Dr Sally Bayley.
‘Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea’, so begins Henry James’s novel, A Portrait of A Lady. James’s novel begins with tea and ends in cross-cultural despair: a young American woman, Isabel Archer, running back to a tyrannous husband in Rome. Culturally, socially and personally speaking, Isabel fails to translate herself. She lacks any real ceremony and, in turn, any real dignity; instead she resorts to desperate duty. Her order of being, her personal and cultural choreography, is never her own.
And yet, James’s novel begins with a grand sense of ceremony. The implements of tea and its splendid setting come together: on the lawn of an English country-house in the middle of a summer’s afternoon. Tea gathers up character and place and turns it into a story. The language of this unfurling story is exquisite and carefully placed; there is a delicacy to its ceremonial delivery. It begins with an old man with a cup in his hand. The cup is unusually large and of a different pattern from the rest. It is painted in brilliant colours. The man drinks from the cup warily, holding it close to his chin; he turns his face towards the house. James’s language turns the narrative, told through tea, into something exquisite and curious. We long to be part of it. James passes around the cups of his narrative with great care. In his novelistic world we are special guests invited into a special ‘part’ of the afternoon: those hours between five and eight when time stretches into an eternity and life seems filled with infinite possibility.
The interval of tea time is magical and transformative. It is also creative, a time for devising new things. Virginia Woolf wrote her diary just after tea, in the hours between four and six. In those dusky elastic hours leading up (in winter) to twilight, she could write and think more fluidly. Tea gave her permission to reset her creative mind. As a friend of mine reminded me, his household came into a new order whenever anyone made tea. Suddenly, doors opened and people previously scattered – a father and son watching the same television programme in separate rooms – came together. Tea quite literally made a family.
As a ceremony, tea is a great bringer of order. The Japanese tea ceremony, Ocha, is a way of summoning what we might call mindfulness. Here, serving tea is an ordering device, a way of figuring reality. Ocha asks for focus and absorption; it is a careful and subtle dance between utensils and their mover, and there is a finely delineated, aristocratic way of doing things. Tea-guests must have a privileged view of their tea-things, and so the sight-lines of the guests of honour, the Shokyaku, must be sensitively aligned. Guests should be able to see and reach things easily. In the Japanese tradition, the tea-maker becomes a Prime-Mover of the tea universe, a divine dancer. Making tea is equivalent to making the world over again.
Fifteenth century Japan saw the birth of Teaism as a way of making the everyday beautiful. The tea ceremony, with its insistence on careful order, reflects a moral geometry which young children, with their play tea sets, instinctively know. Where you put the milk jug, the saucer and the cup in relation to the cake is as big a question as where you position yourself in relation to others and to the world.