'A raking pot of tea': consumption and excess in early nineteenth-century Ireland.
In Leadbeater's fictional pamphlet of 1811, Cottage Dialogues, Nancy complains to Rose that 'not a drop of tea will' her mistress allow her 'barring Sunday evenings and washing days and other servants in the town get it morning and evening, as duly as morning and evening come'. Perhaps to Nancy's dismay, Rose replies that 'I think you are very much obliged to your mistress for not giving you such a bad fashion. What would you do in a house on your own? And you could not afford to drink tea, and you would be hankering after it, when you got the way of it.' (2) What is immediately striking here is the presumption that tea-drinking was a common activity ('morning and evening') amongst servants in rural Ireland in the early nineteenth century. Economic historians, for example, who use tea consumption as a factor in determining levels of poverty in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, claim that it was not widespread amongst the poor in Ireland until around the 1830s at the earliest. Striking also is that 'hankering after' tea is not only a problem for Nancy, a poor Irish woman, as she cannot afford such luxuries, but that it induces a state of longing and desire (indeed, addiction) which cannot be reasonably or at all practically fulfilled. That state of desire, which is supposedly an abstraction from reality, is at odds with the need for Nancy to immerse herself fully in hard work. Instead of spending her days at work (in the house and around the house), the desire for tea will propel her into a condition that is governed by desire alone. As long as Nancy hankers after commodities such as tea, she will fail to achieve the domestic stability that is fundamental both to her chances of survival and to the fortunes of the broader national economy. In Leadbeater's tale, Nancy remains dissatisfied and finds it impossible ever to be reconciled to the actual conditions she inhabits.
Cottage Dialogues is improving fiction in the formal tradition of Hannah More's Cheap Repository Tracts, but without the evangelical rhetoric of More's Village Politics or The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain. Like many of More's tracts, Cottage Dialogues and The Landlord's Friend (also discussed here) are structured by Leadbeater as a series of dialogues between two people, each dialogue taking as its focus one particular topic. Cottage Dialogues was distributed by a network of reformers directly to rural households throughout Ireland in the early nineteenth century. (3) It was also used as a reading text in some evangelical and non-denominational schools. In general terms, Leadbeater's fiction can be seen as part of a larger discourse of improvement, which is broadly conceived of as modernising, rooted in longstanding processes of agricultural industrialisation and Burkean counter-revolution. Irish improvement writers, such as Leadbeater (but also Martin Doyle and William Carleton), perceived rural rather than urban Ireland to be the space most in need of reform-which means that it was seen to be most susceptible to revolutionary persuasion-but also rigidly recalcitrant to the processes of a reforming modernisation as they conceived of it. (4) Presumably, this was largely because rural Ireland tended to be more Catholic and with a greater concentration of Irish-speakers than cities or large towns, not to mention the rural residence of improvement writers themselves. Practices such as wakes, whiskey-drinking, secret-society politics and, notably, the as perceived increasingly popular activity of tea-drinking amongst poor peasant women are singled out for particular attention in these tracts. In intriguing ways, tea, in part because it was an expensive commodity, which was thought to require the sweetening properties of sugar, was seen to intensify some of the more troubling aspects of Irish popular culture in this period.
Tea contributed in significant ways to the development of consumer culture throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and was itself the source of one of the first consumer boycotts in the form of the Boston Tea Party. (5) In the wake of 'the 1790s, a time of sugar boycotts, tea revolutions, and changing economic standards that made moderation synonymous with the middle-class idea of taste', a cup of sweetened tea had become immensely distasteful to some reformers (conservative and liberal alike). (6) It is unsurprising that tea consumption-or even the possibility that tea might become a mainstay of a peasant's diet-would generate considerable anxiety in Ireland in this period. The assumption was that the rural poor could not afford tea and that the practice of tea-drinking would clash with the supposedly established culture of rural life. Despite this, the place of tea in Irish culture in the pre-Famine period is a topic that has not been examined even though Irish reformers, such as Leadbeater, were worried about the popularity-or potential popularity-of tea-drinking amongst the Catholic poor.
It might appear odd indeed to think of early nineteenth-century rural society in Ireland in the context of consumer culture. Odder again might it appear to discuss the place of tea and developing discourses of taste in the earlier part of the century rather than in the later post-Famine period. (7) This period of Irish history is more commonly thought of in terms of significant demographic expansion and a corresponding scarcity of resources as opposed to a time of consumption, let alone the consumption of luxury, urbane commodities such as tea and sugar. (8) However, this is where, with inevitable modifications, I want to place Mary Leadbeater's worry regarding tea-drinking in rural Ireland. This approach would also be in keeping with studies of the relationship between peasant society and consumer culture in England and America from the early modern period through to the nineteenth century, which examine such things as the 'hedonistic culture of mass consumption' in the context of peasant society in early modern Europe. (9) The place of tea in Irish culture in the early nineteenth century bears affinity with the role of spices in general-with which tea can be grouped-in the literature of the Romantic period in Britain. Timothy Morton claims in his Poetics of Spice that the Romantic period 'was the point at which the spice trade qua traffic in cinnamon, pepper, and so forth had declined in importance relative to other trades that had taken over in its stead (tea, coffee, opium), but which shared similar functions with the spice trade'. (10) This claim encourages consideration of tea-drinking in Ireland-when the reformist call for abstention of tea was at its height-in terms of larger Romantic-period discourses of spice and appetite. Reflections on tea in Leadbeater's improvement tracts also raise a series of upsetting questions for her regarding the nature, and invariably fortunes, of improvement modernisation itself. In writing as she does, Leadbeater confronts problems which are larger than the scope of her tract, but which yet shape and affect all she is trying to achieve.
In expressing intense disquiet over tea-drinking, Leadbeater was contributing to a longstanding tradition of anxiety surrounding the consumption of tea. This anxiety was widely expressed in Britain and America throughout the eighteenth century in pamphlets, treatises, essays and medical literature as tea consumption increased hugely across all social groups. Invective against tea was already a commonplace of the didactic tract long before Leadbeater ever published Cottage Dialogues. Hannah More attempted to discourage the fashion for tea amongst the poor in England in some of her Cheap Repository Tracts, which were distributed in Ireland and which, as noted above, were a model for Leadbeater's own didactic fictions. More was unsettled by the ways in which tea appeared to be displacing the traditional home-grown and home-cooked diet of English peasants, thus symbolising threats to the social order and the particular hierarchies that sustained, indeed nourished, it.
Moreover, the colonial connotations of sugared tea (rarely unsweetened in this period) as a commodity also disconcerted More, who was herself a declared abolitionist for a range of complex, chiefly conservative, reasons. (11) Sugar possessed worrying associations for reformers, linked as it was to slavery and the immensely controversial plantations of the West Indies. Abstaining from sugar, and from tea, became a means of isolating oneself from the colonial conditions and ideology of the plantations, which could come disconcertingly close by means of the process of tea consumption. Abstention seemed to allow for the possibility of expressing disapproval of slavery while also supposedly preserving the purity of English domestic space from colonial contamination, which was seen to be symbolically violated by the act of drinking a cup of tea in a cottage kitchen.
Maria Edgeworth comments on the supposedly feminine and, indeed, hedonistic practice of tea-drinking in Castle Rackrent and, in so doing, alludes to the ways in which tea-drinking had acquired heavily gendered and seemingly primitive connotations: in recounting the lavishness of Sir Condy Rackrent's parties, the 'oral' narrator, Thady Quirke, notes that 'there were grand dinners, and all the gentlemen drinking success to Sir Condy till they were carried off; and then dances and balls, and the ladies all finishing with a raking pot of tea in the morning.' (12) In the Glossary, written by the author and her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth to translate the supposedly authentic Hibernicisms of the narrator, Thady's mention of the 'raking pot of tea' is annotated in the following way:
This custom has long since been banished from the higher orders of Irish gentry. The mysteries of a raking pot of tea, like those of the Bona Dea, are supposed to be sacred to females; but now and then it has happened, that some of the male species, who were either more audacious or more highly favoured than the rest of their sex, have been admitted by stealth to these orgies. The time when the festive ceremony begins varies according to circumstances, but it is never earlier than twelve o'clock at night; the joys of a raking pot of tea depending on its being made in secret, and at an unseasonable hour. (13)
Edgeworth explains further that 'the merit of the original idea of a raking pot of tea evidently belongs to the washerwoman and the laundry-maid. But why should we not have Low life above stairs as well as High life below stairs ?' (14) Edgeworth here hints at the lowliness of tea consumption, its association with servants and poor women, as well as the ways in which the categories of low and high were so readily transferable in the houses of the unreformed gentry as well as in Irish society itself. This account of tea-drinking, while clearly ironic, does suggest that tea consumption was seen as backward and oral, associated with the excesses of women and the poor. In Edgeworth's construction, tea is made to contribute to a primitive kind of ritualism even though it was a modern commodity which could not obviously be depicted as emblematic of an archaic peasant culture.
Compared to other food items, tea remained expensive in the early nineteenth century-though considerably less so than it had been in earlier periods-and was, of course, deemed superfluous to the basic needs of the rural poor. The cost of tea had fallen significantly in the course of the eighteenth century: Carole Shammas explains that 'at the time of the American Revolution, English consumers paid half of what they would have expended in the 1720s for legally imported tea, despite higher duties.' Shammas then recounts that 'after the removal of the tariffs in 1784, the price was halved again.' The price of tea did increase steadily in the 1790s as more duties were added-to contribute to the cost of 'conflict with France'-but this supposedly did not encourage 'consumers to cut back when prices rose' as the commodity had become too ensconced in the general dietary habits of the people. (15) Improvement tracts suggest that tea was increasingly available in Ireland in the early nineteenth century and its status as a fashionable commodity was quite entrenched for all social classes irrespective of religion. Tea was one of the most smuggled goods throughout the eighteenth century and Irish consumers were beneficiaries of the cheaper, unofficial product provided by the smuggling trade. Louis Cullen remarks that 'the smuggler ... helped to expand the market, notably where tea was the commodity concerned...' (16) Contrary to L. A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford's claim that 'By the 1830s tea was beginning to percolate even into the ranks of labourers' in Ireland, the literature of the early nineteenth century suggests that tea-drinking was already commonplace in the first decades of the century (not that such fictions should be taken as documentary evidence of rampant tea consumption amongst servants and labourers, but of perceptions of changes occurring within consumer culture in Ireland that caused anxiety). (17) In attempting to gauge Irish poverty levels in the pre-Famine period, Cormac O Grada notes that 'the pre-Famine poor seem poorer by some standards (for example, tea and coffee consumption) than others (for example, life expectancy, literacy).' (18) He then states that 'tea (or coffee) and sugar, widely consumed by the poor elsewhere in western Europe, were rarities in the homes of the Irish poor.' (19) If that is the case, why would the literature of the early decades of the nineteenth century contradict this by suggesting that tea was quite common if not as prevalent of course as it was in industrialising England? Leadbeater makes clear that poor women working as servants in the big houses of the upper classes-as distinct from the more reputable establishments of the 'middling' classes-were continually exposed to tea and therefore especially vulnerable to acquiring a very expensive and highly addictive habit. The ready adoption of this habit by servants from masters and even of masters from servants-as in Castle Rackrent-suggests the perceived common ground of consumption between upper and lower-class culture in this period in Ireland and the ways in which they could work to enforce the worst consumerist excesses of each other.
Tea-drinking was seen to be at odds with the strongly domestic ideology of the improvement discourse within which Leadbeater and others were writing and, by extension, of the domestic novel as well, which, in general terms, sought the enclosing of a private space distinct from the public sphere (not, of course, that this was always, or ever, really attained). (20) Accordingly, domestic space was to be tightly ordered and managed and tea-drinking interfered somehow with that kind of spatial order. The fact that women, supposed to maintain rigorous control of the private sphere of the home, might take to tea-drinking, was the source of considerable alarm in early nineteenth-century Ireland as it had been for More in England in the 1790s and for earlier commentators as well such as the mid eighteenth century reformer, Jonas Hanway. (21) He had warned against tea on the grounds of its Chinese origin and its supposed threat to the class structure of English society (the latter anxiety clearly felt also by Edgeworth and Leadbeater). The prospect of poor women squandering already scarce resources on fashionable commodities such as tea was, of course, a worry for obvious reasons, but also implied was that consumption was making possible an expression of freedom for poor peasant women-however unarticulated it might have been-from existing social structures. As such, for writers such as Leadbeater, consumption of a commodity such as tea bore worrying, even if incoherent, connections to republicanism and possibly to revolutionary feminism as well.
Tea-drinking is clearly presented in the tracts as symbolic of a form of consumption that was deemed reckless and uncontrollable and which worked to deepen the social backwardness seen to be endemic and unmanageable in rural Ireland. Consumption of items such as tea (foreign and, once sweetened, colonial as well) was seen to intensify this backwardness. Leadbeater seeks to build up such associations despite the fact that tea was not itself backward and that its consumption entrenches one in a modernised economy even if this was not how such an economy was supposed to appear or feel. Earlier commentators in England had been worried that, as Charlotte Sussman claims, 'the internal ingestion of tea' would 'cause English culture to resemble that of the Chinese'. (22) For Irish writers, however, the worry was that tea-drinking would result in the rural poor becoming even more like themselves rather than less, tea deepening their abject condition rather than signifying their improvability in any way. It was not that tea might transform the Catholic Irish into a version of the Chinese but that its consumption would make them appear more Irish (and much less like the English), than writers such as Leadbeater would have wished. At one level, Leadbeater was keen to argue that improvement was possible in Ireland because the country was really not that different from England or Scotland, that difference was only superficial and eradicable. However, the image of tea-drinking in rural cabins in Ireland somehow suggested to Leadbeater that the difference between the Irish and English might in fact render the entire project of reform impossible. In Cottage Dialogues, Rose is supposed to exemplify the possibility or-at a stretch-actuality of Unionist contentment in Ireland. But Nancy suggests otherwise, signifying all too clearly the discomfort of nationalist Ireland with the constitutional arrangement of the Union (even if that position is not explicitly articulated).
From the outset of Cottage Dialogues, Nancy's tea-drinking is a worry for her more sensible, practical friend, Rose. When Nancy is about to marry, she tells Rose that 'there's no more loving boy than Tim; and he says when we get into our own cabin, that he will never ask me to do any out work, and I shall have my tea and bread and butter every day. However, Rose quickly warns that 'must not every poor man's wife work in and out of doors, and do all she can to help her husband? And do you think you can afford tea, on thirteen pence a day? Put that out of your head entirely, Nancy; give up the tea for good and all.' But Nancy replies: 'Rose, it is a folly to talk; I can't give up my tea; I'm so used to it now, and it was such a comfort to me when I was so hard worked at my last place.' (23) For Nancy, the pleasures and, indeed, addictiveness of tea-drinking outweigh whatever stability can be achieved by abstention. In keeping with perceived patterns amongst the English poor, Nancy will force her domestic economy to bear the cost of tea as she can no longer accept the possibility of life without it. (24) Rose nonetheless spells out the true cost of tea consumption for a poor Irish household:
Now if you both take to drinking tea, (and sure you can't sit down to one thing, and he to another,) you must have a quarter of an ounce of tea, that is three half pence at the lowest; and two ounces of sugar, that is three halfpence more; a fourpenny loaf will be tight enough; two ounces of butter two pence; all that comes to nine pence, and hardly enough; and weak food for a man. (25)
She then offers a more sensible and nutritious diet for a poor Irish family, one which shuns tea, sugar and the 'four penny loaf' in favour of the more affordable and nutritious oatmeal, with occasional purchases of shin of beef and sheep's head, which can be made into broth and thickened with oatmeal. Such a diet will also be more appropriate for a man, tea-drinking surely too effeminate and blurring of those gender boundaries which were integral to improvement discourse and the domestic ideology it sought to inculcate. If Tim were to get in the habit of sitting around inside the house with Nancy during the day drinking tea and eating 'weak food' then he would presumably weaken, rendering himself unfit for the hard, manly labour of farming. In addition, those distinctions between the male public realm and female privacy, integral to improvement and discourses of modernisation generally-if not to the actual experience of the modern-would also be undermined.
Whenever Nancy makes claims for the value of tea on the basis of its pleasurable and stimulating qualities ('But a labouring man wants something to strengthen him of a hot summer's day'), (26) Rose cannot respond to these claims for tea directly in part because she, or in fact, Leadbeater is unable to counteract them. The powerfully stimulating and addictive qualities of the substance and-what was perhaps of most concern-the immense pleasure supposedly derived from it worried reformers. Indeed, the pleasure obtainable from tea was possibly the biggest problem of all. (27) This was a pleasure without purpose and suggested the uselessness that could continue to exist in what should be a thoroughly practical and modernising social order. Tea was not necessary-was in fact without use-but, yet, was becoming integral to ordinary daily life. For someone like Nancy, tea was becoming indispensable even though there was no practical benefit-nutritional or otherwise-to be obtained from it. In this way, tea disturbed the utilitarian basis of improvement discourse in being much like how, according to Timothy Morton, 'in the culture of the picturesque, ruined fragments of castle depend upon functional dwellings: they symbolise and embody an excess that cannot be used up, utilised, rendered subject to utilitarian law.' (28) Rose seeks to sidestep entirely Nancy's claims for tea: instead, she retorts to such pleas by providing recipes for stew and advice on how to earn additional money by making butter, sewing, or knitting. It is implied that implicit in Nancy's 'hankering after tea' is her inability to assimilate a certain way of living to which hard work and the cooking of strong stews and oatmeal-slowly and methodically according to recipes-is central. That way of life is one established on steadiness and control rather than stimulation or any psychological condition determined by extreme highs and lows of mood (the certain symptoms of addictive substances). A diet of tea and the penny loaf is also contrary to traditional food practices and is exemplary of the ways in which Nancy is depicted as showing scant regard for the supposedly immemorial and nourishing culinary traditions of rural life, presented in the text as the very material foundations of psychological, political and social stability (and deeply Burkean for so being) even if the palate is not overly excited by them.
While improvement was evidently a modernising discourse, in the sense that it sought technological and industrial progress, it also strove to offset those threats to a perceived traditional organicism-understood as the life of the physical, social and political body-which it was the duty of improving modernisation to restore and nourish. Nancy is easily taken in by whimsical modern fashions, such as the flashiness of factory-produced clothes at fairs as opposed to home-made dresses and hats, thrown off kilter by the consolatory 'highs' of tea and, later, those of tobacco and whiskey as well. In improvement pamphlets, the highs obtainable from tea-seen to be an intoxicant in this period-are linked to the effects of republican and nationalist discourses, all of which are seen to intoxicate with flashes of rhetorical swagger. Might it be that the effects of both articulating and internalising claims for liberty are, for writers such as Leadbeater, at one with the stimulation of a cup of tea? In the process of developing an addiction to tea, Nancy is jettisoning those processes of long, slow cooking, which are supposedly emblematic of culture in the true sense, in favour of those sharp, provocative tastes which can only alienate her from tradition. A sensible woman will not indulge desire for items such as tea, or any quick blast of stimulation. Being sensible will require not drinking tea and, in fact, proceeding as though desires for commodities-as well perhaps as liberty-can be fully suppressed, put out of one's mind. Rose mentions one such woman who 'told her mistress, that she was not used to tea, and would not choose to be used to it, for it was a thing she could not have at home; and that stirabout, or bread and milk, was a better breakfast for her. Then she had her wages to do her some good, and not to spend on the bad fashion of tea.' (29) Even though tea-drinking was the norm in the house where this woman worked, she chose not to participate in its practice (or 'bad fashion') and accepted that it was an activity that should, at best, only be pursued by the upper classes. It was materially superfluous to her existence and so she could live without it. Leabeater has this woman insist that tea can be suppressed, that impracticality can be controlled, its existence even denied. There is not supposed to be any irritation on this woman's part that she needs to abstain from tea-drinking not only to maintain the fragile domestic economy she inhabits but to keep herself firmly ensconced within the oppressive terms of the broader political system within which she exists. The assumption in the text is that poor tea-drinking women such as Nancy can tip things over the edge. However, the very need for this woman to assert the value of stirabout or milk and bread as 'better' than tea enforces the sense in which tea was perceived to be symbolic of not just an economic disruption to the life of a servant woman life but a political disruption to claims for improvement modernisation.
Likewise in Leadbeater's The Landlord's Friend (1813), Lady Seraphina, the improving landowner, comments on the absence of tea-cups in the kitchen of a peasant cabin, to which the improved woman of the house, Winny, replies:
We never were used to tea, and would not choose that our little girl should get a notion of any such thing. The hankering after a drop of tea keeps many poor all their lives. So I would not have any things in the cabin which would put us in mind of it. (30)
This woman explicitly shuns tea as it is too costly and unaffordable, the cause of a hankering that supposedly 'keeps many poor all their lives.' In avoiding tea, Winny is able to maintain an exemplary kind of domestic moderation, which is integrated and self-contained because it shuns tea, especially the 'hankering after' it, as well as those accessories such as tea-cups, the sale of which also experienced a boom in this period. The shunning of tea also protects Winny from any political, and perhaps aesthetic, claims which might unsettle the environment of her cottage and, indeed, that of the state. Leadbeater indicates here, as she did previously, that tea-drinking induces a kind of paralysis, which alienates people from their immediate environments, greatly disrupting their ability to work and perform their duties. Nancy Cox and Karen Dannehl have noted in their account of retailing in the eighteenth century that 'tea and other imported products such as sugar were seen by many as dangerous threats to that favourable balance of payments so important to the economic thinking of the day.' Cox and Dannehl further comment that these goods were also understood to be 'a threat to the industriousness of the rural poor, who were only allowed in the eyes of the land-owning classes, to find happiness in hard work and sobriety, and certainly not in the flaunting of personal accessories like lace and handkerchiefs or the consumption of time-consuming luxuries like tea and tobacco.' (31)
For writers such as Leadbeater, the abstraction from hard work, which is induced by tea consumption, appeared, in turn, to make tea-drinking analogous and at one with political activity and the stimulating power of political rhetoric. An example of this is given in Cottage Dialogues in a piece entitled 'Politics' when Nancy's husband, Tim, describes how he has found himself drawn to the charismatic rhetoric of his neighbour Bill Dunn at secret political meetings under the big tree in the village: 'there's Vester Toole, and Paddy Moore, and Barny Walsh, and Bill Dunn, and two or three more, and I, that meet in the evenings, at the Big Tree, to talk over a little business, that we don't care anyone should hear.' On hearing this, Tim's more sensible friend, Jem, replies in alarm: 'O, Tim, you frighten me! Take care what you do. No good ever comes of such people as us having secrets.' Jem then explains that politics should be avoided entirely by the Irish lower classes as they need to keep busy (as well as be 'sober and honest') and not be 'talking of what we don't understand.' Tim retorts with frustration, exclaiming 'what, because a man is poor, isn't he to understand politics a little ? O, if you heard Bill Dunn! it's he that knows what's what.' Jem then quickly advises Tim that he should 'never mind his talk! Our betters do no good with their talking, and how can we ? Let us remember the rebellion, and how many poor people were deceived with fine talking, and lost their lives, and all they had in the world.' (32) Jem succeeds in convincing Tim that he needs to remain at home in the evenings and avoid the 'little pleasure' he experienced when listening to Bill Dunn talk about politics. (33)
Despite responding to and sympathising with what John Barrell terms a 'demand for a greater realism' that intensifies in the early eighteenth century, Leadbeater's realist tendencies are tempered by her fear of dwelling too much on secret society violence and sectarianism. (34) While anxiety regarding sedition is evident throughout Leadbeater's pamphlets, her representations of rural Irish life consistently downplay the actuality of secret-society activity in the post-Union period. Presumably, this was seen by Leadbeater to be necessary in order to strengthen her claim that improvement modernisation was possible in Ireland. Cottage Dialogues is an attempt to imagine an Ireland in which secret society politics-and, in broader terms, nationalism and republicanism-can be managed to the point where they cease to pose a threat to the post-Union state. It is notably in those depictions of tea-drinking-and the effects that emanate from it-that anxieties regarding sedition, both overt (attendance at secret society meetings) and indirect (in the form of idle tea-drinking and gossip), in rural Ireland seem to be condensed. Nancy's tea-drinking is one of the principal underlying causes of Tim's eventual attendance at political meetings under the big tree (of liberty?) in the village. Nancy's 'hankering after' and evident pleasure in tea eventually leads Tim to seek pleasure in politics. Timothy Morton comments on how what he terms 'spice' endures 'in the work of Charlotte Smith, Keats and Shelley', demonstrating 'its continuing value as a marker of heightened, utopian or even sacred space'. (35) In Leadbeater's tracts, tea, as spice, is significant precisely because it seems to open up such a space, suggesting a realm of possibility which would contradict (perhaps forcefully) the values of a reformist, modernising improvement.
However, the drinking of sweetened tea, and a corresponding decline in the consumption of more nourishing food, such as oatmeal, amongst labourers, has been viewed by some historians and anthropologists as coinciding with and even contributing to the development of industrialisation in Britain. The stimulating qualities of sweetened tea-as opposed to those of alcoholic ale and beer-in addition to its ability to appease appetite, contributed to the existence of a cheap workforce, which was appropriately conditioned physically, or, indeed, drugged, for the long, uninterrupted shifts increasingly required by both factory and farm labour. (36) While these claims pertain primarily to Britain and America, and not the Irish context, which, in this period, was not in the early stages of industrialisation either in agriculture or in manufacturing, it nonetheless suggests the extent to which Irish labourers (even if they could not be described as industrial or even proto-industrial in the strict sense), were nonetheless inhabiting modern conditions not entirely dissimilar to those that pertained in Britain. It was perhaps the modernised nature of Irish rural life with which improvers discovered themselves to be ill at ease despite all their claims to be modernisers, where certainly a perceived equalising of different social classes was seen to be occurring by means of consumption, with servants living and dressing like their masters and masters like their servants. The issue for Irish reformers is that this symbolic equality-or emulation-attained by tea-drinking could only prepare the ground for the eventual attainment of actual equality. Such equality would go beyond symbolic emulation, that particular spur to consumer culture identified by Neil McKendrick, John Brewer, and J. H. Plumb in their study of consumption in England in the eighteenth century. (37) Emulation at that level was certainly an irritant for Irish reformers, of course, but was not as worrying for them as the seriousness of the threat from 'the lower orders', the likes of Nancy and Bill Dunn for example, that existed in the especially tense political conditions of post-1798, post-Union, pre-Famine Irish society.
It so transpires that Nancy does indeed abstain from tea-drinking for some time. Unfortunately, this is not done on the basis of Rose's liberal improvement advice, but is instead achieved at her husband Tim's deployment of some ancien regime, or colonial, harshness. Nancy reports to Rose how tough a regime married life has become for her. Tim has refused to allow her to take some nursing work as he deems it 'fitter for me ... to keep my children whole and clean, and get his bit ready for him, than go flaunting in fine clothes and learn to drink tea again.' (38) Rose is of course pleased to hear that Nancy has 'left off the tea', but distressed to learn that she has been recently absent from home on her husband's return from work, with no dinner ready for him, causing him to fly into a rage and beat her. Rose is upset by this, but also claims that Tim's violence is understandable. As such, the tale seeks recourse in the harsh, colonial and patriarchal code it supposedly seeks to reform. Leadbeater's improvement tract was, in part, designed to displace a culture of beatings, drunkenness, poverty, rebellion, and tea-drinking. Evident here though is the extent to which the threat of violence (or torture?), seen to be entirely deserved when seemingly fundamental social codes are violated, always hangs over the explicitly liberal claims of improvement in Leadbeater's tracts and elsewhere.
Rose attributes Tim's loss of temper to Nancy's poor domestic management, which can also be understood as Nancy's failure to accept the terms of the Unionist domestic ideology exemplified by Rose. It also transpires that Rose has herself been beaten by her husband Jem in the past, but that he was reformed from his flogging ways by means of Rose's exemplary domesticity from which all tea-drinking was, of course, strictly prohibited. Nancy is supposed to be at home, working in and around the house but not away from it or sitting idly with a cup of tea in her hand. Nancy explains the cause of Tim's anger:
the other evening, because he had to wait for his supper, (for I had gone out to take a little walk, and the fire was out,) he flew into such a passion! And I was resolved to hold my own, and to give him as good as he brought; and one word borrowed another, till he fell upon me and beat me. But I warrant I exposed him well for it, for I told the Miss Nesbitts, and they gave him a good set down. (39)
This image of domestic terror, encapsulated by a linguistic situation in which one word borrows another, is fully contrary to Rose's harmonious cottage and plain speaking: Nancy being out of the house on her husband's return (we learn later from Tim that she returned 'laughing and tittering with Peggy Donoghoe'), the quenched fire, the absence of a meal, to the violence that ensues and, not least, Nancy's violation of domestic privacy by exposing Tim to some neighbours reveals a most upsetting state of affairs. Nancy exemplifies the complete absence of a properly private domestic sphere in her own home, the realm supposedly capable of sustaining and nourishing-by means of tidiness, submission, stews and oatmeal the male public sphere. In exasperation, Rose exclaims:
I'm sorry you did:-expose your husband! How can you expect him to love you after? O, Nancy! Think yourself well off to have a sober man, that spends nothing from his family. Why wouldn't you have his supper for him? After working hard all day, sure it was a poor thing to find the fire out, and you not within; and nothing ready for him, nor none to get it. And when he was angry, you should not have answered him, except it was to own that you did wrong; and then his anger would be over in a minute. (40)
By contrast, Rose's domesticity-in which she strives 'to make him [Jem] comfortable at home, as much as I can; and he never desires to stir a foot out, only to his work'-ensures that there is now no violence in her home and that nothing gets out or spills over inappropriately in those dreaded excessive ways as happens continually in Nancy's house. (41) The domestic is supposed to restrain and discipline, hold things in. Nancy claims that it is difficult for her to achieve this as 'I have a high spirit, and what's in must out with me'. Predictably, Rose advises that she 'keep down that high spirit, and ... keep in what should not come out.' (42) The perceived need was to contain feeling and passions, to stop things getting outside in inappropriate ways, which not only disrupts boundaries between public and private spheres but which also renders excess itself too palpable or material a phenomenon. At stake is the need to entrench oppositions between inside and outside, female and male, internal and external and private and public, so that there is no possibility of excess materialising itself in either psychological or political senses.
Clearly, the non-domesticity of Nancy is supposed to suggest both the necessity of domesticity and to argue the case for the importance of domestic ideology in regulating all social space in rural Ireland. Rose necessarily continues throughout to be a beacon of domestic rationality, prospering on limited means and achieving the idyll of domesticity in a truly middle-class manner (despite being a poor woman). In the words of Tim, Rose is 'no gossiper, no idler, no lazy body, no tea drinker'. (43) But what is to be made of the failure to redeem Nancy, a tea-drinker, who dies after losing her husband and children (largely the text implies on account of her deplorable domestic skills), despite having been the target of so much of Rose's advice? It might be that Leadbeater is herself critically reflecting on how the particular conditions of rural Ireland undermine the claims of improvement modernisation. In Leadbeater's writing, there is always an element of pessimism regarding the possibilities of achieving modernisation and the tracts are notable for the extent to which they often express a sense of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task embarked upon. While Leadbeater does have Rose express some regret on Nancy's death, she is quickly urged to stop 'fretting and crying' by her daughter, who declares that Nancy 'was a good-for-nothing, idle body, dirty, and a slattern, always smelling of tobacco and whiskey.' (44) This allows Rose to put Nancy's death in a proper (Leadbeaterian) perspective, attributing it to 'her fault' of 'idleness'. Perhaps despite Leabeater, the tract as a whole suggests otherwise in the way that it inadvertently presents Nancy as a victim of modern conditions. Tea-drinking was an annoyance for Leadbeater as it clarified too readily the ways in which Ireland was already modernised-in ways that she and other reformers could not control-and how use and uselessness, practicality and impracticality could not be separated off from each other.
While economic historians use evidence of tea consumption as a means of measuring levels of wealth across all classes in this period, Leadbeater wishes to view the practice as an indication (or certain cause) of definite impoverishment. Tea never explicitly indicates to her that the poor are properly modernising, that they are enjoying a better standard of living. Economic historians have been inclined to interpret the drinking of tea as a sign that the poor were not really so poor. But Leadbeater attempts to interpret the practice as a clear sign of backwardness, of an inability to manage the domestic economy, which can result only in eventual ruination. In this she does not entirely succeed. Instead, her tracts suggest the ways in which connections came to be forged between peasant consumption and politicisation, connections which undermined Leadbeater's own characterisation of rural Ireland in the early nineteenth century as backward and alienated from the modernising mainstream. The drinking of tea-even the mere thought of its existence in rural Irish cottages-made it difficult for Leadbeater to distinguish coherently between backwardness and modernisation. The status of tea itself as a commodity, one which pointed to the apparent purposelessness rather than usefulness of aspects of modern economic activity, contributes to Leadbeater's difficulty in clearly articulating an unambivalent response to modernisation. Leadbeater's response to tea indicates that for her the substance is expressive of a worrying and, in her thinking, deluded kind of (Romantic) idealism. It is also possibly the case that it was, for Leadbeater, the vagueness of that idealism in rural Ireland-its inarticulacy -that made it all the more troubling. In more general terms, this analysis of tea in the early decades of the nineteenth century suggests the problems that might still persist with some of the governing assumptions of so much analysis of Ireland's past and present.
Helen O'Connell Durham University
(1) Daniel Finn, 'Ireland on the Turn? Political and Economic Consequences of the Crash', New Left Review, 67, (Jan-Feb 2011), 5. Finn's article is one of the most engaging historical accounts of the current economic crisis in Ireland.
(2) Mary Leadbeater, Cottage Dialogues Among the Irish Peasantry: With Notes and a Preface by Maria Edgeworth (London, 1811), pp. 48-9.
(3) Improvement tracts and manuals were also given free to pedlars in the hope that they might help to disseminate them widely throughout rural Ireland and go some way towards repelling the threat seemingly posed by other texts, such as abridged copies of Paine's Rights of Man. It was also hoped that improvement tracts would displace the staples of popular consumption in this period from chapbook romances to millenarian prophecies. For more information on the distribution of improvement tracts in Ireland in the early nineteenth century, see my Ireland and the Fiction of Improvement (Oxford, 2006), pp. 7-10.
(4) For more on the broader context of Improvement fiction in Ireland by writers such as Doyle and Carleton, see Ireland and the Fiction of Improvement, pp. 14-19.
(5) For an account of the boycotting of tea in the American colonies, see Charlotte Sussman, Consuming Anxieties: Consumer Protest, Gender and British Slavery, 1713-1833 (Stanford, 2000), p. 33. For a history of tea in more general historical terms, see Robin Emerson, British Teapots and Tea-Drinking, 1700-1850 (London, 1992).
(6) Denise Gigante, Taste: A Literary History (New Haven, 2005), p. 162
(7) For an account of spice in relation to literary culture in this period, see Timothy Morton, The Poetics of Spice: Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic (Cambridge, 2000)
(8) The classic accounts of this position are K. H. Connell, The Population of Ireland, 1750-1845 (Oxford, 1951) and David Grigg, Population Growth and Agrarian Change (Cambridge, 1981). For a detailed analysis of the economic history of this period, which questions the standard Malthusian account, see Cormac O Grada, Ireland Before and After the Famine (Manchester, 1988), pp. 1-46.
(9) See Carole Shammas, The Preindustrial Consumer in England and America (Oxford, 1990), p. 1.
(10) Morton, The Poetics of Spice, p. 4.
(11) On More and tea-drinking, see Gigante, Taste, p. 65. For a related discussion regarding More's anxieties on sugar consumption, see Timothy Morton, The Poetics of Spice, p. 174. On the history of anxiety surrounding tea consumption in Britain in the eighteenth century, see Sussman, Consuming Anxieties, p. 35-6 and, for a briefer analysis, see Una A. Robertson, The Illustrated History of the Housewife, 1650-1950 (Thrupp, 1997), pp. 148-9
(12) Maria Edgeworth, CastleRackrent, 1800, Marilyn Butler (ed.) (Oxford, 1992), p. 95.
(13) Ibid., p. 135-6.
(14) Ibid., p. 136.
(15) Shammas, The Preindustrial Consumer, p. 85-6.
(16) Louis Cullen, 'The Smuggling Trade in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century', Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 67 (1968/1969), 150.
(17) L. A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland, 1500-1920 (Oxford, 2002), p. 52. This statement is later tempered by the claim that 'as early as the 1820s "tea was the general panacea [of the Dublin poor], always affording comfort, calmness, and consolation; constituting not only the leading article of breakfast and supper, but often of dinner, and over its placid inspirations their happiest hours seem to be passed.'" (p. 23). The authors presume that tea and white bread would have infiltrated urban diets more quickly than in rural areas. Here, of course, as elsewhere, the distinctions between rural and urban life may be overstated. For a contemporary account of tea in Ireland in the early nineteenth century, see 'On Tea', Belfast Monthly Magazine, 9:48 (31 July 1812).
This article notes how 'in the present age the increase of its use has been very conspicuous' and that 'even in the obscure hamlet, few are without their tea equipage, which usually forms the most striking object in the cupboard or on the shelf.'
(18) O Grada, Ireland Before and After the Famine, p. 13
(19) Ibid., p. 15.
(20) The literature on domesticity in this period is vast. However, I am drawing here on Eve Tanor Bannet, The Domestic Revolution: Enlightenment Feminisms and the Novel (Baltimore, 2000). According to Bannet, feminist discourse in this period can be broadly classified in two categories: egalitarian and matriarchal, the former associated with a radical pursuit of equality inside and outside of the home (Wollstonecraft an obvious example of this) and the latter associated with a more conservative but enduring domestic ideology in which women control the domestic realm. Edgeworth is a typical representative of Bannet's matriarchal feminists and Ladbeater's writing can also be read in these terms: feminist but not committed, in fact opposed, to the claims for equality made by feminists such as Wollstonecraft.
(21) See Thomas De Quincey's retort to Hanway and his defence of the value of tea as 'the favourite beverage of the intellectual' in Confessions of an English Opium Eater, (1822; London, 1986), p. 94.
(22) Sussman, Consuming Anxieties, p. 25.
(23) Leadbeater, Cottage Dialogues, p. 82-3.
(24) See Shammas, The Preindustrial Consumer, p. 85-6.
(25) Leadbeater, Cottage Dialogues, p. 83-4.
(26) Ibid., p. 85.
(27) For other representations of tea-drinking amongst women as pleasurable, see William Carleton's story 'Barney Brady's Goose, or Dark Doings at Slathbeg', Dublin University Magazine, 11/65 (May 1838), 604-24 and, for a later account of a servant's tea-drinking, see Michael Banim's novel, Town of the Cascades (Dublin, 1864).
(28) Morton, The Poetics of Spice, p. 232.
(29) Leadbeater, Cottage Dialogues, p. 91.
(30) Mary Leadbeater, The Landlord's Friend (London, 1813), p. 75.
(31) Nancy Cox and Karin Dannehl, Perceptions of Retailing in Early Modern England (Aldershot, 2007), p. 43.
(32) Leadbeater, Cottage Dialogues, pp. 230-2.
(33) Ibid., p. 233.
(34) John Barrell, The Dark Side of Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730-1840 (Cambridge, 1980), p. 7.
(35) Morton, The Poetics of Spice, p. 230.
(36) On these aspects of tea consumption, see Sussman, Consuming Anxieties, pp. 24-31; Shammas, The Pre-industrial Consumer, p. 136-7 and Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York, 1985).
(37) Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J. H. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialisation of Eighteenth-Century England (London, 1982).
(38) Leadbeater, Cottage Dialogues, p. 93.
(39) Ibid., p. 95.
(40) Ibid., p. 95-6.
(41) Ibid., p. 97.
(43) Ibid., p. 101.
(44) Ibid., 262.
Address for Correspondence
Helen O'Connell, Dept of English Studies, University of Durham, Hallgarth House, 77 Hallgarth St, Durham, DH1 3AY. Email: helen. o'connell@durham. ac. uk
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|Publication:||Literature & History|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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