Some literary extracts concerning tea

We've pulled together some passages from our favourite authors in which they talk about tea.

Writers like tea. This is a Thing. We approve of it, and note the happy side effect: a lot of people who are much better than us at writing have written about tea. Here are some highlights, and like many things on this website the list is not in its final form. If you can think of anything we've missed, please let us know.

1. Kyril Bonfiglioli

Possibly the greatest prose stylist in the English language, writing books that are a cross between PG Wodehouse and Ian Fleming. It is criminal that he is not more widely known, especially for the Mortdecai Trilogy, and it's even worse that the one film adaptation of his work turned out to be the worst thing we've ever watched. Anyway, here's him on tea. Now buy his book.

Jock, you see, although not bread to service, has a heaven-sent knowledge of what the young master will require in the way of tea. I would pit him against any Wigmore Street physician when it comes to prescribing tea: there are times, as I'm sure you know, when these things *matter*. I mean, an art-dealer who has nothing to face that day but a brisk flurry of bidding at Sotheby's needs naught but the soothing Oolong. A morning at Christie's indicates the Lapsang Souchong. A battle-royal at Bonham's over, say, a Pater which only one other dealer has spotted calls for the Broken Orange Pekoe Tips - nay, even the Earl Grey itself. For an art-dealer in terror of his life, however, and and one who has valiantly embarked on Part Two of his honeymoon in early middle age, only two specifics are in the field: Twining's Queen Mary's Blend or Fortnum's Royal. 

    -- After You with the Pistol, p.346

How sharper than a serpent's tooth is an awakening without tea!

    -- Don't Point that Thing at Me, p.148

Oh yeah, and Bonfiglioli also wrote an entire book set in the midst of the Eighteenth Century tea trade. It's called All the Tea in China, but read the Mortdecai trilogy first.

2. F Scott Fitzgerald

Well, mostly there's just this one letter that we're aware of. But it's a good one, regarding etiquette when drinking tea in Company. For the record, we disagree with the notion that there are subjects that don't belong at afternoon tea. Tea breaks down barriers, and we see it as a catalyst for open discussions on any subject.


I know that it was very annoying for me to have lost my temper in public and I want to apologize to you both, for the discomfort that I know I gave you. There are certain subjects that simply do not belong to an afternoon tea and, while I still think that Mr Perce's arguments were almost maddening enough to justify homicide,  I appreciate that it was no role of mine to intrude my intensity of feeling upon a group who had expected a quiet tea party.

Ever yours faithfully,

Scott Fitzgerald

Historical note: the argument related to Mr Perce's defence of Hitler.

3. Douglas Adams

The king of funny science fiction, whose career also contained a stretch as bodyguard to a Qatari family, Douglas Adams cared a lot about tea. He even wrote a , aimed at Americans who couldn't see the point of it, but probably his most famous tea passage is the following. Arthur Dent, reluctant hero, just wants a cup of tea and the machine in the spaceship keeps giving him the sort of thing you would expect to drink in, well, America...

“No,” Arthur said, “look, it’s very, very simple…. All I want… is a cup of tea. You are going to make one for me. Now keep quiet and listen.”

And he sat. He told the Nutro-Matic about India, he told it about China, he told it about Ceylon. He told it about broad leaves drying in the sun. He told it about silver teapots. He told it about summer afternoons on the lawn. He told it about putting the milk in before the tea so it wouldn’t get scalded. He even told it (briefly) about the East India Trading Company.

“So that’s it, is it?” said the Nutro-Matic when he had finished.

“Yes,” said Arthur. “That is what I want.”

“You want the taste of dried leaves boiled in water?”

“Er, yes. With milk.”

“Squirted out of a cow?”

“Well in a manner of speaking, I suppose…”

“I’m going to need some help with this one.”

  -- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

4. Thomas de Quincey

An essayist of renown, Thomas de Quincy spent the years 1804 to 1858 smashing the opium. The most important result of this was his controversial publications of Confessions of an English Opium Eater, an account that ranges far and wide in its discussion of the human condition. We highly recommend giving it a try (the book rather than opium). Although the writing does tend to show its age, it has been a great inspiration to us (an article I had published under a pseudonym in Spiked Magazine a couple of years ago is named for it), and here we can see Thomas de Quincey basically inventing hygge and demonstrating tea's importance to the aesthetic:

Let it, however, NOT be spring, nor summer, nor autumn, but winter in his sternest shape. This is a most important point in the science of happiness. And I am surprised to see people overlook it, and think it matter of congratulation that winter is going, or, if coming, is not likely to be a severe one. On the contrary, I put up a petition annually for as much snow, hail, frost, or storm, of one kind or other, as the skies can possibly afford us. Surely everybody is aware of the divine pleasures which attend a winter fireside, candles at four o'clock, warm hearth-rugs, tea, a fair tea-maker, shutters closed, curtains flowing in ample draperies on the floor, whilst the wind and rain are raging audibly without [...]

From the latter weeks of October to Christmas Eve, therefore, is the period during which happiness is in season, which, in my judgment, enters the room with the tea-tray; for tea, though ridiculed by those who are naturally of coarse nerves, or are become so from wine-drinking, and are not susceptible of influence from so refined a stimulant, will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectual; and, for my part, I would have joined Dr. Johnson in a bellum internecinum against Jonas Hanway, or any other impious person, who should presume to disparage it.

  -- Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Part 2

5. Terry Pratchett

The only famous person whose death moved me.

'Would you care for a cup of tea?' said the Duck Man.

'You drink tea down here?'

'Of course. Why not? What kind of people do you think we  are?' The Duck Man held up a blackened teapot and a rusty mug with an inviting smile.

It was probably a good moment to be polite, thought William. Besides, the water would have been boiled, wouldn't it?

' milk, though,' he said quickly. He could imagine what the milk would be like.

'Ah, I said you were a gentleman,' said the Duck Man, pouring a tarry brown liquid into the mug. 'Milk in tea is an abomination.' He picked up, with a dainty gesture, a plate and a pair of tongs. 'Slice of lemon?' he added.

'Lemon? You have lemon?'

'Oh, even Mr Ron here would rather wash under his arms than have anything but lemon in his tea,' said the Duck Man, plopping a slice into William's mug.

'And four sugars,' said Arnold Sideways.

William took a deep draught of the tea. It was thick and stewed but it was also sweet and hot. All in all, he considered, it could have been much worse.

'Yes, we're very fourtunate when it comes to slices of lemon,' said the Duck Man, busily fussing over the tea things. 'Why, it is indeed a bad day when we can't find two or three slices floating down the river.

-- The Truth, pp.247-8

More to come...

Although I'm worried I've already revealed slightly too much about my reading habits...