Earlier this week I learned that "tea shop" in American (US) English has an alternative meaning, apparently a naughty one. I know nothing of that, and I don't want to. A tea shop is a place that serves tea and scones, possibly with a sideline in small sandwiches and cakes. One of my favorite genres involves people opening or running tea shops (the kind with tea and scones), and I am always on the lookout for them. If I won the lottery, I would love to open a tea shop, with tea and scones, comfortable chairs, and a shelf of books to read (maybe a Little Free Library).
So I was delighted when this 1896 book by Ada Cambridge turned out to be a story of a plucky family opening a tea shop in Melbourne, after their father is killed in an accident. I found a reasonably-priced copy on ABE Books, but before buying it I looked at the first few paragraphs via Project Gutenberg. It certainly opens with a bang:
Joseph Liddon was deaf, and one day, when he was having a holiday in the country, he crossed a curving railway line, and a train, sweeping round the corner when he was looking the other way, swept him out of existence. On his shoulder he was carrying the infrequent and delightful gun - reminiscent of happy days in English coverts and stubble fields - and in his hand he held a dangling hare, about the cooking of which he was dreaming pleasantly, wondering whether his wife would have it jugged or baked. When they stopped the train and gathered him up, he was dead as the hare, dissolved into mere formless tatters, and his women-folk were not allowed to see him afterwards. They came up from town to the inquest and funeral - wife and two daughters, escorted by a downy-lipped son - all dazed and bewildered in their suddenly transformed world; and a gun and a broken watch and a few studs, that had been carefully washed and polished, were the only "remains" on which they could expend their valedictory kiss and tear.I was equally horrified and intrigued by that opening. But I read on, to the family council where, in best Louisa May Alcott fashion, the mother and two sisters sit down "to consult together as to how they might invest their [£500] capital to the best advantage, so as to make it the foundation of their livelihood." By then, I was sold. And when my copy arrived, I started it that night.
Joe, the son, who works for the same business as his late father, isn't much help in the family council, and he objects to their final decision: to open a tea shop. Jenny, the oldest daughter and the moving force, has it all clear in her mind's eye:
"But it will be a woman's place, that men would not think of coming to except to bring women. Just a quiet room, mother; not all rows of chairs and tables, like a common restaurant - the best of our own furniture, with some wicker chairs added, and a few small tables, like a comfortable private sitting-room, only not so crowded; and floored with linoleum, so that we can wash it easily. Then just tea and coffee and scones - perhaps some little cakes - nothing perishable or messy; perhaps some delicate sandwiches, so that ladies can make a lunch. Only these simple things, but they as perfectly good as it is possible to make them. Mother, your scones ---"A few weeks later, their father's old boss Nicholas Churchill sees the advertisement of their opening, and he decides to visit them, to see if he can be of any assistance. He asks his married daughter Mary and his much-younger second wife Maude to give the Liddons their patronage. That, and Mrs. Liddon's exceptional scones, quickly bring the shop into fashion, despite its inelegant location, over a basket-maker's shop. It is Maude who brings another member of the family there in turn: her stepson Anthony, just returned to Australia from an extended trip abroad. Maude, who "before she was his step-mother, had badly wanted to be his wife," is looking forward to a cozy chat with her handsome, red-bearded stepson. But he has eyes only for Jenny, calmly and competently making her way through the tables with trays that he immediately decides are too heavy for her.
What follows is a nice little romance. Jenny's sister Sarah, whose bent spine confines her to the cash desk, plays Cupid as much as she can. Mrs. Liddon, focused only on her scones, doesn't seem to notice what is going on. But when Anthony's sister Mary discovers him in the tea room instead of the office, she tries to warn him off. Even though Jenny's father was "an Eton boy," her mother was a cook, and the heir of the Churchills cannot marry a waitress in a tea room. Never mind that the Churchills made their fortune in trade, nor that the "waitress" is actually the owner and manager of a flourishing business.
I was thoroughly enjoying this story, particularly Maude's continuing pursuit of Anthony, until Ada Cambridge began to discourse on marriage. Addressing her readers directly, particularly the "dear girls - to whom this modest tale is more particularly addressed," she explains what men are really looking for in a future wife ("they really are not the heedless idiots that they appear - at any rate, not all of them"). They want good, comfortable home-bodies, who will care for them and their children. And because so many women in these days of 1896 are empty-headed social butterflies, who don't appeal to the men in the end, "the army of old maids waxes ever bigger and bigger..." As someone currently enjoying a State of Single Blessedness, I was mildly taken aback to read that "an unmarried woman is not a woman, but merely a more or less old child..." I didn't expect that from Ada Cambridge.
In the last paragraph of the book, she says that while an "unlucky" marriage is a "living martyrdom," a good marriage is "the nearest approach to happiness that has been discovered at present." Yet the final lines are much more ambiguous: "Yes - although, without beating her or keeping her short of pocket-money, the husband necessarily makes his wife feel that the earth is her habitation and the clouds of heaven many miles away." The real sting there is that, just a page earlier, Anthony had answered Jenny's declaration of her happiness with just those words, which though said "gravely" were clearly meant as a joke, that he would have to be cruel to her, "to make you realize that your little feet are standing on the earth, Jenny, and not on the clouds of heaven." Apparently in Ada Cambridge's view, husbands don't have to take any trouble to make their wives unhappy, they succeed in it all unawares. That last line seems to change a Happily Ever After ending into a (hopefully) Happy Enough one.
Those caveats aside, I enjoyed this book. It's a lighter story than the others of Ada Cambridge's that I have read. I do wish that the recipes for Mrs. Liddon's scones had been included! And please let me know about any other tea shop books (the kind with tea and scones) that you would recommend. I already have Elizabeth von Arnim's Christopher and Columbus. But please don't tell me about any alternative meanings for "tea shop." I really don't want to know.
Edited to add: I can finally fill in another year of my Century of Books!