Coffee, Tea or Me?


Nicolas Henri Joseph Defassin: Woman Drinking Coffee, 18th-century

“It is rather impertinent to suggest any household care to a housekeeper, but I just venture to say that the coffee-mill will be wanted every day while Edward is at Steventon, as he always drinks coffee for breakfast.” – Jane Austen, in a letter to her sister, 1799

As I’ve been doing my final edits for My Fair Lizzy, a friend asked a question about whether the gathering at Longbourn would enjoy tea or coffee with their sweets. While we think of tea as the quintessential English drink, coffee was far from unknown, and it was only rising import tariffs on coffee in the 18th century that saw the English people turn towards tea. Consequently, the British East India Company concentrated on importing tea instead.

Jane Austen mentions both tea and coffee in her novels and letters. Towards the end of Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Darcy returns to Meryton after Lydia’s elopement, Elizabeth ponders her estrangement from Darcy as she pours coffee for the company:

The gentlemen came; and she thought he looked as if he would have answered her hopes; but, alas! the ladies had crowded round the table, where Miss Bennet was making tea, and Elizabeth pouring out the coffee, in so close a confederacy, that there was not a single vacancy near her which would admit of a chair. And on the gentlemen’s approaching, one of the girls moved closer to her than ever, and said, in a whisper —

“The men shan’t come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?”

Darcy had walked away to another part of the room. She followed him with her eyes, envied every one to whom he spoke, had scarcely patience enough to help anybody to coffee, and then was enraged against herself for being so silly!

“A man who has once been refused! How could I ever be foolish enough to expect a renewal of his love? Is there one among the sex who would not protest against such a weakness as a second proposal to the same woman? There is no indignity so abhorrent to their feelings!”

She was a little revived, however, by his bringing back his coffee-cup himself; and she seized the opportunity of saying, “Is your sister at Pemberley still?”

I always suspected Mr. Darcy of being a coffee-drinker, the unforgiving brew reflecting his stern outward demeanour. What do you think our other favourite characters would drink? Would Lizzy favour tea or coffee? What about Bingley, or Jane, or Wickham?

Woman did drink coffee, although this was not always looked upon well. Some people believed that women who drank coffee would become barren! No less a luminary than Johann Sebastian Bach took issue with this in his comic Coffee Cantata. This delightful piece recounts the pleas of a young woman who loved her coffee, despite the objections of her father. Eventually father and daughter are reconciled when he agrees to have it written into her marriage contract that she shall be guaranteed three cups a day! I can see Lizzy Bennet having this sort of backbone.

I played this wonderful cantata many years ago in my days as a musician. Here is an excerpt from the cantata, written around 1735.

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