it is ”
“Why should it?” muttered the Hatter. “Does your watch tell you what year it is?”
“Of course not,” Alice replied very readily: “but that’s because it stays the same year for such a long time together.”
“Which is just the case with mine,” said the Hatter.
Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. “I don’t quite understand you,” she said, as politely as she could.
“The Dormouse is asleep again,” said the Hatter, and he poured a little hot tea upon its nose.
The Dormouse shook its head impatiently, and said, without opening its eyes, “Of course, of course; just what I was going to remark myself.”
“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
“No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “what’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.
“Nor I,” said the March Hare.
Please note: despite the health benefits of drinking tea, we wouldn’t recommend using it to repair your watch. It’s no wonder he’s always late!
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Of all the professors in the Harry Potter series – which, if you recall, include a one-eyed magic policeman and a woman who can turn into a cat – Professor Trelawney still manages to be the most oddball character on the Hogwarts payroll. She ultimately predicts, using tea leaves, that Harry Potter will die, but her classroom looking like an “old-fashioned tea shop” means almost any scene with the Divination teacher is fair game.
He emerged into the strangest-looking classroom he had ever seen. In fact, it didn’t look like a classroom at all, more like a cross between someone’s attic and an old-fashioned tea shop. At least twenty small, circular tables were crammed inside it, all surrounded by chintz armchairs and fat little poufs. Everything was lit with a dim, crimson light; the curtains at the windows were all closed, and the many lamps were draped with dark red scarves. It was stiflingly warm, and the fire that was burning under the crowded mantelpiece was giving off a heavy, sickly sort of perfume as it heated a large copper kettle. The shelves running around the circular walls were crammed with dusty-looking feathers, stubs of candles, many packs of tattered playing cards, countless silvery crystal balls, and a huge array of teacups.
Ron appeared at Harry’s shoulder as the class assembled around them, all talking in whispers.
“Where is she?” Ron said. A voice came suddenly out of the shadows, a soft, misty sort of voice.
“Welcome,” it said. “How nice to see you in the physical world at last.”
Harry’s immediate impression was of a large, glittering insect. Professor Trelawney moved into the firelight, and they saw that she was very thin; her large glasses magnified her eyes to several times their natural size, and she was draped in a gauzy spangled shawl. Innumerable chains and beads hung around her spindly neck, and her arms and hands were encrusted with bangles and rings.
“Sit, my children, sit,” she said, and they all climbed awkwardly into armchairs or sank onto poufs. Harry, Ron, and Hermione sat themselves around the same round table.
“Welcome to Divination,” said Professor Trelawney…
Move aside, Hogsmeade – Professor Trelawney’s classroom is where we want to go for a brew!
4. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella remains the archetypal fable of civility and savagery; it’s the tale of the meek Dr Henry Jekyll, who concocts a serum that transforms him into the violent ‘Edward Hyde’ – or perhaps it only reveals the beast that lurked within his soul all along.
“Jekyll,” cried Utterson, with a loud voice, “I demand to see you.” He paused a moment, but there came no reply. “I give you fair warning, our suspicions are aroused, and I must and shall see you,” he resumed; “if not by fair means, then by foul—if not of your consent, then by brute force.”
“Utterson,” said the voice, “for God’s sake, have mercy.”
“Ah, that’s not Jekyll’s voice—it’s Hyde’s ” cried Utterson. “Down with the door, Poole.”
Poole swung the axe over his shoulder; the blow shook the building, and the red baize door leaped against the lock and hinges. A dismal screech, as of mere animal terror, rang from the cabinet. Up went the axe again, and again the panels crashed and the frame bounded; four times the blow fell; but the wood was tough and the fittings were of excellent workmanship; and it was not until the fifth, that the lock burst and the wreck of the door fell inwards on the carpet.
The besiegers, appalled by their own riot and the stillness that had succeeded, stood back a little and peered in. There lay the cabinet before their eyes in the quiet lamplight, a good fire glowing and chattering on the hearth, the kettle singing its thin strain, a drawer or two open, papers neatly set forth on the business table, and nearer the fire, the things laid out for tea; the quietest room, you would have said, and, but for the glazed presses full of chemicals, the most commonplace that night in London.
Right in the middle there lay the body of a man sorely contorted and still twitching. They drew near on tiptoe, turned it on its back and beheld the face of Edward Hyde. He was dressed in clothes far too large for him, clothes of the doctor’s bigness; the cords of his face still moved with a semblance of life, but life was quite gone; and by the crushed phial in the hand and the strong smell of kernels that hung upon the air, Utterson knew that he was looking on the body of a self-destroyer.
“We have come too late,” he said sternly, “whether to save or punish. Hyde is gone to his account; and it only remains for us to find the body of your master.”
Here the neat tea set and whistling kettle contrast with the contorted form of Hyde. For contemporary readers, the fact that Jekyll and Hyde were one and the same proved a shocking twist, confirming that drinking tea doesn’t necessarily make you a good person. (But it helps!)
5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adams’ madcap sci-fi caper brings a distinctly British sense of humor to the cosmos – and what better way to convey Britishness than with tea? Not only does protagonist Arthur Dent enjoy a good cuppa, but it turns out that tea-drinking was central to the development of the Infinite Improbability Drive, a core Hitchhiker’s macguffin.
The Infinite Improbability Drive is a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstellar distances in a mere nothingth of a second, without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace.
It was discovered by a lucky chance, and then developed into a governable form of propulsion by the Galactic Government’s research team on Damogran.
This, briefly, is the story of its discovery.
The principle of generating small amounts of finite improbability by simply hooking the logic circuits of a Bambleweeny 57 Sub-Meson Brain to an atomic vector plotter suspended in a strong Brownian Motion producer (say a nice hot cup of tea) were of course well understood – and such generators were often used to break the ice at parties by making all the molecules in the hostess’s undergarments leap simultaneously one foot to the left, in accordance with the Theory of Indeterminacy.
Many respectable physicists said that they weren’t going to stand for this – partly because it was a debasement of science, but mostly because they didn’t get invited to those sort of parties.
Another thing they couldn’t stand was the perpetual failure they encountered in trying to construct a machine which could generate the infinite improbability field needed to flip a spaceship across the mind-paralysing distances between the furthest stars, and in the end they grumpily announced that such a machine was virtually impossible.
Then, one day, a student who had been left to sweep up the lab after a particularly unsuccessful party found himself reasoning this way: If, he thought to himself, such a machine is a virtual impossibility, then it must logically be a finite improbability. So all I have to do in order to make one is to work out exactly how improbable it is, feed that figure into the finite improbability generator, give it a fresh cup of really hot tea… and turn it on.
He did this, and was rather startled to discover that he had managed to create the long sought after golden Infinite Improbability generator out of thin air.
Did you know that Douglas Adams settled on ’42’ being the answer to life, the universe and everything because that’s how many cups of tea he drank a day? You can’t have known, because it’s not true.
6. The Vegetarian
Han Kang’s stunning dissection of a woman’s choice to become a vegetarian is singularly compelling. Initially published in South Korea in 2007, the 2015 English translation went on to win the International Man Booker Prize the following year. Tea, a traditional drink, is invoked as a fragile link to Yeong-hye’s old self; she now sits in a psychiatric facility.
In-hye turns her head and looks out of the window. The rain seems finally to have stopped, but the sky is still overcast, the wet trees still silent. The densely wooded slopes of Mount Ch’ukseong stretch far into the distance. The huge forest blanketing those slopes is as silent as everything else.
She gets a thermos flask out of her bag and pours Chinese quince tea into the stainless steel cup.
“Try some, Yeong-hye. It’s infused really well.”
She brings it to her own lips first and takes a sip. The taste that lingers on the tip of her tongue is sweet and fragrant. After pouring some of the tea onto a hand towel, she uses it to moisten Yeong-hye’s lips. There is no response. “Are you trying to die?” she asks. “You’re not, are you? If all you want to do is become a tree, you still have to eat. You have to live.” She stops speaking. Her breath catches in her throat. A suspicion that she hasn’t wanted to acknowledge has finally raised its head. Might she have been mistaken? Might it be precisely that, death, which Yeong-hye is after, which she has been after from the first?
No, she repeats silently. You’re not trying to die.
Before Yeong-hye stopped speaking for good, around a month ago, she had said, “Sister, please let me out of here.”
Brutal and deeply beautiful, The Vegetarian is one of the 21st century’s greatest works – but it’s not a reading experience to be taken lightly.
7. Great Expectations
The classic rags-to-riches story (mixed with a hefty dose of class commentary and satire), Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations sees Pip attempt to make it big among the ruling elite in spite of his humble beginnings. You get the impression, however, that Dickens didn’t much enjoy fancy tea:
I rang for the tea, and the waiter, reappearing with his magic clue, brought in by degrees some fifty adjuncts to that refreshment, but of tea not a glimpse. A teaboard, cups and saucers, plates, knives and forks (including carvers), spoons (various), salt-cellars, a meek little muffin confined with the utmost precaution under a strong iron cover, Moses in the bulrushes typified by a soft bit of butter in a quantity of parsley, a pale loaf with a powdered head, two proof impressions of the bars of the kitchen fireplace on triangular bits of bread, and ultimately a fat family urn; which the waiter staggered in with, expressing in his countenance burden and suffering. After a prolonged absence at this stage of the entertainment, he at length came back with a casket of precious appearance containing twigs. These I steeped in hot water, and so from the whole of these appliances extracted one cup of I don’t know what for Estella.
While Dickens is clearly skewering the profligacy of the well-to-do in this scene, we sure could go for a cup of I-don’t-know-what right now.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is an episodic 1853 novel focusing on a small English town (based on the less-poetically-named Knutsford). Tea features prominently as a social activity, and Gaskell’s wry sense of humor is put to good use.
In a few minutes tea was brought. Very delicate was the china, very old the plate, very thin the bread and butter, and very small the lumps of sugar. Sugar was evidently Mrs Jamieson’s favourite economy. I question if the little filigree sugar-tongs, made something like scissors, could have opened themselves wide enough to take up an honest, vulgar good-sized piece; and when I tried to seize two little minnikin pieces at once, so as not to be detected in too many returns to the sugar-basin, they absolutely dropped one, with a little sharp clatter, quite in a malicious and unnatural manner. But before this happened we had had a slight disappointment. In the little silver jug was cream, in the larger one was milk. As soon as Mr Mulliner came in, Carlo began to beg, which was a thing our manners forebade us to do, though I am sure we were just as hungry; and Mrs Jamieson said she was certain we would excuse her if she gave her poor dumb Carlo his tea first. She accordingly mixed a saucerful for him, and put it down for him to lap; and then she told us how intelligent and sensible the dear little fellow was; he knew cream quite well, and constantly refused tea with only milk in it: so the milk was left for us; but we silently thought we were quite as intelligent and sensible as Carlo, and felt as if insult were added to injury when we were called upon to admire the gratitude evinced by his wagging his tail for the cream which should have been ours.
If it’s any consolation to the narrator, Mary Smith, she probably shouldn’t be adding too much sugar to her cup of tea anyway.
9. Mrs Dalloway
A dazzling work of modernism, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway sees Clarissa Dalloway spend a day attempting to host a perfect dinner party. Set in post-First World War England, tea naturally features heavily, especially in the scene between Elizabeth (Clarissa’s teenage daughter) and Miss Kilman.
Miss Kilman took another cup of tea. Elizabeth, with her oriental bearing, her inscrutable mystery, sat perfectly upright; no, she did not want anything more. She looked for her gloves–her white gloves. They were under the table. Ah, but she must not go! Miss Kilman could not let her go! this youth, that was so beautiful, this girl, whom she genuinely loved! Her large hand opened and shut on the table.
But perhaps it was a little flat somehow, Elizabeth felt. And really she would like to go.
But said Miss Kilman, “I’ve not quite finished yet.”
Of course, then, Elizabeth would wait. But it was rather stuffy in here.
“Are you going to the party to-night?” Miss Kilman said. Elizabeth supposed she was going; her mother wanted her to go. She must not let parties absorb her, Miss Kilman said, fingering the last two inches of a chocolate éclair.
She did not much like parties, Elizabeth said. Miss Kilman opened her mouth, slightly projected her chin, and swallowed down the last inches of the chocolate éclair, then wiped her fingers, and washed the tea round in her cup.
She was about to split asunder, she felt. The agony was so terrific. If she could grasp her, if she could clasp her, if she could make her hers absolutely and forever and then die; that was all she wanted. But to sit here, unable to think of anything to say; to see Elizabeth turning against her; to be felt repulsive even by her–it was too much; she could not stand it. The thick fingers curled inwards.
For anyone who has spent time in a one-sided friendship, staring down into a cup of tea: Virginia Woolf knows how you feel.
Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel tells the haunting tale of a woman who marries a wealthy widower, only to discover that the figure of the first Mrs de Winter – the titular Rebecca – looms large in the mind of her new husband. Tea is frequently served, but one of the most memorable mentions of tea comes in the novel’s first few pages.
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
Light came from the windows, the curtains blew softly in the night air, and there, in the library, the door would stand half open as we had left it, with my handkerchief on the table beside the bowl of autumn roses.
The room would bear witness to our presence. The little heap of library books marked ready to return, and the discarded copy of The Times. Ashtrays, with the stub of a cigarette; cushions, with the imprint of our heads upon them, lolling in the chairs; the charred embers of our log fire still smoldering against the morning. And Jasper, dear Jasper, with his soulful eyes and great, sagging jowl, would be stretched upon the floor, his tail a-thump when he heard his master’s footsteps.
A cloud, hitherto unseen, came upon the moon, and hovered an instant like a dark hand before a face. The illusion went with it, and the lights in the windows were extinguished. I looked upon a desolate shell, soulless at last, unhaunted, with no whisper of the past about its staring walls.
The house was a sepulcher, our fear and suffering lay buried in the ruins. There would be no resurrection. When I thought of Manderley in my waking hours I would not be bitter. I should think of it as it might have been, could I have lived there without fear. I should remember the rose garden in summer, and the birds that sang at dawn. Tea under the chestnut tree, and the murmur of the sea coming up to us from the lawns below.
The tea is a happy memory, but static and long past. It feels almost insincere compared to what Manderley has become: an iron-gated, empty house. And then the novel truly begins.