Tea is So Intoxicating by Mary Essex

Leamington Spa, Jephson Gardens Tea Garden, 1950s. Photo: Our Warwickshire

I have to admit it: despite the excellent title, I wasn’t expecting Mary Essex’s Tea Is So Intoxicating (1950) to be one of my favourites in the British Library Women Writers series. I previously found Elizabeth von Arnim’s farcical Father quite silly (like Barbara Pym on an off day) and I’d heard this title compared to Angela Thirkell and D.E. Stevenson, neither of whom I enjoy (apart from Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book). Therefore, I was very pleasantly surprised to find myself giggling away in my hammock. This novel is both wittier and darker than I expected in its examination of marriage and post-WW2 social change, in which an enterprise as seemingly innocent as a tea garden could be source of great hostility in a small community (see also The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald).

The leading players are all rather hopeless and form an unromantic love triangle The nominal heroine Germayne is a sad sort of bolter in her crumpled frocks and droopy hems; she has left the ‘old maid-ish’ Digby and her daughter for ex Navy officer and Dolly Varden Cosy Tea Shop Ltd accountant David. David is less predictable (he’s quite Mr Pooter-esque with his whims and pomposity) but not really any more exciting. After recovering from a short illness, David suddenly decides that he’s dab hand at cooking and would make a fortune operating a tea garden, which leads Germayne to consider what kind of inadequate marriage is the more comfortable option.

Having only lived in their Kentish village for a few years, David and Germayne are outsiders (even ‘foreigners’) according to the controlling Mrs Arboroath whose rallying cry is ‘Wellhurst for the Wellhurstians’ and is appalled by the thought of the village being overrun by visiting cyclists and hikers (young women in shorts!). Although initially presented as a stereotypical autocratic matron who hates change (and of course Clement Attlee’s government) and spreads rumours about the months in which Germayne and David lived in sin, Mrs Arboroath is humanised. She behaves in the way she does because she’s lonely and at night devours sentimental novels and identifies with the heroines.

Germayne’s lack of maternal instinct and the flippancy with which it’s related reminded me of Linda and poor Moira in The Pursuit of Love. On discovering that she’s pregnant with twins, she considers taking ‘some horrid little pills’ but the appallingly-named Ducks (Millicent Hermione Germayne) arrives safely while her twin brother is stillborn and ‘slipped into a stranger’s coffin’. As a sixteen-year-old, Ducks attends an experimental Co-Ed school where she’s been turned into a bobby-soxer that’s much harder to handle than a 1914 flapper. And we can’t forget Mimi the pastry cook, a Viennese exile whose winsome broken English and figure-hugging dirndls turns all the men she meets to jelly (and makes them want to stump up cash for the venture) and repels their wives.

A perfect hammock read and a reminder (not that I needed it) that village life really wouldn’t suit me. Mary Essex was one of the pen names of Ursula Bloom who somehow wrote over 500 books (!) under several different names (my favourite is Lozania Prole, under which she published her historical novels), plus copious amounts of journalism. If forced to compare this title to one other writer, I’d pick E.F. Benson (but more compassionate), and I can understand the comparisons to Thirkell but Essex is a better writer and not nearly as snobbish. I just love how the British Library Women Writers series   contextualises seemingly small historical details (who would have thought that it was possible for a woman to sue a man for breach of promise until 1970? It was, however, very rare by the 1950s). And, since I like to bring everything back to Gordon MacRae, isn’t it extraordinary that Tea For Two (his first film with Doris Day) was also released in 1950?

Tea is So Intoxicating is available from British Library Publishing. Have you read any of the titles in the British Library Women Writers series?