Tea and Mystery
When my husband read the manuscript for my first Ursula Marlow mystery, Consequences of Sin, his initial question was: ‘Why on earth does she drink so much tea?” I remember looking at him strangely, since my family (who are all English) typically drank three to four cups of tea a day. I then explained to him that when describing Ursula and her Edwardian world, I wanted to provide as great a sensory experience as possible and part of this was describing what she would typically eat and drink. As far as I was concerned Ursula’s tea drinking habits were entirely normal. Unlike me, Ursula wouldn’t have an espresso machine or drink one or more lattes a day. She would, however, view a nice cup of tea as both a ritual and a comfort.
When writing about Edwardian England, I strive to evoke what it would have actually been like to live during this time – no matter if you were a wealthy independent woman like Ursula, or the lady’s maid that served her. I love how this period exemplifies the opulence as well as the decline of an empire. Just as Downton Abbey so splendidly evoked, the Edwardian era felt for many like a ‘golden sunlit afternoon’ before the shadow of the Great War swept across the sky.
In my latest novel, Unlikely Traitors, I have no doubt Ursula drinks just as much tea as always (even though she does travel to the slightly more exotic climes of Germany and Ireland). Just as Ursula’s choice of clothing reveals a lot about her character – so too, does her penchant for tea and desserts!
On a more serious level, I explore how Ursula deals with the fact that she comes not from an old aristocratic family but from new money (and, to make matters worse, new money from the North of England). Ursula’s father was a working class man from Lancashire (just like my own mother’s family) and she therefore has to deal with not only the class divide in England at the time but also the divide between North and South. Ursula’s behavior reflects this divide and also amplifies it – especially given her political views on women’s suffrage.
In Edwardian England, the food you served your guests reflected your social status. This was, after all, a time of elaborate dinner parties served on elegant table settings to formally dressed guests by uniformed servants. With Ursula, I get to create a feisty, educated and wealthy suffragette who can be the hostess of an opulent dinner party but who, nonetheless, cannot escape the burdens of family, class or upbringing. She also drinks a great deal of tea.
The funny thing is, after living almost twenty years in America, I hardly drink tea anymore. But here is my Edwardian heroine gamely sipping on Earl Grey or Orange Pekoe tea from a bone china cup just as frequently as my grandmother. Sometimes, I fear that I am losing my English ways and that I should toss out my coffee machine and French press in favor of an old-fashioned teapot and strainer. Most of my childhood was spent in Australia but at that time the English heritage was still strong and all around me were families who drank almost as much tea as we did. Now, at least in America, it is rare to find a well-made cup of black tea and even rarer to see anyone placing milk in it. So it seems, at least for the moment, that my tea drinking days are more imaginary than real.
So when reading historical mysteries do you relish descriptions of food and drink? What imagery does a nice cup of tea evoke for you?
Ursula Marlow thought she was done with death, but when her fiancé, Lord Wrotham, is arrested on charges of treason, her world is turned upside down. It is the winter of 1913, and the British Parliament, unsettled on the question of Home Rule for Ireland, is shaken over allegations of a plot to sell naval military secrets to Kaiser’s Germany and liberate Ireland from English rule. For the first time, Ursula must work together with Chief Inspector Harrison to uncover the truth about Lord Wrotham’s involvement, as well as his mysterious past.
As the investigation continues, Ursula is drawn into the shadowy world of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and a web of espionage and betrayal. She must race against time to clear Lord Wrotham’s name and thwart a plot that threatens not only British national security, but also her life.