Tea in Agatha Christie

Thumbnail Teain Christie
“There was no doubt but that Mr Fortescue was very seriously ill. Even as she came up to him, his body was convulsed in a painful spasmodic movement. Words came out in jerky gasps. ‘Tea—what the hell—you put in the tea—get help—quick get a doctor—’
Agatha Christie, A Pocket Full of Rye

Is there anything more comforting than a cup of tea? Agatha Christie’s works contain so many references to the drink, and to the ceremony that it provides in people’s lives. Tea is used as a source of comfort, as a chance to chat with others, and of course, as a weapon to drug, debilitate and kill the drinker.

Miss Marple is particularly partial to a cup, and tea features heavily in these novels. The word tea is used a whopping 113 times in A Pocket Full of Rye, 46 times in 4.50 From Paddington and 35 times in At Bertram’s Hotel. A poisoned cup of tea is what Rex Fortescue believes kills him in the opening pages of A Pocket Full of Rye, and the idea of deadly drinks resurfaces throughout this 1950s Miss Marple mystery.

Perhaps one of the most famous mentions of tea in an Agatha Christie novel comes from Griselda in The Murder at the Vicarage:

What are you doing this afternoon, Griselda?’ ‘My duty,’ said Griselda. ‘My duty as the Vicaress. Tea and scandal at four-thirty.’
Agatha Christie, The Murder at the Vicarage

Whilst not the natural candidate for a vicar’s wife, Griselda takes her duty as host very seriously, and the tea and scandal session is full of what her husband refers to as “unsavoury reminiscences”. Miss Marple attends, and engages merrily in the discussion of extramarital affairs, and Colonel Protheroe’s latest outburst. In fact, Jane’s willingness to take tea with other villagers is certainly one of the reasons she remains so well-informed about St. Mary Mead.

Poirot, renowned for his sweet tooth, prefers his brew with plenty of sugar:

‘Let me give you some tea. Milk? Sugar?’ ‘Very little milk, mademoiselle, and four lumps of sugar.’
Agatha Christie, Dead Man’s Folly

He was also partial to chamomile, but is more likely to be seen drinking coffee when given the choice. That doesn’t stop dangerous brews surfacing throughout his stories though, it seems no one is safe from a killer cup of tea...

Whether Christie’s characters are taking tea in a London hotel, in a restaurant car, or at a grand country house, her use of the British ritual adds charm (and sometimes suspicion) to her stories. It therefore feels fitting that a trip to a local tea house inspired one of Christie’s early novels.

I considered writing another book. Supposing I did - what should it be about? The question was solved for me one day when I was having tea in an A.B.C. Two people were talking at a table nearby, discussing somebody called Jane Fish. It struck me as a most entertaining name. I went away with the name in my mind. Jane Fish. That, I thought, would make a good beginning to a story - a name overheard at a tea shop - an unusual name, so that whoever heard it remembered it. A name like Jane Fish - or perhaps Jane Finn would be even better. I settled for Jane Finn - and started writing straight away. I called it The Joyful Venture first - then The Young Adventurers - and finally it became The Secret Adversary.
Agatha Christie, An Autobiography
L Inline Tea Books

Agatha Christie’s autobiography, travel-writing and correspondence are littered with cups of tea taken all around the world, from sipping it alongside monkeys in Durban, South Africa, to sharing it with new acquaintances in Australia, and childhood memories of tea and cakes in Paris. She also recalls it being a frowned-upon part of the courting process...

One could go alone with a young man to play golf, to ride a horse, or to roller-skate, but having tea with him in a hotel had a kind of risqué appearance which good mothers did not fancy for their daughters.
Agatha Christie, An Autobiography

Tea with friends was a much more accepted activity though, and something Christie enjoyed throughout her life:

I have never been good at parties - and never much enjoyed them… I do remember going to tea with friends and friends coming to tea with me. That I did enjoy - and do nowadays.
Agatha Christie, An Autobiography

Perhaps one of my favourite mentions of tea in Christie’s personal writings, however, is her only memory of meeting the famous author, Henry James.

A good many interesting people came to our house during my young days, and it seems a pity that I do not remember any of them. All I recall about Henry James is my mother complaining that he always wanted a lump of sugar broken in two for his tea - and that it really was affectation, as a small knob would do quite as well.
Agatha Christie, An Autobiography

I hope that if I had ever been lucky enough to meet the Queen of Crime, I might have remembered a little more than how she took her tea (though that is always a great place for a friendship to start). Now why not take the opportunity to settle down on the comfiest chair with your chosen brew and an Agatha Christie novel? After you've voted in our tea-tally awesome poll that is!

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