Tea Time with the Master

Wenham Tea House, March 2014

Wenham Tea House, March 2014 (iPhone 5s, edited in PicMonkey)

“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” With this qualified statement, Henry James welcomes us to The Portrait of a Lady, an arena in which Old World and New World meet. His first sentence is masterful: to borrow a line from Jerry Maguire, Mr. James had me at “afternoon tea”  (and “agreeable” didn’t hurt). Mr. James lays the groundwork for his plot as he describes the three men sipping tea on the lawn of an English country house — tea drinkers “not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the occasion,” as Mr. James notes wryly.

Isabel Archer, the lady of the title, does not make an entrance until the second chapter, but the young American is enamored of the Tudor house and its trappings from the moment that she walks onto the lawn: “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful as this.” Mr. James’ naively independent heroine does not find European society as agreeable by the end of the book, but that is a spoiler. At this point, the reader is mentally settling into a cushioned wicker chair and — if the reader is an Anglophile — reveling in a scene that includes not only tea but an eligible English aristocrat. By the time we realize that Isabel, like many nineteenth-century heroines, is a victim of her own illusions, Mr. James has caught us in his novel.

Although I glanced at Leon Edel’s introduction and Mr. James’ lengthy preface recently, I haven’t read The Portrait of a Lady in decades. Mr. James began writing the novel in Venice, where the beautiful view from his rooms was so distracting that he complained about it in the preface. It might be interesting to read his carefully crafted novel now as I would read any book, not because I was assigned to read it (which is how I experienced it). Would I read on to the end, or would I put down the book in exasperation as Isabel refuses one good man after another? I tend to finish books, unless I cannot sympathize with any of the characters, and Isabel, caught between her desire for culture and her wish to remain independent, still compels our sympathy, despite her failings.

I re-read enough of the first chapter to renew my appreciation of Mr. James’ abilities as a writer. His novel first appeared in serial form in two magazines, and he had not completed the novel before the first installments were published in 1880. The opening chapters have the crucial job of getting the reader interested enough to buy future magazines. Clearly, Mr. James is skilled in the art of drawing in a certain kind of reader — a reader who, like Isabel herself, is enchanted with the ceremony of afternoon tea.


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My choice of this famous first line for Writer’s Quote Wednesday was inspired by Lucile’s photograph of a glass teapot. I took my photograph of a glass teapot in March, when I had tea with family members at the Wenham Tea House in Wenham, Massachusetts. To his credit, my brother, who is not much of a tea drinker, suggested that we eat there because he thought his sisters would enjoy it. (He was right. Our one sadness was that another sister and my mother were not there to share the experience.)

As always, thanks to Colleen of Silver Threading for hosting this event. To read other submissions, click here and look for the pingbacks at the end of Colleen’s post. Leon Edel’s introduction appears in Riverside Editions’ The Portrait of a Lady (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963). Text of the post and photo copyrighted © 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

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