But does it matter?

Lovers of the tradition of afternoon tea mimic a custom that began with Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford. Faced with a fainting feeling mid-afternoon because of England’s late dinner hour, she is said to have asked her butler to bring her bread, butter, and tea around 5pm. She then asked her friends to join her and the social practice spread among the upper-class until its practice was widespread.

What may be even less known than this is that Anna Russell was a contemporary and friend of Queen Victoria who began her reign in 1837. Hence, many tearooms choose a Victorian theme for their decor and ambiance. I will sheepishly admit, I did not connect the historical dots until very recently. For many lovers of afternoon tea are also Jane Austen fans, probably the most well-known individual from the England’s Regency Era. And just in case you didn’t know, the Regency Era came BEFORE the Victorian Era. Most likely, while Jane Austen drank tea (see the book Tea with Jane Austen for more information) she didn’t practice the custom of afternoon tea so many of us have come to enjoy.

I once tried to plan a Jane Austen themed tea based on the book Tea with Jane Austen. The author includes a number of recipes written as they were in the 19th century along with an updated version. But I abandoned the idea because I wanted a menu filled with more traditional afternoon tea fare which was not included. Now I know why. And I know some of you want to try this theme as well, as my search terms show.

So for the historical purists among us, an authentic Austen-themed afternoon tea would be difficult to reproduce. However, your afternoon tea can take on any theme you want. Some of the ways you could incorporate Jane Austen into your theme could be:

  • with fashion. The empire silhouette is back in style, with a woman’s waist falling directly below her bust. Regency women did not wear corsets or hoop-skirts, smart girls! Now, one would wear hats and gloves and remove the gloves when dining.
  • with the language of the fan. It is my understanding that the secret messages sent with the fan women carried began before the Victorian era. And it’s just fun.
  • with music. Mozart was already around!
  • to provide your guests with a copy of one of Austen’s novels as a party favor. Dover Thrift Editions are extremely reasonable, such as this copy of Mansfield Park.
  • to invite a dance instructor and ask for instruction in the Cotillion, the dances we see in the Austen-based movies. Even with only girls, this could be great fun.

So while Jane Austen was only eight years older than Duchess Anna, she died forty years before her. It’s possible Ms. Austen was never invited to afternoon tea. Now, Beatrix Potter’s life, on the other hand, was most likely filled with appointments for afternoon tea. And a Beatrix Potter-themed tea would be extremely easy to recreate. Blackberries and chamomile tea, anyone? I was in awe of the number of beautiful tea-related scenes in the recent movie, Miss Potter. This was accurate, since Miss Potter came of age when the Victorian Era and the tradition of afternoon tea were in full swing.

Do you think it matters? How would you incorporate Jane Austen into your afternoon tea party?