Serving Students a Jane Austen High Tea

J – A  is for Jane Austen

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This past Sunday I invited my Jane Austen class over to my house for high tea. (Last year my first year Austen seminar had a full Jane Austen-era meal, but Julia threatened to leave me if we ever did that again.) Austen’s world seemed a little more immediate as we ate and talked.

Americans are often confused about what what “high tea” is. I’ve always assumed it comprised scones, crumpets and, of course, tea. I should have remembered my Pride and Prejudice, which has Miss Darcy presiding over the following meal:

The next variation which their visit afforded was produced by the entrance of servants with cold meat, cake, and a variety of all the finest fruits in season; but this did not take place till after many a significant look and smile from Mrs. Annesley to Miss Darcy had been given, to remind her of her post. There was now employment for the whole party — for though they could not all talk, they could all eat; and the beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines, and peaches soon collected them round the table.

For our high tea, we had grapes, cake, muffins with six different types of jam, cucumber sandwiches (I was drawing on The Importance of Being Earnest for this), cold cuts and (because it gets mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on high tea) macaroni and cheese.

Everyone was expected to come in formal dress, and three of the students wore gloves from their Catholic high school graduations. Their having attended such schools helped explain why they had written such good journals for Sense and Sensibility, with all of its emphasis on propriety (Elinor) and rules that appear too rigid (Marianne). Oh, and by the way–our college, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, is neither Catholic nor all female.

Gathering in this formal setting helped us appreciate the many times that Austen heroines do the same, whether it is Marianne and Elinor visiting Sir John and Lady Middleton, Emma having tea with the Bateses (we of course joked about this), or Anne gossiping with Mrs. Smith.

And then, as in Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park (where cards are the diversion of choice) and in Emma (where Mr. Wodehouse engages in backgammon), we played games. I’ve already described how, during one of our classes, we played Speculation. This evening it was charades, which don’t get mentioned in any Jane Austen novels. But Mr. Elton does devise a guessing game intended for Emma and Harriet. (Well, for Emma.) A very elaborate game of charades, incidentally, is played in Jane Eyre.

I had forgotten how much fun it is to have a room full of people playing a game. It makes all those encounters in Jane Austen seem a little less boring—although it helped that our gathering didn’t have any Lady Bertrams, Lady Middletons, Sir Walter Elliots, or Mrs. Allens. Austen makes clear that those people really are boring.

My peer mentor brought a Pride and Prejudice Trivia game, and we did ourselves proud in answering the questions. Here are five to test your knowledge of the book:

(a) How far is it from Longbourn to Meryton?

(b) Who introduces Wickham to the Bennet sisters?

(c) How much is Mr. Bennet prepared to give Lydia for her wedding clothes?

(d) What is Collins’ first name?

(e) Who has not yet learned to laugh at himself?

(Answers after the break)

All in all, it was a memorable gathering. Now I’ve got to find someone to teach us how to dance.

Answers to quiz

(a)   About a mile

(b)  Mr. Denny

(c)   Not a guinea

(d)  William

(e)   Darcy

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