Tea is so Intoxicating by Mary Essex

First published in 1950, Tea is so Intoxicating is another recent reissue in the British Library’s excellent Women Writers series, and it’s probably my favourite so far. Ostensibly the story of a couple’s quest to open a tea garden in an insular English village, Essex’s novel touches on various areas of British life in the years immediately following the Second World War. More specifically, it is a book about class, social attitudes, the pettiness of village life, and perhaps most importantly of all, the failure to recognise one’s own limitations.

The couple in question are David and Germayne Tompkins, who are relative newcomers to Wellhurst in Kent, the sort of village where everyone knows everyone else’s business. David is one of those men with big ambitions but precious little skills or knowledge to put his ideas into practice. He is also something of a self-conscious snob, forever envying other, more successful individuals for their achievements and contentment with life.

While recuperating from a short illness, David develops an obsession with cooking, convincing himself that he can produce dishes of the highest order when in fact his efforts are little short of disastrous. This, coupled with his experience in the accounts department of the Dolly Varden Cosy Tea Shops, Ltd., leads David to the view that he should open a tea garden in the grounds of the couple’s cottage – a rather primitive, poorly-equipped property that the Tompkinses have unwisely purchased at a knockdown price. Germayne, on the other hand, is somewhat dismayed at the prospect, fearful in the belief that poor David is getting carried away with himself…

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. (p. 34)

Naturally, the villagers are opposed to the idea, viewing the Tompkinses as outsiders (or ‘foreigners’) who have no right to be opening a commercial venture in their back garden – especially one with the potential to attract all manner of hikers and bikers to the village, increasing the levels of noise and congestion. Mr Perch at the Dolphin is not happy about the proposal, mostly because his wife serves teas in the pub’s garden. The fact that there’s only enough space for four people in the Perches’ tiny outdoor area is neither here nor there.

David went to elaborate efforts to hide his true intentions. He explained that there was no question of competition at all, because he was catering only for the better-class tea-seeker; his Cherry Tree Cot would appeal only to the more sensitive with its fine china, delicate sandwiches, and home-made cakes. Naturally this did not mollify Mr Perch, who knew privately that his wife’s teas were shockers, and that any kind of competition would be too much for him. (pp. 52–53)

David doesn’t exactly endear himself to the locals when explaining to Mr Perch how their respective tea gardens are aiming for very different sectors of the market, his snobbishness and lack of self-awareness coming firmly to the fore. To compound matters, there is also the question of the Tompkinses’ relationship, a source of significant scandal and gossip amongst the villagers.

As it turns out, David and Germayne were not married to one another on their arrival at Wellhurst, Germayne having left her first husband, the dull but dependable Digby, for the more entrepreneurial David. In time, a divorce was secured, allowing David and Germayne to get married on the quiet, away from prying eyes. Nevertheless, somehow or other, these developments have become common knowledge, giving the residents of Wellhurst something else to disapprove of alongside the tea garden itself.

As the novel plays out, we see just how much of a mess David gets himself into as preparations for the Cherry Tree Cot lurch from one catastrophe to another. His lack of common sense and inability to get to grips with the practicalities come together to form the perfect storm – almost literally. Meanwhile, Germayne is at the end of her tether, run ragged by David’s ineptitude and blinkered vision. Add to the mix a flirtatious baker from Vienna (Mimi) and Germayne’s precocious daughter, Ducks, from her marriage to Digby, and the stage is set for all manner of chaos.

Alongside the high jinks of the tea shop, Essex also has time to touch on the social changes sweeping through Britain at the time, largely accelerated by the Second World War. Mrs Arbroath at the Manor – another vociferous opponent of David’s tea garden – bemoans the progressive nature of developments under the Labour government, desperately hoping to cling to the world of the past. Albeit rather lonely and tragic at heart, Mrs A is another blinkered individual whose snobbish attitudes reveal themselves all too clearly…

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… (p. 87)

The story of Germayne’s earlier marriage to Digby is also nicely woven into the fabric of the book, granting Essex the opportunity to reflect on the relative merits of Germayne’s matrimonial matches. There is a message here about the value of dull yet dependable individuals over more exciting, erratic ones, something that prompts Germayne to reflect on the life she gave up with Digby. In all reality, perhaps the grass isn’t greener on the other side after all…

In short, I loved this highly amusing novel, complete with its insights into the trials and tribulations of tea gardens and village life. There is more than a hint of Barbara Pym’s social comedies here, with their sharp observations on human relationship and women’s lives – especially when the women in question are long-suffering individuals, frequently taken for granted by others. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is another touchstone, particularly in its portrayal of the villagers’ territorial attitudes and resistance to outsiders heralding change.

It’s such a joy to see this delightful novel back in print as part of the British Library’s Women Writers series, and I hope to see more of Mary Essex’s work coming through in the future. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

39 thoughts on “Tea is so Intoxicating by Mary Essex

  1. Brian Joseph

    It is always good when a book comes back into print.

    This sounds amusing and entertaining. Very flawed individuals trying to make a go of something is an idea that we never seen to tire of.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed! There’s so much scope for humour in the folly of misguided ambitions, and Essex exploits it incredibly well. David is a brilliant creation, just the right side of ‘believable’ to resonate on the page.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely. It’s very Pym-like in terms of set-up and style. The only thing that’s missing is a curate or an academic. Apart from that, it’s Pymsville to a T!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I love that name too! There’s an interesting bit of background on the origins of ‘Dolly Varden’ in Simon Thomas’s afterword in the book. While Dolly Varden was the name of one of the characters in the novel, Barnaby Rudge, it had in fact been borrowed from a style of clothing intended to reflect the an earlier time. Asa Simon explains in the book, “a Dolly Varden outfit was usually a print dress with a large flower pattern, within overskirt gathered up and draped over a separate underskirt. It was often accompanied by a large Dolly Varden hat, worn with one side bent down and abundantly covered in flowers. Though the fashion was short-lived, the term was still used to refer to floral chintz fabrics half a century later.” So, we can speculate about the impression Essex was aiming to convey through her use of the name!

      Also, ‘Mary Essex’ was one of a range of pennames adopted by the prolific novelist Ursula Bloom. (I believe she wrote over 500 books back in the day!). Apparently, the novels she penned under the name Essex were quite humorous in style, more so than the romance-oriented Ursula Bloom books. This is my first experience of Bloom’s work (under any guise), so I’m intrigued to investigate others – especially if they’re in a similar vein to ‘Tea’!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Marvellous! The name sounded vaguely familiar to me as well, so it’s possible that I had come across Bloom at some point over the years. That said, none of her books ring a bell, so maybe I’d read an article or seen her in the media!

          Reply
  2. heavenali

    So glad you enjoyed this one so much, I thought it was great. David is so hopeless and so deluded but I ended up feeling a bit sorry for him despite myself.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It really is a very good series of books, and I like the way they look at various aspects of women’s lives. Not just domesticity and marriage, but other issues too e.g. participation in the suffrage movement in May Sinclair’s The Tree of Heaven.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! It’s ideal if you’re looking for a bit of joy and escapism. Plus, David is such a exasperating character that he’ll probably make you feel better about our current confinement – just think what it would be like if you were locked down with him!

      Reply
  3. Simon T

    What a lovely review, Jacqui – so glad you enjoyed this one :D And I have to admit to feeling quite excited to see my afterword quoted in your comments! I’ve read a few other Mary Essexes, and am hoping for at least one more in the future of the series. I also have some under her real name, so will be intrigued to see what they’re like.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Well, you put it so beautifully in your afterword that I couldn’t help but quote from it! I’m glad to hear that we might be seeing more from Mary Essex/Ursula Bloom in the future releases. That would be lovely if your plans come to fruition. Either way, I’m very much enjoying the series. You really have picked some terrific novels to reissue.

      Reply
  4. Liz Dexter

    I loved this one, too, and this is a great review. I couldn’t arouse any sympathy in myself for David, but did warm to Digby, who also seemed pretty dreadful at first. And who can’t feel sorry for Germayne with her droopy stockings. You’re right about the Pym aspect, although she was more restrained in her use of exclamation marks, I think …

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! Yes, I really warmed to Digby by the end, a man with hidden qualities and depths. It’s interesting how our perceptions of people can change over time, especially when our own circumstances are not quite as rosy as we might have once imagined!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, the concept of this series is an excellent one, even though this particular book won’t appeal to everyone. I think you’d find Rose Macaulay an interesting writer. Her Dangerous Ages is a British Library WW title, but some of her other, more satirical works might be your kind of thing!

      Reply
  5. laurean6410

    Thank you, Jacqui, for the excellent review! I read the book on your recommendation and loved it. Pure escapism and unforgettable characters, especially Mimi and Ducks, the bobbie-soxer! Poor Germayne ended up back in a comfy place, and Digby won me over when he bought her a suit and an uncrushable silk blouse, not to mention the red hat. I will look forward to your reviews on other books in the Women Writers series.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it wonderful? As you say, even the minor characters are great value on the page. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and thanks very much for your kind words about my review – it’s lovely when a reading experience turns out this way!

      Reply
  6. buriedinprint

    A tea garden?! What a lovely antidote to the era’s horrors. ;)
    I was thinking both Pym and the Bookshop while reading your thoughts and can certainly imagine the delights herein.
    Well done on serving us all such a helping of temptation!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! It’s just the sort of comforting environment so many of us need right now. Even though I’m not a tea-drinker myself, I really miss the whole café culture thing, just the simple pleasure of whiling away an hour or two over a coffee and a good book. Oh, and the people-watching aspect too – I miss that hugely…

      Reply
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