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An essay by Jenny Wren

On Afternoon Tea

Title:     On Afternoon Tea
Author: Jenny Wren [More Titles by Wren]

"The Muses' friend, Tea, does our fancy aid,
Repress the vapors which the head invade,
And keeps the palace of the soul serene."

How I do love tea! I don't deny it, it is as necessary to me as smoking is to men.

I have heard a lady accused by her doctor of being a "tea-drunkard"! "Tea picks you up for a little time," he said, "and you feel a great deal better after you have had a cup. But it is a stimulant, the effect of which does not last very long, and all the while it is ruining your nerves and constitution. I daresay it is difficult to give up--the poor man finds the same with his spirits. You are no better than he!"

It is rather a come down, is it not? Somehow, when you are drinking tea, you feel so very temperate. Well, at least, the above reflection makes you sympathize with the inebriates, if it does nothing else; and I am afraid it does nothing else with me. In spite of the warning, I continue to take my favorite beverage as strong and as frequently as ever, and so I suppose must look forward to a cranky nervous old age.

It is curious to notice how men are invading our precincts now-a-days. They used to scoff at such a meal as afternoon tea, and now most of them take it as regularly as they stream out of the trains on Saturday afternoons with pink papers under their arms--such elevating literature! Indeed there is quite a fuss if they have to go without it--the tea I mean, not the paper.

It is strange too, because they dislike it so, if we trespass on their preserves, _e.g._, their outcry on ladies smoking: which is exceedingly unfair, for we have no equivalent for the fragrant weed. Still I agree with the men in a way, for nothing looks worse than a girl smoking in public, though a cigarette now and then with a brother does, I think, no harm, provided it does not grow into a habit.

My brother once gave me a cigarette and bet me a shilling that I would not smoke it through. It was so hard that if I had bent it, it would have snapped in two. He had only just found it in a corner of a cupboard where it had lain for years and years. But oh, the strength of that cigarette! It took me hours to get through, for it would not draw a bit. Nevertheless, with the incentive of a shilling to urge me on, I continued "faint but pursuing" and eventually won the bet. I would not do it again for ten times the amount.

But I should be talking about tea, not smoking; and tea has other baneful influences besides destroying the digestion. I think that afternoon tea is the time that breeds more gossip and scandal than any other hour in the day.

As Young exclaims:--

"Tea! How I tremble at thy fatal stream!
As Lethe dreadful to the love of fame.
What devastations on thy bank are seen,
What shades of mighty names that once have been!
A hecatomb of characters supplies
Thy painted alters' daily sacrifice!"

Acquaintances drop in. They have all the latest doings of the neighborhood at their fingers' ends, and in a quarter of an hour have picked everyone of their most intimate friends to pieces, nor do they leave them a shred of character.

Why do we feel such a relish in running down our friends and relations--the latter especially? _I_ quite enjoy it, though I should never do so outside my own family; thus my words never come round to their ears. It is a necessity to relieve your feelings occasionally, and your family is a good, safe receptacle.

For those who have a taste for speaking spitefully of their neighbors, I can suggest an amusing game which was, I believe, started in Oxford. It is called Photograph whist, and is played by four. Two or three dozen photographs are dealt round, and each person plays one, he who plays the ugliest portrait taking the trick. The more hideous the photograph, the greater its value as a trump! I have played the game with a man who always keeps his brother to the end, and then brings him out with enormous success, the said brother never failing to overtrump any other card in the pack! So you see it is a most amiable game altogether. You must only be careful not to spread your doings abroad, or no one will present you with their portraits ever again.

There is no sin so bad as being found out. You can say anything as long as you are not discovered to be the originator. But if your words against a person ever happen to get round to him or her (of course added to, and made almost unrecognizable in their progress) you make an enemy for life. At least, this is so as a rule. Personally, I never care what people say against me, so long as it is not true. But if they only keep to the truth, then it is aggravating. You cannot deny it! You cannot "tremble with indignation, and fling the words back in their faces," as the slandered heroine always does in the modern novel. You must simply submit to the accusation.

A man I know was saying all round the place a little while ago, that my sisters and I "were all good looking until we opened our mouths." Of course we heard of it, and have never forgiven him for his "damning praise." But it is true. We always admit the fact. We know we show our teeth too much when we laugh and talk. It was impossible to disclaim such a statement. If he had said that we squinted, not a syllable would have been pronounced against him. Our eyes are all exceptionally good, and would bear any detrimental remarks. But no, he kept to the truth, and consequently has suffered ever since, for ways of revenge have been found which were thoroughly successful. He is the ugliest man I ever met too, and should therefore have been the last to offend.

In spite of the tea you are invariably given on such occasions, I think calls--formal calls--are some of the most dreadful experiences Mrs. Grundy obliges you to undergo. I dislike them immensely, and always get out of them if possible. I hope servants do not afterwards record the expression of my countenance when they tell me their mistress is "out." It is radiant with an unholy joy!

These dreadful "at home" days, too, are so provoking. If you know a dozen people in a neighborhood, you can only call on one at a time. They all have different days! This may seem slightly impossible; but it is not indeed. While one lady's house is open to visitors on the first and third Wednesdays in the month, another is on view on the second and fourth, and so on. Not two people agree!

Small talk, I think, is never so small as on these occasions. The poor weather is thorougly worn out, a few mutual friends are picked to pieces, and of course there is a discussion about dress. Sometimes you hear some sad account of the lady's second cousin's daughter, and you have immediately to clothe your countenance in a sober garb. You must look grieved, and all the while not caring one straw if the cousin's daughter has fits or gets insane, or anything else she cares to do. You have never heard of her before, and therefore have not the slightest interest in her eccentricities. I always feel so terribly inclined to laugh, just because I ought to be doing the other thing.

People are so fond of talking about their troubles and griefs. The greater the sorrow, the greater the discussion. They call up tears to their eyes, as if the subject were too sacred to approach. But such tears are kept for the purpose. They come at their bidding, and fall as naturally into their place as if the exhibition had been practiced beforehand. It is a positive enjoyment to such people to detail their grievances.

With the lower classes, this, so to speak, gloating over your losses is even more apparent. One comparatively well-to-do woman I know, seems to have a monopoly of funerals. There is always some relation dead, and off she goes with an important air, draped from head to foot in black; the picture of "loathed melancholy" outwardly; inwardly, glowing with pride; while all her neighbors stand outside their doors, literally consumed with jealousy at her good fortune! And then the terrible moment of her return, when you are obliged, whether you will or not, to listen to the whole account, the description, the progress, and finally the interment of "the corpse"! I hope, however dead I may be one day, that I shall never be described as "a corpse"! There is something so horrible in the word, I always think. It makes you even more dead than you are. It cuts you so absolutely off from the living.

Then there are those tiresome people who talk of nothing but their own families. The mother from whom you hear all the ailments of her children if they are young, all the conquests of her daughters if they are old. The sisters, to prevent the accusation of vanity, do not praise themselves, but arrive at the same end by lauding up each other! These "mutual admiration" families, as Wilkie Collins so aptly terms them, are families to be shunned.

You do not very often come across men on these "at home" days. If they are in the house, they wisely avoid the drawing-room; and if you ever do meet one, he is sure to be a very milk-and-water young man--one who delights in small talk and small matters; or else a curate.

I met one of the former class the other day. He was a dreadful specimen! A large head, a bland smile, a vacant stare, and an enormous capacity for eating!

He came and sat by me when I first arrived; but when he made a slip of the tongue, and I brought it to his notice kindly, but firmly, he went away and sulked for the rest of the afternoon.

He was talking about the recent muzzling order, and added, in quick little tones, "They are talking about muzzling cats, I see."

"But cats do not bite," I objected.

"No," in mild surprise at my ignorance; "but they scratch."

"And do they intend to muzzle their paws?" I asked, smiling; adding a suggestion that two pairs of goloshes apiece would answer the purpose admirably, besides having the combined advantage of keeping the poor things from rheumatism!

But he did not smile. He saw nothing funny in what he had said. He thought I was laughing at him, and so left me at the very first opportunity, and went and sat by himself at the tea table. I could not very well see what he was doing, for his back was turned; howbeit it was a very eloquent back--a back which appeared absorbed in bread and butter and cakes! He must have cleared the table, I should think, before he had finished!

It certainly is not nice to be caught up suddenly and made to appear foolish. If you ever make a mistake, the best way is to confess it at once, to tell the tale yourself. It sounds very different from your lips than from those of your dearest friends. People laugh, but it is a laugh that lacks the sting it would have if someone else told it at your expense.

I remember making a woeful slip when I was taken over a cotton mill. The man who was conducting us pointed to what looked like a heap of dirty wool, and explained that it was the raw material. "And is that just as it comes off the sheep's back?" I asked, unthinkingly. If a thunderbolt had fallen in our midst the guide could not have been more astonished. "Cotton, Miss!" he said, with grave surprise, "_Cotton_ is a plant!" I inquired for no further information in that cotton mill, but I told the story myself when I reached home, joining in the laughter that followed as heartily as any of my audience.

Curates are more the rule than the exception at the five o'clock meal. Somehow, you always connect the two. Afternoon tea without a curate sounds an anomaly, a something incomplete.

I have had great experience in curates. Ours is a large parish, and many clerical helps are needed. Large, small, nice, objectionable, ugly, handsome--I have met specimens of each and all, and have come to the conclusion that the last kind is the worst. How rarely do you meet a good-looking man who thinks of anything but his appearance. It is strange, for the more lovely a woman is the less apparently conscious she is of her beauty. At any rate, she does not go about with an expression which seems to say, "I am that which is 'a joy forever'--admire me!"

The "pale young curate" type is perhaps the most general. This poor thing is so depressingly shy--I say depressingly, because his shyness affects his company. You try to draw him out. You ask question after question, and have to supply the answers yourself, only obtaining, by way of reward, despairing upward glances, that are by no means an encouragement to proceed.

The most fatal effect of this shyness, however, lies in the fact that he dare not get up to go! He sits toying with his hat, he picks up his umbrella three or four times, and lets it drop again; finally, starting up with a rush in the middle of a conversation, he hurries out, shaking hands all round with everyone but his hostess!

Would it be a very heinous breach of etiquette, if after an hour and a half of this curate's company, one should suggest diffidently that it was time to go?

In strong contrast, there is the bold, dashing man, who only comes when he knows all the daughters are at home, not so much because it gives him pleasure to see them, as because he would not deprive them of the pleasure of talking to him. He has a faith in himself that removes mountains; no lady's heart can beat regularly in his presence, according to his confident opinion.

So on the whole I do not think afternoon tea is so nice abroad as it is at home. It is not so pleasant with many as with a chosen few. I am selfish, I am afraid, but I must confess I enjoy mine most with the sole company of a roaring fire, a very easy chair, and a novel!

[The end]
Jenny Wren's essay: On Afternoon Tea