Tea is So Intoxicating by Mary Essex
A book in which none of the characters are at all attractive does not seem at first glance to be a good idea, but in the experienced hands of “Mary Essex”, or the thinly disguised Ursula Bloom, this is a funny and truly wonderful read. First published in 1950, this book has just been republished by the British Library in their Women Writers series. This book offers a group of characters who are obsessed, searching for something, or just a bit dissatisfied, but they are put together with an effect which is quite dramatic. David is obsessive, and struggles with what he can actually achieve. For complicated reasons he decides that nothing will do but to start a tea garden out of his small, uncomfortable and impractical cottage, much to the dismay of his wife, the struggling Germayne. The locals to a woman and man are opposed to the project, from fear of competition in the form of the public house, to the vehement disgust of the lady of the manor. Mrs Arbroath has fancied herself as running the village for decades, and is appalled at the prospect of the incoming couple opening such a vulgar enterprise in her village. The Vicar, the resident retired Colonel and many others get dragged into a programme of protest, much to Germayne’s discomfort. This is a very funny, surprising and enjoyable read and I was so very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this lovely book.
The subject of a tea garden in the early 1950s was a contentious one. Rationing of the basics of life was still very much in the news, and tea itself was still a highly valued commodity. David is a man who has obsessions but not the skill to pull them off, much to the despair of his wife Germayne. It is after the war, and David’s quiet military experience and employment in the accounts department of the Dolly Varden Cosy Tea Shops, Ltd has in no way fitted him to be an entrepreneur, even to the extent of running a tea garden especially in the face of local opposition. The story of how he came to marry the despairing Germayne is also tackled, especially in the light of her previous marriage to the large, dull and relatively well off Digby and their memorable daughter Ducks. The scheme to establish a tea garden is borne of desperation and financial need, but sadly David vastly overestimates his skill at cooking, his organisational abilities and his eye for a bargain in terms of equipment. Meanwhile, Mrs Arbroath has not only discovered objections to the tea garden, but also to the morals of the newly arrived Commander and Mrs Tompkins. The situation, already building up well, is made much more dynamic by the arrival of Mimi, dubious, flirtatious and full of winning ways.
This is in some senses a book of its time, with characters probably typical of post war Britain. It also appeals to any audience who enjoys a comedy which borders on tragedy, a drama of people and and place, of village life and the problems of weather. I enjoyed the characters hugely and the story works really well. I found the characters appealing in their awfulness and involvement with each other, and the village setting fascinating. The themes of the story are not confined to the time of writing; the problems of relationships, the issues of over ambition and the weather are well known. I recommend this book as a very enjoyable read from a skilful author in a series that is obviously discovering some real treasures.