Tea Parties

Mrs Emma Jane Simpson

Tis a good thing I am now in better health, for what has taken Milady's fancy recently hath been the hosting of what she calls Tea Parties or At Homes. Even the humblest of folk get together betimes to sup tea; but sending out At Home invitations do make me snicker for 'Hah!' thinks I slyly, 'Were you not of the Gentry you would be At Home the livelong day with your washing and mending and busy-ness. And dragging the neighbours over to celebrate while you are up to your arms in chicken feathers and intestines is not a pastime that would be taken up'.

But for the women of the gentry, who live like pretty birds in silken cages, I can see why this latest fashion hath much appeal. For there they sit, day in, day out, dressed in their fine gowns and dainty slippers, staring out from the windows as would a captured thrush in a wicker bird house; and only become animated when there is another body to view them or when they have something new to view.

Being women, they may not go abroad without a male chaperone. (Which seems, sometimes, to be topsey turvey: - as when a grown woman must solicit the company of her own male child in order to quit her own house be her errand ever so slight.) Nor may they visit the tea gardens without a male escort. At Tunbridge Wells did a new entertainment, called the Tea Dance, emerge at one venue and some of the younger people delighted to attend: but, even accompanied by a swathe of brothers, sons, uncles and nephews, a true-born gentle-woman would not feel entirely comfortable in such a setting.

So, of late, with husbands abroad at coffee houses, bordellos, clubs and, sometimes, even about their business ventures, the women of Hove have taken a bold step for which, truth to tell, I do commend 'em. They have broadened womens' permitted activities in Society by holding events to which men are welcome, but which need no male agency in order to take place: they meet at one another' houses to take tea. (Just as, did they but know it, their more fortunate sisters do, who are not confined by Society merely to the inside of their houses.)

I do not mind the extra work, for good fortune smiled upon me with the arrival, for The Season, of Mooseur Jerk (who tells us this is the way the Frenchies say 'Mr. Jack') as cook to Lady Ponsonby across the square. In return for my receipt for Linden Chocolate Mooseur Jerk hath shown me a new and delicious receipt for a kind of Rose-Hip confiture which hath taken the fancy of all in the household. Strangely, this Mooseur hath never tasted the like of my Lemon Cheese Cakes and so, in return for that receipt, hath shown me the simplest trick to elevate my Sugar Plums to the status of dainties fit for a King.

There were those who did refer to the men’s Coffee Houses as 'Penny Universities’ for it was there they did meet and discuss grave matters. While the conversation of the ladies may not be termed 'grave matters' (unless, of course, some luckless person has outraged Society by her actions) it hath always been our custom (those of us of lower status) to pass on knowledge to each other; to discuss and ponder; to confide and comfort each other. Denied schooling for so long, this is the way women have always learned, and have helped each other learn. Indeed, I myself would perhaps be a very silly, insipid person were it not for the wealth of information passed on to me by others of my sex.

So I rejoice for these poor pretty birds. While I learn more of my craft from Mooseur Jerk, and he takes my own knowledge back to France with him, these ladies are learning too. For tea, which was once a fine luxury and closely guarded within the household, hath dropped in price and, 'tis rumoured, will drop once more once these new clipper ships begin to ply the seas more regularly. So, 'tis not the tea itself which attracts (unless it be the gray mixture which tastes of bergamot and hath become The Rage). 'Tis the solace of company - female company - and a chance to laugh and to learn and to share our limited knowledge of the world so that we do not appear as unthinking as turnips or as silent as the very stones which do nothing but impede our pathways.