Monday, October 27, 2014

Guest post from Charles Finch: When did the Victorians drink their tea? (plus giveaway)

Welcome to the latest stop on Charles Finch's Whodunnit blog tour, in which the author has been dropping by different sites to write about the who, what, where, when, and why of mystery novels.  It's fitting for a historical fiction blog to feature his "When" essay, no?  (See the links within this post for the earlier stops.)

Readers in the US also have a chance to win a copy of The Laws of Murder, his latest Charles Lenox mystery set in Victorian London, thanks to Minotaur Books.  You can find the entry form at the end of this post.  For more information about the series, including a special quiz, see the dedicated landing page at Minotaur.  I'll also have a review of the new novel up later this week, and suffice it to say that I thought it was excellent.


The Whodunnit Tour: "When"
Charles Finch

When did the Victorians drink their tea?

The answer’s not as straightforward as you might think. For one thing, our idea of “high tea” is wrong – a recent innovation, like big modern white weddings. The later you took tea in Victorian England, in fact, the lower the class you belonged to. (In many parts of working-class Britain, the evening meal is still actually called “tea” for that reason.) For the upper classes, it was “afternoon tea,” and until very late in the nineteenth century it was only accompanied by a biscuit or two, something fortifying, rather than the waterfall of cakes and sandwiches and pastries with which we now associate it.

Though, to their credit, the Cornish were drinking their tea with scones, clotted cream, and strawberry jam, the most delicious combination of foodstuffs mankind has yet dreamed up, early in the 1800s. It’s the clotted cream, not the milk in the tea, that gives that west country meal its name, by the way – cream tea.

Then there were laborers, who took tea throughout the day, made as strong as possible (very strong tea in England is still called “builder’s tea”) so that they would stay energetic through the impossibly long hours that Victorian workers were expected to work, fourteen and fifteen hours on end; or on the other end of the spectrum, the ladies of Queen Victoria’s court, who in the morning took a few weak cups of “Grey’s tea,” or what we now call Earl Grey.

author Charles Finch
(credit: Alix Smith)
And coffee! Early in the series of Victorian mystery novels I write, Charles Lenox, the detective, drank tea exclusively. Then, some time around 2009, I started drinking coffee myself, and it began to sneak without my permission into the books – a cup here or there when a character was exhausted. Now it’s here for good, Lenox’s morning drink, though coffee was more common in coffeehouses and in the navy than in private homes, in the 1860s. I guess it’s just that as I drink my own coffee I can’t seem to help myself from giving my characters some. Very generous of me.

As I’ve written the blogs of this “Whodunnit” blog tour – Who, What, Where, and now this one, “When” – I’ve tried to look at some of the big themes and choices that make up a historical mystery. Tea is a decidedly small subject, by contrast; but it’s also what defines, for me, the when of my books. I started writing the series with a book set in 1865, A Beautiful Blue Death, and by the most recent entry, The Laws of Murder, it’s 1876. In that decade a great deal happened in the public sphere. But if you really want to go back and feel the texture of life, you have to think about little things. The joy of writing these books, which are also the type of books I read, is in details, not in big, top-heavy bouts of history. I can’t read biographies. I don’t much like long volumes of history. Those are books about people that assign them the traits of history, not the traits of life. I would trade every treaty Victoria signed for a letter in which she describes one of her dogs. That’s where you’ll find it, for me – the when that can make a novel come so alive that your tea goes cold, forgotten on the table next to you.


Charles Finch is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. He lives in Chicago.

The following giveaway for a copy of The Laws of Murder is open to US readers.  Deadline Monday, November 3rd.  One entry per person; void where prohibited.  The winner will be announced here on Tuesday 11/4.  Good luck!

Update:  Congratulations to winner Helen G! I've sent you an email. Hope you'll enjoy the book!


  1. Oh, I love this essay! And Charles, you're right - scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam (preferably homemade) are one of the best tastes in the world.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment! (And I agree.)

  2. I'm so disappointed this giveaway doesn't extend to Canada

    1. Sorry - the publisher will be sending the giveaway copy out, and this was the restriction. Postage to Canada isn't cheap, about 3x what it costs to send a book somewhere in the US.