Surrounded by all of the current hype touting green tea as the cure-all tonic for just about every ailment – physical or spiritual – it’s a little difficult to imagine a very different perspective, in a very different era, where green tea could be distrusted and even thought to cause harm to tea drinkers. Sheridan Le Fanu’s story “Green Tea,” published in 1872, tells a haunting tale about the dangers of certain substances and the trickery that comes in the night from the spirit world. Author of Carmilla, one of the most engaging, heavily subtext-laden vampire stories of the Victorian era, Le Fanu is no stranger to anyone who reads a lot of Gothic fiction.
“I believe, that every one who sets about writing in earnest does his work, as a friend of mine phrased it, on something—tea, or coffee, or tobacco. I suppose there is a material waste that must be hourly supplied in such occupations, or that we should grow too abstracted, and the mind, as it were, pass out of the body, unless it were reminded often enough of the connection by actual sensation. At all events, I felt the want, and I supplied it. Tea was my companion-at first the ordinary black tea, made in the usual way, not too strong: but I drank a good deal, and increased its strength as I went on. I never, experienced an uncomfortable symptom from it. I began to take a little green tea. I found the effect pleasanter, it cleared and intensified the power of thought so, I had come to take it frequently, but not stronger than one might take it for pleasure. I wrote a great deal out here, it was so quiet, and in this room. I used to sit up very late, and it became a habit with me to sip my tea—green tea—every now and then as my work proceeded. I had a little kettle on my table, that swung over a lamp, and made tea two or three times between eleven o’clock and two or three in the morning, my hours of going to bed. I used to go into town every day. I was not a monk, and, although I spent an hour or two in a library, hunting up authorities and looking out lights upon my theme, I was in no morbid state as far as I can judge. I met my friends pretty much as usual and enjoyed their society, and, on the whole, existence had never been, I think, so pleasant before.”
This sounds quite lovely, so far. But then the narrative turns darker, as the central character in the story, Mr. Jennings, is visited by a spectral and menacing monkey with glowing red eyes. The tortured subject of the story solicits doctors to help relieve his affliction, including the narrator, who is also the other principal character of the story, Dr. Hesselius, who offers the following analysis not too long after listening to Mr. Jennings relay the events and facts surrounding his condition:
“By various abuses, among which the habitual use of such agents as green tea is one, this fluid may be affected as to its quality, but it is more frequently disturbed as to equilibrium. This fluid being that which we have in common with spirits, a congestion found on the masses of brain or nerve, connected with the interior sense, forms a surface unduly exposed, on which disembodied spirits may operate: communication is thus more or less effectually established.”
Alas, this diagnosis comes too late to save the tormented tea drinker from his terrible fate. I’ll leave the details for you to discover in the story itself.
I don’t want to go too far into analysis of the Victorian attitudes about foreign religions, ideas and substances, but I will say that these are central to the story’s theme. Mr. Jennings, a pastor by vocation, becomes unhinged and haunted through his pursuit of studying ancient Pagan religion and venturing away from the standard British Isles black tea. He goes beyond the formal strictures of Victorian society, and disaster strikes him.
I tried to determine what specific kind of green tea a person in Britain or Ireland would have been drinking in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, but I was unable to find out. This was after the establishment of British colonial rule and the tea plantations in India, and after trade with China fell apart, so most tea coming into the British isles was black tea from the sub-continent. My guess is that any green tea coming in would have been Chinese, and given the troublesome relationship with China at that time, regular consumption of such a tea would have been considered at the least, a little suspicious.
You can read the entire story online: Green Tea, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, (28 August 1814 – 7 February 1873 )
In addition to reading it (or instead, if you’re short on time or attention), you can listen to the story on LibriVox.
The book image above is the cover of the 1945 Arkham House edition of “Green Tea and Other Ghost Stories.”
December 22, 2009 at 3:08 pm
In addition to the troubled relationship with China during that time, there was active villification of Chinese teas by British shopkeepers trafficking in Indian plantation teas at that time. A small textbook by one such merchant, Tea: The Drink of Pleasure and Health, published in 1880, goes to great lengths to tout the purity and superiority of Indian tea as opposed to the tainted and inferior Chinese leaf. Some excerpts:
“We have heard of [Chinese] leaves being carried about for weeks in sacks, used as mattresses, and becoming putrid, before being made into tea”.
“Great excitement has been caused here, and a great outcry raised against Chinese tea, owing to the seizure and confiscation of a cargo of adulterated poisonous rubbish”
“It is an undoubted fact that there is really no adulteration prctised on Indian tea abroad. The Chinese on the other hand have elevated the art almost to a science.”
It goes on and on at length like that, and apparently was a widespread viewpoint in England at the time (even though the vast majority of tea drunk there was still Chinese until the the turn of the century).
December 22, 2009 at 3:31 pm
I knew that Chinese teas would have been frowned on in Britain at that time, but I wasn’t able to find any good examples showing that. Thank you for the additional data.
January 4, 2010 at 9:48 am
Chinese weren’t able to increase tea production in the same manner as the demand in Britain grew, hence the Chinese production for exports emphasized quantity over quality.
Industrial tea production in India (actually it was in Assam) started around 1840, but operation was small, run by C. A. Bruce. It took years (1866 the production of tea was 6 million lbs) before Indian tea gained such volumes that it had any real market power. However the story of Indian tea had similar plot to Chinese that of quantity.
January 7, 2010 at 5:27 pm
And, of course, the British had a lot to gain by demonizing the Chinese near the end of the nineteenth century, and they certainly did a lot of it. The growth of Indian tea in the British Isles and the corresponding decrease in tea from China would have happened anyway, but I’m sure it helped to influence public opinion in that direction.