While watching the BBC’s excellent adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford on PBS Masterpiece Theatre, I found the remarks about green tea made by the very amiable and kind-hearted Miss Matty, portrayed by Dame Judy Dench, out of the ordinary. Although green tea has a four-thousand-year-old history and has been written about in literature numerous times, it is still amusing to read about it in a Nineteenth Century English novel.
After losing her fortune, Miss Matty converts her dining-parlor room into a tea shop. Mary Smith, the character who chronicles the lives of those living in the fictional town of Cranford, tries to change how Miss Matty views green tea this way:
The only alteration I could have desired in Miss Matty’s way of doing business was, that she should not have so plaintively entreated some of her customers not to buy green tea – running it down as a slow poison, sure to destroy the nerves, and produce all manner of evil. Their pertinacity in taking it, in spite of all her warnings, distressed her so much that I really thought she would relinquish the sale of it, and so lose half her customers; and I was driven to my wits’ end for instances of longevity entirely attributable to a persevering use of green tea. But the final argument, which settled the question, was a happy reference of mine to the train-oil and tallow candles which the Esquimaux not only enjoy but digest. After that she acknowledged that “one man’s meat might be another man’s poison,” and contented herself thence-forward with an occasional remonstrance when she thought the purchaser was too young and innocent to be acquainted with the evil effects green tea produced on some constitutions, and an habitual sigh when people old enough to choose more wisely would prefer it.
And how was this tea business idea acquired in the first place? As described in the following passage, it was originally the narrator Mary Smith’s proposal:
But when the tea-urn was brought in a new thought came into my head. Why should not Miss Matty sell tea – be an agent to the East India Tea Company which then existed? I could see no objections to this plan, while the advantages were many – always supposing that Miss Matty could get over the degradation of condescending to anything like trade. Tea was neither greasy nor sticky – grease and stickiness being two of the qualities which Miss Matty could not endure. No shop-window would be required. A small, genteel notification of her being licensed to sell tea would, it is true, be necessary, but I hoped that it could be placed where no one would see it. Neither was tea a heavy article, so as to tax Miss Matty’s fragile strength. The only thing against my plan was the buying and selling involved.
Time might have changed tea in many aspects, but many of the challenges faced by tea business owners remain the same today.