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Tea in fiction and language

May 20, 2020 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

When you start learning English, the familiar cup of tea, present in every corner of the world, gains new meanings. Tea becomes more than something you drink in the morning or when you feel poorly. You start seeing it as part of British cultural identity. Then, when you start reading the classics, you realize that tea is everywhere.

To celebrate tea-drinking and International Tea Day, we have collected some famous tea scenes from our Red and Blue classic graded readers. If you read on, you will also find a selection of tea phrases which are essential in all language learners’ vocabulary whether they love tea or not.

Tea in fiction

A little bit of tea history

Although we think of tea as an integral part of British culture, it is a fairly recent (in historical terms) acquisition. Tea was first imported into Britain from South-East Asia in the 1600s by the East India Company and made popular by Catherine de Braganza, a Portuguese princess, who married Charles II in 1662 and became queen. Tea had been a favourite drink in the Portuguese court, thanks to their trade links with China, long before it became known in English aristocratic circles thanks to the princess (she also introduced another key food stuff to England: marmalade). There are a lots of fascinating theories of how tea has spread among all social groups in Britain. Some say that it was used as a medicinal drink (Coca-Cola had a similar start in life), others claim that it was offered as a cheap pick-me-up at the workplace, while others still state that it became part of domestic life first. Although we cannot know for sure how tea became the quintessential British drink, we certainly know that it first became popular in the 1600s, and by the 1800s, it was a daily drink among all classes of society.

The Mad Hatter’s tea party 

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

  • Level 2 reader, CEFR A1/A2
  • adapted by Jennifer Gascoigne and illustrated by Roberto Tomei

"Yes, that's it!" said the Hatter with a sigh, "it's always tea time".

As Alice follows the March Hare through Wonderland, she finds herself at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. The conversation is witty if confusing and there are riddles to be solved before it degenerates into a series of arguments. Alice leaves the party when the Hatter and the Hare are stuffing the Dormouse into a teapot. 

Dormouse teapot Alice
At the Mad Hatter's tea party in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Illustration by Roberto Tomei. © Helbling Languages

Read more about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

And check out this creative tea party project:

Tea with Jane 

Emma by Jane Austen

  • Level 4 reader, CEFR A2/B1
  • adapted by Elspeth Rawstron and illustrated by Caterina Baldi

Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

  • Level 5 reader, CEFR B1
  • adapted by Elspeth Rawstron and illustrated by Sara Menetti

'My sister would love to meet you. Will you come for tea tomorrow?'

Tea is an essential part of the everyday life of Jane Austen’s characters. Afternoon tea is a social event where the Dashwoods, Bennets or Woodhouses invite their guests. Instead of simply inviting someone over, they invited their neighbours and friends for tea. Of course, it involved fine porcelain tea sets, and typical tea-time food such as scones, sandwiches and cake. This tradition is continued today in High teas, which are served in many hotels and restaurants.

Sense and Sensibility tea scene
Tea-time in Sense and Sensibility. Illustration by Sara Menetti. © Helbling Languages

Read more about Jane Austen’s novels:

Dr Jekyll’s tea

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

  • Level 5 reader, CEFR B1
  • adapted by Les Kirkham, Sandra Oddy and illustrated by Fabio Sardo

'The kettle by the fire boiled over just then. They saw the armchair with a tea cup next to it, sugar already in the cup.'

A crucial moment in this famous Gothic novel, is when Utterson and Poole find Edward Hyde’s body, not yet knowing that he is the same person as Dr Jekyll. Next to him they find a nicely set table with tea, a kettle with freshly boiled water and his favourite book is lying open. But Dr Jekyll is missing with only a note left behind. 

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde tea scene
The tea scene in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Illustration by Fabio Sardo. © Helbling Languages

Read more about the author, Robert Louis Stevenson:

Can we have our tea now?

Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit

  • Level 1 reader, CEFR A1
  • adapted by Jennifer Gascoigne and illustrated by Viola Niccolai

 ‘Please can we have some tea now? We’re very hungry!’

Tea means safety and home for the five children, who get into all sorts of adventures with It, the sand fairy. There is lots of tea-drinking during the story: they either return home to have tea, they wish they could have tea, or they have to wait for someone who is having tea. 

Tea in this story is also  afternoon tea, an informal meal at five o’clock. You can learn more about meals in the Edwardian Age (1901-1910) in the fact file at the beginning of the reader. 

Read more about the story here:

Five Children and It tea things
Tea things in Five Children and It. Illustration by Viola Niccolai. © Helbling Languages

The language of tea

If you want to order a perfect ‘cuppa’ (cup of tea), it’s important to become familiar with some basic tea vocabulary. 

Different kinds of tea

  • black tea - many different types such as Assam, Ceylon, Darjeeling, Lapsang souchong
  • green tea - many different types, one example is Gunpowder tea
  • white tea
  • redbush tea
  • Oolong tea
  • herbal tea or infusion
  • fruit tea
  • English Breakfast
  • Irish Breakfast

Verbs related to tea

  • smell, taste, brew, pour, sip, drink tea
  • dunk or dip - dunk/dip a biscuit in a cup of tea
  • boil water 

Things you need to make tea

  • kettle
  • teapot
  • teacup
  • mug
  • teaspoon
  • teabag
  • infuser for loose-leaf tea

How to take your tea?

  • You can take your tea - especially strong black tea - with or without sugar and milk. Though most British people take milk in their tea. Some people take tea with lemon. How do you like yours?

Collocations with tea

  • afternoon tea
  • builder’s tea
  • cream tea
  • high tea
  • tea caddy (a tin to store tea leaves or tea bags)
  • tea set (matching cups, saucers, plates, pots)
  • teaspoon (for stirring your milk or sugar, but used as a measure in recipes)
  • tea towel

Phrases with tea

  • ‘It’s not my cup of tea.’ - It’s not my sort of thing, I don’t find it interesting.
  • ‘But that’s just my cup of tea.’ - That is something I am very interested in.
  • ‘A storm in a teacup.’ - When there is a great outrage over a small problem.
  • ‘Not for all the tea in China’ - When nothing could persuade you to do something.
  • ‘It’s as good as a chocolate teapot.’ -  It is useless.

Finally, let us quote Henry James with this very first line from The Portrait of a Lady

'Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.'