The title quote comes from Arthur Wing Pinero, a British dramatist of the late nineteenth century. I feel confident he knows of what he speaks.
For myself, an invitation to a formal tea would be terrifying. I’ve never been one to grasp the finer points of social graces. Like my daughter says, “We’re clumsy people.” So, when my main character, Ben Pryor, is invited to tea by the matriarch of Cold Creek Plantation in 1836, I had no trouble describing his dread.
What were the rules for such an occasion? My working-class parents were sticklers for good table manners, but the rich of the nineteenth century had more requirements than “don’t slurp” to distinguish the elegant from the mundane.
Research once again saved the day.
Apparently, many types of teas exist, depending much on the time of day. What we may imagine as ‘high tea’ should actually be called ‘afternoon tea.’ It involves sandwiches, scones, clotted cream, curd, a couple sweets, and of course, tea. This is the type Ben navigated.
First, greet your hostess and other guests. Perhaps shake their hands. So far, so good.
Then, have a seat. Already, I’d make my first faux pas. I’d set my purse on the floor beside the chair or hang it on the back. How gauche! NO. Set it on your lap or behind you in the chair. I guess you shouldn’t be leaning back so far anyway.
Next, a predicament. Place your napkin on your lap. But what if you chose to put your purse there? Cover it with the napkin? Sounds rather awkward. Quickly remove the purse and shove it behind your back. Gracefully.
Now it’s time to prepare your tea. In the delicate china cup, add sugar first. Then lay a thin slice of lemon over it. Instructions are adamant that you may not add both lemon and milk. (Am I mistaken, or does lemon not curdle milk? Who would do that?) Those who wish to use milk instead of lemon must add the milk last—once the tea’s been poured. Apparently, after much debate, this has been decreed by the Washington School of Protocol. (No, I don’t know who or where that is. Washington, perhaps?) So, milk must be last!
On to the edibles. If you are eating from a tea tray, presumably sitting in a low chair, start with the savories. These tasty finger foods can be served on toast points, small biscuits, or crackers. Traditionally, they’re consumable in one or two bites. Follow with the scones which should be cut horizontally by the knife. Curd and cream on the plate must be applied with each bite and eaten neatly. Yes, it says that. All food is to be eaten with the fingers NEATLY. Glad they made that clear. Finish up with the sweets.
I know what you’re fretting about. Where do we put the spoon?
Always, always behind the cup. Never leave it sitting inside the cup. Were you born in a stable? (Oops. Never mind.)
Finally, this is what separates the haute monde from the vulgarian. Since ancient Roman days, it’s been true that the elite eats with three fingers while the commoner eats with all five. Thus, over the centuries, the upper crust have been characterized as eating with their pinkies stuck out. A clear exaggeration!
So be advised. Avoid pinkies on the wing, and you will have successfully navigated a bona fide afternoon tea. Enjoy!
“I partook of most excellent tea and I should be even now still drinking it, I believe, if the Ambassador had not charitably notified me at the twelfth cup that I must put my spoon across it when I wished to finish with this sort of warm water.” Prince de Broglie on a visit to England in 1782.
An Afternoon to Remember, “Tea Time Etiquette and the History of Afternoon Tea” https://www.afternoontoremember.com/learn/etiquette
Ste. Genevieve Journal, “18th Century Colonial Tea” https://stegenevievejournal.blogspot.com/2019/05/18th-century-colonial-tea.html?showComment=1556751223499