By David Templeton
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in a quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he takes author/artist/tea party host Michele Rivers to experience the warm-as-a-crumpet film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.
In the film , Gwyneth Paltrow–as Jane Austen’s endearingly clueless title character–tries desperately to perform good deeds, messes up various romantic alliances, behaves badly once, is humbled by her behavior, and becomes a better, wiser person. She also officiates over a number of deliciously formal afternoon teas. I counted three.
“I counted four,” corrects Michele Rivers, deftly buttering a piece of bread. “The picnic was a tea, actually. That was lovely wasn’t it? With all those hampers full of things to eat.” We have just seen Emma together, and are sharing a bit of supper (not tea, though; at 7:30 in the evening it’s much too late for that).
My guest is an author, artist, photographer, and trapeze hobbyist who knows her way around a tea table. In her splendid book A Time for Tea: Tea and Conversation with Thirteen English Women (Crown, 1995), the author relates several emotionally rich teatime chats with a diverse range of partners, from Virginia, the wealthy Marchioness of Bath, to Hayley, an imaginative 6-year-old farm girl. Rivers manages, over tea and cake and cucumber sandwiches, to create an intimate bond with each of her subjects, drawing stories from each that are salient, deeply personal, and remarkably wise.
“It concerns me, this resurgence of interest in Jane Austen,” she admits, referring to the spate of recent film versions of the 19th-century author’s romantic novels, a resurgence that seems part of a fashionable recent fondness all things English, including a growing enthusiasm for the custom of formal afternoon teas. “What concerns me is that with the Austen films, and the emphasis on propriety, is all of this perhaps making tea stuffy again? Are Americans buying into it that tea must be done in this very traditional way? I think that puts too much pressure on women who will become too intimidated to think they can throw a tea of their own.
“It’s lovely to honor your friends by having a tea and having them over,” she continues, her voice growing musical as she warms to the subject. “And I think it would be a tragedy if people took all of this Austen stuff so seriously that they forgot that the real spirit of tea is about being together. It’s not about, ‘Oh, how lovely, isn’t this tea wonderful, please pass the cake.’ It’s not about silver teapots and lovely Tartan rugs. It’s a ritual of friendship. It’s about sharing your soul.
“Not that I have anything against beautiful things.” She pauses a moment, then sets down her fork, looks me directly in the eye, and begins to tell a story.
“There is a halfway house for women that I’ve given teas in,” she begins. “For women who’ve been in jail, who’ve conquered addictions to drugs and alcohol. Many have very young children or are pregnant. The first time I went there, I brought a whole tea spread, and my dear friend, Diane, brought along a set of teacups from her home, and we had afternoon tea with these women.
“This one woman came in, and she was very anti-us. Very tough. She glanced around and said, ‘What’s this about?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s tea, and you can pick one of these teacups to use.’
“She said, ‘I don’t care.’ And I told her, ‘Well I care. I’m going to choose the most beautiful one for you.’ And I gave her this exquisite cup to use.” The event progressed, with the women awkwardly balancing their cups, uncertain whether to pour the cream in after the tea was poured or before, uncertain how to behave. Then Rivers began to read.
“I read them the chapter of Rose Tanner,” she recalls. “Rose had had the challenge of physical abuse. Many of these women had dealt with that. She’d dealt with drug and alcohol addiction. I read the story and you could have heard a pin drop! Afterwards they opened up and said, ‘There’s no difference between her story and mine, is there? And hers is in a book!’ And you could just see their body language changing. They were sitting up taller. Holding their cups more confidently. You could see the pride spreading through them as they got that they, too, had each lived a story that was worth listening to.”
Rivers suggested they begin having tea once a week themselves, and someone suggested that they could begin collecting teacups from local thrift stores.
“And Diane, this beloved woman, said, ‘I’d like to give them my collection.’ You’ve never seen a group of women so moved. They couldn’t believe it. One of them said, ‘Will the cups belong to the house, or to us?’ And we said, ‘Oh no. They’re yours.’
“And that one tough young woman, she came up to me later. And she’d been the first one up, the first one to carry her cup to the kitchen to wash it out, and to wrap it in tissue. And she said, “Michele, I’ve never owned anything so beautiful in my life.’
“I just smiled at her,” Michele says, her voice choking slightly. “I just looked at her eyes and said, ‘Well, now you do.'”
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