Monday, 2 January 2012

add tea preparation to her feminine wiles

she can make me tea anytime she likes

Xavier showed up the other day with a book in tow. He asked, 'How good is your French?' and in retrospect, I suppose it's not as good as the impression I gave him it was. Although I understood most of what I was reading, my translation is questionable enough that I had to double check it with him.

The book is Le thé dans l'encrier, which is nicely displayed here: Grillon du foyer. And immediately I was drawn to an essay about Honoré de Balzac and the seduction of tea. It talks specifically about one of his later books La Cousine Bette and what sort of tea drinker Balzac was in reality. 

The essay starts with a Chinese proverb which has been translated from the original Chinese to French to German and finally to English, but here it is:

'You can forgive a murder, but never a mistake while preparing tea.'

And the author (Gilles Brochard) discusses two sorts of people when it comes to tea drinking. Again with my pigeon translation: 

'I want to give them the opportunity to express themselves. We shouldn't confuse those who can or will be entirely seduced by tea for the entirety of their life and then those who alternate between both coffee and tea. I believe that Balzac was in the second category.'

This is a curious topic on which I find tea drinkers go back and forth. Some of us are even a bit hesitant admit that they even drink coffee. Some tea drinkers have never had coffee or when they have they simply didn't enjoy it.

Why is this even a topic, right? If you like drinking both coffee and tea, why should you have to somehow hide it? Not with me you don't. There's been some enjoyable joking in my circle of acquaintances about how drinkers of the bean and the those drinking of the leaf can live in some sort of harmony. From my perspective, I certainly cannot see why we can't.

Even more interesting was the Cousine Bette translation that I found online. I've gone on at length about how men shouldn't feel ashamed drinking tea in masculine tea drinkingThe masculinity of drinking tea continues to attract not only the most readers but also the most comments on this and other teablogs. Even with the assumptions and stereotypes of women and tea drinking, I was intrigued by how Balzac handled the topic.

'Just then, Valérie herself brought Steinbock a cup of tea. This was more than a mark of attention; it was a special favour. There is a whole language in the way a woman performs that office, and women are well aware of this. And so it is interesting to study their movements, their gestures, their looks, and the pitch and intonation of their voices, when they perform this apparently simple act of courtesy.      
From the question, 'Do you drink tea?' 'Would you like some tea?' 'A cup of tea?' asked coldly, and the order to the nymph presiding over the tea-urn to bring it, to the eloquent poem of the odalisque coming from the tea-table, cup in hand, and offering it submissively to her heart's pasha, in a caressing voice and with a look full of voluptuous promise...'
(source & more about Cousine Bette at Google Livres)

Not only that she asks 'Do you drink tea?', but it's the manner in which she asks it. She may add tea preparation to her list of feminine wiles. I looked up the definition of wiles to make certain that it doesn't always have a negative/sinister connotation. It doesn't. Well, it doesn't necessarily have to.

Is the entire question of the femininity of tea drinking or tea serving completely outdated? Am I going to get a lot of feminist blowback for even asking if a discussion can be made of this?

If we were talking about the book itself, the theme of tea drinking would hardly come up in discussing Cousine Bette. It's a bit of a stretch for me to even write an entire blogpost about it. This text is a blend of a morality tale full of vice and salaciousness and a study of mid-19th century Paris society and culture.

Having already excused myself for stretching this into a theme, is there such a thing as feminine tea drinking? Is it even worth mentioning?

(update: here's something that @elaine4queen sent me as a response to this post: Catherine of Braganza. I'm pretty sure I saw something on either Leafbox Tea or Tea Trade about her a while back, but it's good to be reminded of this again.)


  1. An interesting question I will have to ponder! Thanks for the translations.

  2. Great read Ken, lots to contemplate over a lovely hot cup of tea

  3. what a lovely post.

    tea is not feminine in my house, what with my mug of builder's - but then, when i drank alcohol i was a pint of guinness girl. make of that what you will.

    from my scant knowledge of history and a bit of guessing, i do know that in pepys' time the coffee house was a male thing. indeed, it gave birth to the broker houses in the city which have availed the 1% of their privileges. indeed, it would seem that it was a woman who introduced tea drinking to society in england during that time

    given that women in the upper classes were expected to do very little and behave themselves well, i can see tea serving and drinking as being perfect as a domestic grace, which would only have become more common when the leaf itself got cheaper - which i am guessing depended on colonization which would have been more of a victorian time frame.

    lots to cogitate!

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  5. Thanks Steph and Kasia.

    Elaine sent me an interesting link about Catherine of Braganza, but I've inserted it into the post above. Enjoy.

    And very much appreciated Elaine. Your comment is exactly the sort of thing I was thinking about.

    Is there nothing more to say about this? I really hoped to see just a bit of discussion about the femininity of tea drinking/preparation. Maybe I should've included something a bit more inflammatory.

    When I wrote about tea masculinity, there was a storm of response.

    Maybe the gentlemen don't want to say anything that offends, but ladies? Is the idea of there being a 'femininity' regarding tea drinking a bit offensive? Or is this so obvious it needn't even be commented on?