Issue 8: Coffee, tea and visuality - The art of attraction in 'Pride and Prejudice'


While it is universally recognized that to be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Britain, tea and coffee are widely overlooked as matchmaking devices in Jane Austen’s novels. 

With 16 references to tea in Sense and Sensibility, 15 in Pride and Prejudice, 31 in Mansfield Park, 27 in Emma, 12 in Northanger Abbey and two in Persuasion, the ritual of caffeine colours the language of Austen’s country house comedies.

It scripts entrances and exits, brews hopes and despairs, and stops the clock with a fluidity that has allowed its powers of perceptual persuasion to pass primarily undetected. Two hundred years after Austen’s death, the time has come for Janeites to acknowledge the fact that Elizabeth Bennet’s hopes for romantic attachment are essentially caffeine derived.

Beyond preparing tea at home, Austen had a prejudice for the beverage’s pleasures in social settings. Writing to her sister Cassandra in 1801, she notes that tea had a propensity to cure ‘dullness’:

In the evening, I hope you honoured my Toilette & Ball with a thought; I dressed myself as well as I could, & had all my finery much admired at home. By nine o’clock my Uncle, Aunt & I entered the rooms & linked Miss Winstone on to us.—Before tea, it was rather a dull affair; but then the beforetea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couple.—Think of four couple, surrounded by about an hundred people, dancing in the upper rooms at Bath![i]

Austen restructures her reflections around tea-time. She concludes, ‘After tea we cheered up’.[ii] Her use of visual emphasis conveys the beverage’s overwhelmingly positive influence.

As much as certain polite appearances had to be maintained at the turn of the nineteenth century, so did gender-specific modes of self-expression and spectatorship. Self-consciousness and the need to deflect the gaze complicated social interaction, giving rise to the complications of inexpressibility. Darcy, for instance, attributes his arrogance towards Elizabeth at the Meryton ball to his introverted nature. “I certainly have not the talent,” said Darcy, “which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before”.[iii] His inability to communicate subjects his reticence to frequent misinterpretation.

In Pride and Prejudice, Austen uses spatial estrangement and inexpressibility to intensify the attraction brewing between Elizabeth and Darcy. On the Tuesday following the departure of the newly wed Mr and Mrs Wickham, Austen stages the Netherfield men’s re-entrance. When the assembled party repair to Longbourn’s dining-room, the antagonistic seating arrangement leaves the heroine as conversationally estranged as the dimensions of the table allowed; Darcy was as far from her as the table could divide them.[iv] Elizabeth languishes over her inability to check her mother’s muffled ungraciousness to the man who had chivalrously rescued Lydia’s reputation.

Elizabeth’s internalization of her distress burns within her heart a desire to communicate: ‘She was in hopes that the evening would afford some opportunity of bringing them together; that the whole of the visit would not pass away without enabling them to enter into something more of conversation, than the mere ceremonious salutation attending his entrance’.[v] Elizabeth requires a scenario that stimulates conversation, but not even dancing had afforded the pair anything more substantial than awkward conversations about the implicit need to converse. As Darcy had attempted to conclude their strained dialogue, “But now we may be silent”.[vi]

Teapot and coffee pot with ivory handles from a silver tea service by James Young & Orlando Jackson; London, 1774-75. Celebrated actor David Garrick and his wife were leaders of fashion, and this elegant Neo-classical service was probably commissioned for their house in London.  Photos © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Teapot and coffee pot with ivory handles from a silver tea service by James Young & Orlando Jackson; London, 1774-75. Celebrated actor David Garrick and his wife were leaders of fashion, and this elegant Neo-classical service was probably commissioned for their house in London. Photos © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Back in the Longbourn drawing-room, Austen works the scripted entrances and exits of the sexes to Elizabeth’s advantage. Elizabeth looks forwards to the gentlemen’s entrance as the point on which any chance of pleasure that evening must depend.[vii] Realizing that such an after-dinner possibility rests on the tea-table, she utters her ultimatum that if he does not come to her then, she will give him up forever.[viii] As in dancing, it is Darcy – not Elizabeth – who must make the first move.

Unbeknownst to Darcy, the drawing-room scene represents his last chance to prove himself capable of renewing his affections. Austen narrates the theatrical tension between Elizabeth as viewer and Elizabeth as subject on view:

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.[ix]

Ironically, Elizabeth’s adversaries are her female companions. Even if Darcy ‘looks’ as if he would have pursued conversation, the ‘close confederacy’ of whispering women at Elizabeth’s side have circumscribed the tea-table as the seat of female power. The gentlemen’s approach only strengthens the women’s protectiveness of their domain. As one of the girls remarks, “The men shan’t come and part us, I am determined”.[x] The adverse climate in which the heroine finds herself calls to mind Eliza Haywood’s The Tea-Table: or, A Conversation between some Polite Persons of both Sexes (1724–5). According to Haywood, the tea-table was the realm where ‘Scandal, and Ridicule seem […] to reign with uncontested Sway’.[xi]

In line with Haywood’s report, the sight of the women at the tea-table inspires Darcy to retreat. Elizabeth’s distress leaves her ‘scarcely patient enough to help anybody to coffee’.[xii] Rather than blaming her self-centred companions, Elizabeth laments her own foolishness, saying, “A man who has once been refused! How could I ever be foolish enough to expect a renewal of his love?”[xiii] Her silent self-questioning swings her from optimism to despondency.

Elizabeth does not realize that she still holds the power to attract Darcy. Austen grants him one plausible reason to return to where Elizabeth is standing: to refill his cup. Elizabeth is ‘a little revived’ by his ‘bringing back his coffee cup himself’.[xiv] Here, Darcy’s taste for coffee is strategically significant, for it displays his prejudice for the woman serving it.

Among Austen’s characters, Darcy’s coffee preference is unique, particularly for a man who boasts two French cooks. As Miss Bates summarized the general trend, “No coffee, I thank you, for me—never take coffee.—A little tea if you please”.[xv] Interestingly, the Lippincott Magazine claimed that the earliest allusion to tea by an Englishman was from a certain Mr Wickham, an agent of the East India Company. In his letter, written from Japan on 27 June 1615, he requested that Mr Eaton, who was residing in Macau, send him ‘a pot of the best chaw’.[xvi] Whether or not Austen was familiar with the account remains insoluble, but it is intriguing that Darcy never drinks a brew connotative of any Mr Wickham, historical or fictional.

Darcy’s willingness to return to the tea-table reveals that his thirst for conversation is equal to, if not greater than, his thirst for coffee. Although merely four stunted sentences pass between him and Elizabeth, their discussion becomes more direct and personal. His body language speaks when words fail him: ‘She could think of nothing more to say; but if he wished to converse with her, he might have better success. He stood by her, however, for some minutes, in silence; and, at last, on the young lady's whispering to Elizabeth again, he walked away’.[xvii] Darcy’s decision to stand by Elizabeth suggests his reluctance to part with her company. The tea-table’s gender politics ultimately act as a destructive force, prompting the magic of their communicative silence to come to an abrupt end. 

While Darcy visibly prefers coffee, tea also plays a critical role in the scene. The disappearance of the tea-things from the drawing-room warrants the imminent separation of the sexes:

When the tea-things were removed, and the card tables placed, the ladies all rose, and Elizabeth was then hoping to be soon joined by him, when all her views were overthrown, by seeing him fall a victim to her mother's rapacity for whist players, and in a few moments after seated with the rest of the party.[xviii]

Again, Elizabeth and Darcy are victims to Mrs Bennet’s seating arrangements. Despite the physical distance between them, the pair’s distracted gazes and poor whist performances confirm that Austen’s visual strategy of attraction has succeeded. David Hume’s ‘easy communication of sentiments’ arises through Austen’s use of visuality – the continuum linking visual and verbal modes of communication and understanding – rather than through straightforward speech.[xix] As John Gregory observes in A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (1774), ‘One may take a share in conversation without uttering a syllable’.[xx] 

By examining the integrated functions of coffee, tea and visuality in Pride and Prejudice, it is apparent that without caffeine as an affective force, Elizabeth would have given Darcy up forever. As Peter Motteux declares in his ‘A Poem upon Tea’ (1712),

Sense for the Learn’d and Beauty for the Fair.

Tea both imparts: For, while it cheers the Mind,

Her Seat’s referesh’d, and ev’ry Charm refin’d,

The Eyes, the Judgment with authentic Light

Receive their Objects and distinguish right.[xxi]

Even if the dialogue that ‘chance’ has brewed is short lived, the novel’s pivotal tea-table episode has occasioned more than the refilling of Mr Darcy’s coffee cup: It has replenished Elizabeth’s optimism, filling her eyes with extraordinary hopes based on ordinary grounds.

© Dr Jessica A. Volz, scholar, author and Jane Austen Literacy Foundation

Jessica's book, 'Visuality in the Novels of Austen, Radcliffe, Edgeworth and Burney' will be published by Anthem Press in March 2017. Caroline Jane Knight has written the foreword. Find out more here.


[i] Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Deirdre Le Faye (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 12 May 1801, 85.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ed. Pat Rogers ([1813] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 197.

[iv] Ibid., 376.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., 105.

[vii] Ibid., 377.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Eliza Haywood, Fantomina and Other Works, ed. Alexander Pettit, Margaret Case et al. (New York: Broadview, 2004), 74.

[xii] Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 377–78.

[xiii] Ibid., 378.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Jane Austen, Emma, ed. Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan ([1815] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 350.

[xvi] ‘A Pot of the Best Chaw’, The New York Times, 23 May 1897. See also The Little Tea Book, ed. Arthur Gray (New York: The Baker & Taylor Company, 1903), 88.

[xvii] Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 378.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge ([1739–40] Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 363.

[xx] John Gregory, A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (1774), in Eighteenth-Century Woman: An Anthology, ed. Bridget Hill (London: Allen, 1984), 19.

[xxi] Motteux, Peter, ‘A Poem upon Tea’ (London: J. Tonson, 1712), 10.


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