Novels featuring tea-shops – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

Last year, I put together a couple of themed posts on my favourite novels set in hotels and boarding houses. They were fun to compile, and as several of you seemed to enjoy them, I’ve been meaning to do one on tea shops ever since. Alongside hotels, boarding houses and gossipy charladies, the presence of a tea shop in a novel is another strong selling point for me, especially if it’s a Lyons’ Corner House or a similarly characterful venue.

Just like hotels, boarding houses and trains, tea shops can provide writers with plenty of opportunities for interesting fiction, offering the potential for celebrations, drama, gossip or tension as people come together over tea and buns.

So, to cut to the chase, here are a few of my favourite novels featuring tea-shops (or afternoon tea), mostly from the mid-20th century.

Tea is So Intoxicating by Mary Essex

Ostensibly the story of a couple’s troublesome quest to open a tea garden in an insular English village, this delightful novel touches on various areas of British life in the years immediately following WW2. More specifically, it is a book about class, social attitudes, the pettiness of village life, and perhaps most importantly, 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 skill or knowledge to put his grand 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.

Naturally, the tea garden is doomed from the start; the villagers are opposed to the idea, viewing the Tompkinses as outsiders 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. As the novel plays out, we see just how much of a mess David gets himself into as preparations for the ‘Cherry Tree Cot’ tea garden lurch from one catastrophe to another.

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 relationships and women’s lives. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is another touchstone, particularly for the villagers’ territorial attitudes and resistance to outsiders heralding change.

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam

This is a really lovely book, a thoroughly engaging coming-of-age story in the style of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, maybe with a hint of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle in the mix for good measure. Set in a coastal town in North Yorkshire in the early years of the Second World War, Verona is narrated by Jessica Vye, a precocious schoolgirl with an utterly captivating voice.

Jessica has a small coterie of friends, all delightfully sketched by Gardam, who excels in capturing their body language and banter. In a hilarious early scene, Jessica insists that the girls visit the local tea room to mark the end of term. The trouble is, Elsie Meeny’s tea shop is virtually deserted – a sleepy, down-at-heel establishment somewhat diminished by the war. As such, Jessica’s dreams of a proper afternoon tea with fat chocolate biscuits and dainty eclairs are quickly dashed, a situation made worse by comparisons with another customer’s far superior tea!

As the novel unfolds, we follow Jessica as she tries to navigate her way through adolescence, negotiating various formative experiences along the way. What Gardam does so well here is to capture the conflicting emotions of being a teen, from the surety of knowing one’s own mind to the agony of being misunderstood and not fitting in. A wonderful novel with an undercurrent of darkness, especially towards the end.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies. Many of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopelessbefuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. In this instance, the community revolves around the Temple Stage School, managed by the eponymous Freddie, an elderly matriarch and longstanding doyenne of the theatrical world. Once again, Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences to write this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question.

Alongside the ups and downs of stage-school life, the novel features a subplot involving the school’s only proper teachers, Hannah and Pierce – and this is where the tea shop ultimately comes in. While Hannah is attracted to the romance and atmosphere of the theatre, Pierce has no interest whatsoever in dramatic pursuits. Instead, he is simply grateful to have found a half-decent job, knowing his own value (or lack of it) in the wider world.

As the weeks go by, Hannah and Pierce fall into a loose relationship with each other, one that seems doomed from the start. There is an excruciating proposal of marriage, followed by an even more desperate discussion in a Lyons tea shop, complete with waitresses itching to clear up and go home. Pierce is one of Fitzgerald’s classic hopeless men, painfully aware of his own tragedy but clueless about how to negate it.

In short, this is an excellent novel, both darkly comic and gently poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977, at the height of Pym’s well-documented renaissance, Quartet in Autumn is a quietly poignant novel of loneliness, ageing and the passing of time – how sometimes we can feel left behind as the world changes around us. (Now that I’ve read it twice, I think it might be my favourite Pym!)

The story follows four work colleagues in their sixties – Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman – as they deal with retirement from their roles as clerical workers in a London office. While that might not sound terribly exciting as a premise, Pym brings some lovely touches of gentle humour to this bittersweet gem, showing us that life can still offer new possibilities in the autumn of our years.

Alongside its central themes of loneliness and ageing, the novel also illustrates how difficult it can be to adjust to change, especially when we are older and set in our ways. Edwin, for instance, laments the changes that have occurred in a nearby teashop, one of his regular lunchtime haunts.

He had had a light lunch, snack really, in the teashop whose decor had changed distressingly, though the food was the same. Edwin and the other regular patrons felt themselves out of place among so much trendy orange and olive green and imitation stripped pine. There were hanging lights and shades patterned with butterflies and over it all soft ‘muzak’, difficult to hear but insidious. (p. 20)

It’s a lovely scene, full of the subtle observations that Pym conveys so well.

Jill by Philip Larkin

One of only two novels that Larkin wrote in his career, Jill is well worth seeking out. In essence, the novel focuses on John Kemp, a socially awkward young man from a Northern, working-class background who wins a scholarship to study English at Oxford University in 1940. Struggling to fit in with his rather arrogant upper-class roommate, Christopher, and the public school set who surround him, John invents an imaginary sister, Jill, in order to embellish his own life in the face of others. However, things get complicated for John when he meets Gillian, the fifteen-year-old cousin of one of Christopher’s friends, and the boundaries between the imaginary Jill and the real-life Gillian begin to blur…

I’m bending the rules a little with this one as it features afternoon tea in university halls rather than a tea shop, but it’s such a brilliantly observed scene that I couldn’t bear to leave it out! The novel is full of marvellous details and observations about the minutiae of student life in Oxford: the inevitable tensions that arise when mismatched boys have to ‘room’ together; the cribbing and last-minute preparations that ensue when essays are due; and the pilfering of items from other boys’ cupboards, especially when there is cake to be sourced for afternoon tea. (The section where John arrives at his room in Oxford features a terrific set piece!)

Overall, this is a moving, sympathetic portrait of a boy for whom certain aspects of life remain largely out of reach.

Do let me know your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books. Or maybe you have some favourite novels featuring tea shops that you’d like to share with others – I’m sure there are many more I’ve yet to discover, so please feel free to mention them below!

49 thoughts on “Novels featuring tea-shops – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

  1. whisperinggums

    Yea shops are particularly English aren’t they? I have only read Quartet in autumn which I enjoyed but I can’t recollect the tea shop detail. I could think of a few boarding house novels but am struggling with this one albeit I’m sure I’d enjoy the novels.

  2. elkiedee

    I’m glad to see someone sharing my love of A Long Way From Verona, which I’ve read at 8, in my teens or 20s and in my 30s or 40s, I think, perhaps even more than 3 times. But I still don’t remember the tea shop scene. The bits that stick in my mind are about her reading in the public library.

    There’s a historical short story by Frances Brody about a historical crime fiction series detective (Kate Shackleton) that opens in Betty’s in Harrogate. Betty’s tea-rooms are very posh, with a lot of food on offer at afternoon tea in the 2000s and presumably in the early 1920s when the story is set.

    1. rosemarykaye

      My favourite part of A Long Way From Verona is the visit of the elderly author to the school, after which Jessica thrusts her stories into his hands. He subsequently sends her a note: ‘Jessica Vine, you are a writer beyond all possible doubt.’ (I may have that slightly wrong, writing from memory here, but that’s the gist of it.)

    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Wow, how lovely to have discovered Verona as a child! I was quite late to it by comparison, but better late than never. The tea-shop scene is fairly near the beginning of the book, so it should be fairly easy to find if you’re ever reading it again. (I think it starts around p. 15 in my Abacus edition.)

      And thank you for the suggestion of Frances Brody’s short story. I love Betty’s tea rooms in Harrogate. Always a treat to visit if I happen to be in the area – and the same applies to their York tea room, too!

  3. rosemarykaye

    Oh what a great theme!

    Perhaps unsurprisingly I’ve read most of these, though they probably all deserve a reread.

    I think tea shops feature in many Pyms – in A Glass of Blessings doesn’t Wilf Bason end up running a country antiques shop that ‘serves cream teas in season?’ And in An Unsuitable Attachment, the parish has a trip to Rome, and I think Sister ?Blatt ?Dew demands (but doesn’t get) ‘proper’ tea in the English Tea Rooms near the Spanish Steps.

    There’s also a fateful meeting in the tea room on the pier in Greene’s Brighton Rock.

    In Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia the children are taken, after their visit to the dentist, to Fullers – what I originally thought may perhaps have been based on the Victoria tea room above Jamieson & Carrie’s jewellers’ shop in Aberdeen. (I used to take my own children there – the jewellers’ is still open though (sadly!) the tea room is closed.) But I’ve just looked Fullers up, and it did indeed exist – there’s even a 1959 photograph of it on Pinterest. Next time I’m in town I must see what it’s turned into.

    And in I Capture the Castle, Cassandra and her dog Heloise at one point end up in the Lyons Corner House on Piccadilly:

    ‘The tea was a comfort. And by that time I more than needed comfort.’

    Going slightly off point, another old favourite of mine in Aberdeen is Charles Michie’s tea room – in the lower floor of Michie’s chemist shop. It’s a bit of an institution, and when I was working I always made it part of my day off to go in for a coffee and a scone. The clientele is mostly elderly ladies, and – as one of my daughters pointed out – ‘you’ve always got your eavesdropping face on in there’. It was irresistible – a Pym novel in itself. I overheard so many interesting/hilarious comments as I drank my coffee.

    In those days you could have a ‘top up’ for 50p, which went to charity. The café has been smartened up a bit since Covid, but the clientele remains much the same. I recently looked it up on Trip Advisor and was appalled to see that someone had actually criticised it for being ‘full of old ladies’ – the nerve! That’s the main attraction for me, and I am of course rapidly becoming one myself.

    I will stop now, I think I’m getting too carried away!

    Thanks for such a lovely post.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A pleasure, Rosemary, and thanks so much for your brilliant reply, that’s marvellous. I probably could have chosen one of several Pyms as I think there’s a tea-room scene in Crampton Hodnet, too. In fact, I’ve just looked up my review, and it it includes the following comment:

      “When Miss Doggett spots Francis taking Miss Bird to tea, she is convinced that something untoward is afoot….”

      Brighton Rock is an excellent suggestion – I remember those scenes from the film! Great points about I Capture the Castle and O Caledonia – I’ve read both of those, and they’re more than worthy of inclusion here!

      Charles Michie’s sounds absolutely marvellous! As you say, there would be plenty of material for several Pym novels in the various conversations taking place over tea and cake…

  4. Simon T

    I’ve long meant to read Verona and Jill, so good to see them mentioned here! The others I’ve all read – I love the Essex, of course, and that’s perhaps my favourite Penelope Fitzgerald.

    An example I’m a bit lukewarm about – a tea shop features a lot in Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons, and those scenes are my favourites.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Splendid! I think you’d really appreciate both Verona and Jill, especially given your fondness for fiction from this era. And the Essex was such a wonderful discovery. I very much doubt I would have come across it without the aid of the BL Women Writers series, so many thanks for championing the reissue – it’s such a delightful book!

      The Gibbons I’m unfamiliar with, but I’ll definitely keep it in mind, even though it’s not her best. :)

  5. Laurie Graves

    I’ve read “A Long Way from Verona,” and while I didn’t like it quite as well as you did, I finished the novel. The sticking point for me was Jessica’s extreme mouthiness to her parents. As a child growing up in the 1960s, I never would have been allowed to talk to my parents that way, and the same was true for my friends. Never heard any child talk like that to adults. And “Verona” was set twenty years earlier, when times were even more strict. Anyway, will be putting “Autumn Quartet” on the list as well as “Jill.”

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Pym is an excellent novel (probably my favourite of hers) , so I hope you enjoy it. And the Larkin is fascinating too, albeit less polished than some of the others here – the early scenes are particularly good.

      Oddly enough, I don’t remember Jessica’s mouthiness with her parents, maybe because other elements from the Gardam have stayed with me more vividly. That said, I can see how that might jar somewhat given the era…

  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    A lovely selection, Jacqui, and I actually haven’t read any of them!! However, I do have Tea is So Intoxicating lurking, as well as Jill. I don’t know why I’ve not read the latter yet, as I loved A Girl in Winter.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Goodness, what treats you have in store, then! While Larkin’s Jill isn’t quite as strong as A Girl in Winter, there’s still plenty to enjoy with it, especially in the early scenes. I’ll be fascinated to hear what you think.

      And the Essex is a delight – a great find on Simon’s part for his partnership with the BL!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! Jill is well worth getting to as you already have a copy on your shelves. It’s not as polished as A Girl in Winter (sorry, I can’t recall if you read that one), but there still plenty to enjoy with it, especially towards the beginning.

  7. gertloveday

    Thank you Jaqui, this post is so enjoeyable. I have read all the books you write about except Tea is so Intoxicating. It sounds delightful and I was also interested to see that Mary Essex was on of the writing names of Ursula Bloom. Will definitely seek it out.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      A pleasure, and I’m glad you enjoyed it! Yes, it seems as though Ursula Bloom had several pen names, if her wiki entry is anything to go by…

  8. Julé Cunningham

    Tea shop scenes are a joy to read, good people watching potential and gossip generating centers, especially in small villages. I loved the tea shop scene in Verona, the contrast between what Jessica imagined and the reality, oh la! Having recently read another of Gardam’s earlier books it brought back good memories of Jessica’s story.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. It’s that combination of people-watching and eavesdropping on snatches of conversation that really appeals. And yes, the tea-shop scene in Verona is brilliant – a shortfall made all the worse by the preferential treatment of that other customer, Mrs Hopkins…

  9. Fanda Classiclit

    A lovely list! And I found some new interest too.
    I’ve just read a lovely cozy mystery set in a tea shop: Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers by Jesse Q. Sutanto. This book becomes a hype right now because Warner Bros. and Oprah/Mindy Kaling are adapting it to TV series. Here’s my review if you’re curious.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, thank you for the link to your review – it’s interesting to see. Funnily enough, another reader just recommended this book to me via Twitter, and it certainly fits the bill. The cosy crime genre has definitely been enjoying a bit of a renaissance in recent years, so I can understand why Warner Bros are adapting this for the screen…

  10. Christine Whittemore

    Great piece, and it makes me want to read the Gardam (I admire her so much!) and the Fitzgerald (ditto, my favourite is The Blue Flower) again! As a Pym admirer I already love Quartet in Autumn…I think I will reread it soon, as I am now quite a bit older than when I last did and it will make even more sense…
    Re Pym novels, Rosemary mentions the time when in Rome Sister Dew (I think yes) demands ‘proper tea’ in the English Tea Rooms near the Spanish Steps…I have not read that book for decades, but have now realised with horror that it may have subconsciously influenced the novel I am trying to write now, in which a nineteenth-century woman is having tea in a café near the Spanish Steps and finds the tea wanting! Though of course this is a thing that has happened and still happens often to British people in many different places….

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks so much, Christine, for your delightful comment! Isn’t it interesting how sometimes these small scenes or anecdotes burrow their way into the subconscious without us realising? An Unsuitable Attachment is one of the few Pyms I’ve yet to read, and even just talking about it now leaves me eager to get to it soon.

      Both the Fitzgerald and the Gardam are top-notch – and given that you’ve enjoyed other books by these writers, they’ll almost certainly hit the spot. Enjoy!

      1. Christine Whittemore

        Thanks Jacqui—yes, they will definitely hit the spot when I read them again, as I do love both writers. Not sure when that will be—trying to finish my own novel atm and it’s soooo hard—and I get easily discouraged when reading novels by brilliant writers!

  11. heavenali

    Oh I do love these posts of yours. A tea shop in literature is almost as good as one in real life. The only one of those you highlight that I haven’t read is At Freddie’s but I do have it tbr. Quartet in Autumn is my favourite Pym. I had forgotten the teashop scene in it.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They’re fun to do, I must admit! I think you will love At Freddie’s, Ali. It has that wonderful blend of comedy and poignancy, and the stage school setting is brilliantly evoked.

  12. Jane

    What a lovely post Jacqui, I loved your boarding house post too! I’ve only read the Barbara Pym (which of course I loved) but the one I’m most excited about is the Jane Gardam. I discovered her short stories last year and thought she was the most surprising writer – you think you know where you are and then . . .

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane! Funnily enough, Verona is the only Jane Gardam I’ve read so far, but it impressed me so much that I bought another couple of the back of it. Her Old Filth trilogy sounds great, so hopefully that’s where I’ll be heading next, but it good to hear you enjoyed her short stories – something for me to look out for in the future, no doubt.
      In the meantime, I think you would love A Long Way From Verona. The Backlisted team covered it on their podcast a few years ago – a terrific recommendation as ever!

  13. conmartin13

    A fun post. I have been meaning to read the Essex and I am sure I read the Pym. There was one summer when I read all her books, although I don’t remember them well. I think the US conference is in Boston and occasionally someone I know attends.

    My mother gave me A Long Way From Verona for Christmas when I was about ten and I disliked the heroine so much that I resisted the Old Filth books when my book group chose them a few years ago. However, I did succumb and liked them so I should give Verona another chance.

    I would add No Boats on Bannermere by Geoffrey Trease, memorable not only because of the teas they offer at their new home in the Lake District but also because Mrs. Melbury is divorced, not a widow; probably unusual in 1949 to mention it.

    The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley, one of my favorite authors who writes in the style of Mary Stewart, is set in Cornwall where the heroine helps open a tea room in Cornwall. This book starts slowly but I wound up loving it.

    Lilian Harry sets one of her series, Corner House Girls, in a Lyons tea shop which might be the first time I heard of them. This series is set during WWII and is sort of Catherine Cookson-ish but enjoyable. Her books are not published in the US but I liked this series enough to hunt them down.

    I’ve had Rosie’s Traveling Tea Shop by Rebecca Raisin on my TBR for a bit. The heroine is rebuilding her life after her husband leaves her by putting all her money into a van so she can operate a pop up tea shop. Raisin is an Australian writer.

    The Teashop Girls by Laura Schaefer was a charming sounding juvenile series about a girl trying to save her grandmother’s tea shop so I bought it for my 11 year old niece but somehow it fell flat. I guess sales were correspondingly weak as only two books were published.

    There is an American tea shop mystery series by Laura Childs but I read one book and found it quite lame. I did appreciate that one title was Death by Darjeeling although that wasn’t the one I read.

    There is a brand new bookstore in downtown Boston that offers a very expensive high tea on its top floor. I have been told there’s a line to get in on weekends. I could use Lyons House prices!


    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, I’m so glad you enjoyed this piece!

      Oh, that’s a brilliant list of recommendations, Constance. Thank you very much for this – I’m making a note of the books right now! And they’re all completely new to me, so lots to discover here.

      That’s such an interesting comment about the Gardam, and I’m not quite sure how I would have reacted to Jessica had I read the book at that age. She’s very forthright, isn’t she, and I can see how her attitude might get on some readers’ nerves? Still, you enjoyed the Old Filth series, which is great to hear. That’ll be my next Gardam, I think, as I have the first one on the shelves..

      Thanks again for such a helpful, insightful comment, Constance, it’s very much appreciated indeed!

  14. pagebypage14

    I’ve read and enjoyed all the novels you mentioned. I’ve been meaning to re-read the Gardam after belatedly listening to the Backlisted episode. Such a lovely post and responses.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, and I’m glad you enjoyed this piece!
      Like you, I’m a fan of the Backlisted podcast, and their episode on Verona definitely prompted me to pick it up. They’re very dangerous for the TBR…


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