“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” said Henry James in the shortest sentence he wrote in The Portrait of A Lady. He was speaking, of course, of English teatime, which Johnson had defined in his Dictionary as “any time tea is served.” So it apparently was at first, for a laureate before Johnson’s heyday had called it “the universal pretext for bringing the wicked of both sexes together in the morning,” a description that must have amused the wicked of either sex who read it. It was the eighteenth century custom for highborn ladies as far distant as the formidable Swiss Mme. De Stael to receive callers with their morning tea while abed and bare-breasted. Afternoon tea in the drawing room came decades later, thanks to Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861).
It is a curious fact that people who know nothing else about tea always seem to have heard of Anna and her afternoon ceremony and of the Japanese and theirs, so that it may not be amiss to include them here in turn.
Among the English aristocrats of the early 1800s it was customary to eat a huge breakfast, make do with a piddling lunch, and only sit down to a substantial dinner around eight or after. Not surprisingly, the duchess used to get what she described as “a sinking feeling” by five in the afternoon. To allay this discomfort she would order tea and cakes to be served and promptly started a fashion amongst her acquaintances, a fashion that also satisfied a need. Snacking on sandwiches and pastries accompanied by tea quickly became a habit among the aristocracy and soon developed into the pleasantest ritual of the day. Its protocols need not detain us, but as George Gissing wrote at the end of the century, “Nowhere is the English genius for domesticity more notably evidenced than in the festival of afternoon tea.” As it began, so it remained essentially a female ritual, but gradually two distinct “teas” evolved.