The British Library, under the imprint The British Library Women Writers, has released some excellent looking titles recently, mostly books written by women in the early 20th century, which have largely been forgotten or sunk without a trace. I had already bought a couple of them – Mary Essex’s Tea Is So Intoxicating and Rose Macaulay’s Dangerous Ages, and based on my extremely enjoyable experience with the Essex novel, I plan to explore this series more.
Tea Is So Intoxicating, then, is a delightful comedy, a hilarious take on the challenges and pitfalls of running a tea-house in a quaint English village.
David Tompkins and his wife Germayne have arrived in the village of Wellhurst with dreams of opening a tea-house. The dream is more of David’s, who believes cooking is a simple affair if certain methods are followed. David is a retired Naval officer, and it is during a bout of illness that the idea of starting a new venture begins to take shape. What also gives David much confidence is his prior stint as an accountant at the Dolly Varden Cosy Tea Shops Ltd, although he has no practical experience of any kind on the actual running of a tea-house. But this is a point David refuses to acknowledge.
She [Germayne] was dubious about the success of the proposed tea-house. But, meanwhile, David had launched himself out into the thought of selling lunches packed ready to take on the road with you, teas in the garden, teas in the inglenook, teas you took away with you, or teas you took away inside you. In fact, it was a comprehensive plan, and it covered every line of resistance that man could offer. His flights of fancy took him into realms of the type of lunch that no hiker or biker wants, but that did not worry him in the least. He would educate them. Lobster mayonnaise in cartons, fresh salmon with cucumber discs, cut hyper-thin; smoked trout and cheese soufflé, trifle and pêches melba. He believed that he could make the wildest success of it all.
David wants the tea-house to be a classy affair, with the right china and ambience that attracts quality people and not the riff-raff.
The trouble was that these wretched country people did not understand how very first-class the place was going to be. Something ormolu. Something that was dignified and smart, nothing slapdash and likely to appeal to the scum. He was strongly against scum. His place was to be the best, providing the best and only for the best.
Meanwhile, David and Germayne set up residence in a cottage called Higgins-Bottom, a name David despises. He is hell bent on calling it Cherry Tree Cottage, but the villagers are having none of it and Higgins-Bottom stubbornly sticks. The Tompkinses are delighted with the prettiness of the cottage, although there are several practical drawbacks once they instill themselves there.
Essex also expertly weaves in brief backstories of both David and Germayne and how they end up as a couple into the main storyline. David was in a relationship with a woman who was not the marrying kind, an affair that dies a natural death. Germayne was earlier married to Digby, a wealthy man with a comfortable home, but quite set in his ways and also determined to turn Germayne into a new leaf. Both are ambivalent about parenthood, but end up having a daughter called Ducks. While motherhood continues to flummox Germayne, Digby finds himself thrilled to be a father despite his initial reservations. Doting immensely on Ducks, he spoils her silly, giving her free rein in the way she conducts herself. Feeling thoroughly stifled, and also because she considers Digby an insufferable bore, Germayne begins to see a way out when she meets David.
Romance blossoms between the two and Germayne divorces Digby to begin a new phase of life with David.
But with new beginnings come seemingly insurmountable challenges. First, is the capital required to set up the tea-house. Despite his ambitions, David can’t cook to save his life. There’s this funny, wonderful set-piece in the earlier part of the novel, where wanting to tap into his friend George for investing into his venture, David invites him and his wife Gertrude to spend the weekend at their cottage. But it turns out to be a disaster. David concocts an elaborate menu for dinner, but botches it up. Breakfast is also a paltry affair where David serves omelettes “looking exactly like pieces of yellow window leather.” Obviously, asking an irritable and hungry man for money is hardly going to yield the desired result.
Miraculously, David manages to raise some money anyway, and the project gets going. Things considerably liven up, when Mimi, the cake-cook from Vienna (“ma poor Vienna”, as she calls it) makes an appearance. The men find her utterly charming. George, who did not want to have anything to do with the tea-house earlier, is now open to the idea of lending money, if Mimi’s going to be a permanent fixture. Even Colonel Blandish, a striking figure in the village with a forceful personality, comes around to the view that a tea-house will be a welcome addition to the village, a refreshing change from the overall stodginess that characterizes the place.
But there are strong dissidents. Mr and Mrs Percy, who run a desultory tea place of their own, are hostile because they fear the competition. Mrs Arbroath, lady of the manor, with her domineering personality and conservative views, thinks she runs the village and is dead set against the idea of a tea-house being set up that will attract ‘foreigners.’ To add fuel to the fire, rumours doing the rounds that David and Germayne are ‘not properly married’ only antagonize the residents further. As for Mimi, the women of the village, including Germayne, see right through her and consider her a bad influence.
Her pathetic, “I ‘ave no ‘ome, I ‘ave no love, I work ‘ard, but people misunderstand, and poor Mimi she go on struggle,” brought a round of applause from the gentlemen and a peculiar chilliness from the women, who had no patience with her at all.
All these ingredients mixed together rustle up a scenario of complete chaos, and when the utterly spoilt Ducks shows up at the village all hell breaks loose.
Will the tea-house become a raging success despite all odds? Or, will David’s best laid plans go awry?
Keeping the comic elements aside, Tea Is So Intoxicating perfectly captures the dynamics of village life – how it is resistant to the winds of change, the petty jealousies and politics, the lives of villagers bandied about as fodder for gossip, and how everybody makes it their business to poke their nose into other people’s affairs. The novel also examines what makes marriage work (is an exciting, adventurous spouse preferable to a dull, dependable one), and how divorce, though legal, was still frowned upon in conservative circles.
The novel also subtly explores the sweeping changes that were being felt across England post the war, particularly with the imminent prospect of the Labour government coming into power. Rationing was still an issue, and with aristocracy dwindling, people of Mrs Arbroath’s ilk could no longer maintain their mansions, having to sell parcels of land to raise money.
Mrs Arbroath steeled herself against what was coming to the world, and she clung on to her previous glory with two clutching hands…Her income had started to drop, which was the fault of that miserable surtax, which she had always thought was thieving, and she had had to sell a few fields. Instantly there had sprung up a pale mushroom growth of awful little houses, with asbestos roofs, which made her groan. She could do nothing about it, though she tried, and what was worse, she had never given up trying.
Essex is witty and displays a wicked sense of humour, and her writing is deliciously tongue-in-cheek. All the characters are wonderfully realized and unique with their own set of quirks – the obstinate David with his inability to think quickly, the self-assured but dull Digby who believes his Ducks has verve and personality, poor shabbily-dressed Germayne who is driven crazy by the two men in her life, the formidable but lonely Mrs Arbroath who loves to relentlessly argue and have her own way, the dashing Colonel Blandish who can impress women with his “Simla finesse and Poona technique”, and of course not to be left out, the enchanting Mimi in her dirndl skirt and plunging neckline who can set men’s hearts racing.
Tea is certainly intoxicating, as is Mary Essex’s wonderful novel!