I’ve often wondered what it would be like to sit down for tea with some of the women whom I’ve long admired. Whose words and ideas have sustained me at difficult times in my life. And to whom I have often looked for wisdom, for some sort of guidance on how to navigate through life. Not surprisingly most of these women are writers. And most of them I have never met, and now never will, since they are no longer living. Still. The thought is intriguing to me.
So, if I were to dream up a fantasy party, it wouldn’t be a glittering cocktail party, or a Jane Austen style ball, or even Mitford-ish coming out party.
My fantasy is that I might be able to conjure up a gathering of the wise women I admire, bring them together in one room, with a big pot of tea, cucumber sandwiches, cranberry scones, Victoria sponge, and my mum’s fruitcake. And chat.
Now, how amazing would that be?
My tea won’t be a sumptuous and stylish tea such as I recently enjoyed at the Hotel Café Royal when I was in London. It will be a much more homey affair. But I’ll worry about the food later. First comes the guest list. Who should I invite? Since this is a fantasy tea party, time, distance, and even death cannot prevent my guests from attending.
Of course I cannot imagine tea and conversation without thinking of Barbara Pym. She is one of my favourite writers. I imagine her as kind, congenial, and self-effacing, with a wry wit. And a sharply ironic view of the world. Much like Mildred Lathbury in Excellent Women. I wonder if, like Mildred, she’ll arrive with a string bag containing a few bits of shopping, her knitting, and the library book she’s currently reading.
I will invite Margaret Drabble whom I have long admired. I was introduced to her books when I read Radiant Way, which I adored. I remember I bought it as a birthday present for a friend who had just turned fifty, thinking all women her age should read it. I love how, in her books, Drabble seems to map out a plan for facing middle age, and then in later books, old age. I know she’s terribly clever, and I might be slightly intimidated by her, but we have some things in common. She enjoys travel; she said in an interview that she loves being a tourist in unfamiliar places. And like me, she’s also become converted to e-books. She says she loves that she can “buy a book at midnight, or on a train to Taunton,” and read it in “the glare of the sun on a beach in the middle of the Atlantic, or in the darkness of [her] hotel room.” “Gone is the panic of running out of reading matter,” she says. I imagine we’ll probably talk about that.
I’ll send an invitation to Anne Tyler, who so inspired me with her book Saint Maybe, when one character advises another: “This is your life. Lean into it.” And to Penelope Lively, of course, whose books are fascinating, and so varied. I’ve written about her book Consequences and the line that “books take you out of yourself and put you down somewhere else from whence you never entirely return.” Lively wrote a lovely article a while ago on the solitary woman, more specifically on twenty-first century widowhood with which she is well acquainted having been widowed several years ago after forty-one years of marriage. Lively says that “today’s solitary woman is likely to be robust, significant, a voice to be heard.” And I’ll invite Kate Bollick. I can just imagine how famously Penelope Lively and Kate Bollick will get along. Bollick’s view of twenty-first century spinsterhood mirrors Lively’s view of widowhood, and her book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own was one of my favourite books of 2016. I wrote about it here. I like how all of these women look at life. It heartens me that such smart and utterly sensible women exist in our crazy world.
Of course P.D. James will be invited. I can’t wait to talk to her about her detective novels and about detective fiction in general. And about her passion for Jane Austen. She’s a great friend of Penelope Lively. Won’t it be fun to see them together?
My last guest is Helen Humphreys, a Canadian writer whose books I have long read. In fact her novel Lost Garden
is one of my all time favourites. I met Humphreys recently when I heard her read from her latest book of non-fiction called The Ghost Orchard
, about the history of the apple in Canada. It sounded an unlikely subject at first. But she said that she started wondering about apples when she was walking her dog near where she lives, through abandoned farm fields and apple orchards. She picked an apple from an old tree, and finding it the most delicious one she’d ever tasted, decided to try to find out what kind of apple it was. That was when she “disappeared down the rabbit hole,” she said, embarking on a journey of exploration that resulted in this book. I love that she said that about rabbit holes; I’ve been known to disappear down a few of those myself
. Humphreys says she’s fascinated by the natural world. The book is about her research, and what she found out about apples, but also about her process as a writer, and about a close friend who was dying during her writing of the book. I bought a copy for Hubby for Christmas. But don’t tell him, okay?
There are so many wonderful writers and thinkers out there; I had to be firm with myself when I was drawing up my guest list. My sun room isn’t very big. I had to make tough choices.
mum will be joining us. As I’ve written here many times, Mum is a voracious reader. And although she really likes P.D. James, having been converted to mystery novels and detective fiction a few years ago, Mum’s guest will be Donna Leon. She loves Leon’s Commissario Brunetti
series of detective novels set in Venice. She wants to talk to Leon about Venice. Of course Mum will be bringing her famous fruit cake with the marzipan layer and buttercream icing, and her whipped shortbread. Bring lots Mum, so there’s some left over for Hubby.
And I’m inviting my good friend Susan Webb with whom I worked for many years. And with whom I share a love of Barbara Pym, mystery novels of any stripe, books in general, and tea. Susan is really smart, and has much better hostess skills that I do. I’ll be relying on her to talk to the people who scare me just a little, like Margaret Drabble. I’m also relying on Susan to bring the Victoria sponge. And her silver tea service. Susan’s guest is Canadian historian and writer Margaret MacMillan. Hubby read and loved MacMillan’s book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World
. Her latest book The War That Ended Peace
was recently cited at the NAFTA* talks. Apparently our Minister for Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland and her staff think that MacMillan’s examination of the past, and the extreme nationalism leading up to 1914, can be a lesson for these troubled times.
So… let’s set the scene. The sun is shining brightly on the snow-covered river, and the lights are twinkling on our small Christmas tree. I’ve been baking scones and making sandwiches all morning. Mum and Susan arrive early to help set up. Mum cuts the fruit cake and lays out the shortbread. Susan slices her Victoria sponge and gets the tea pot ready. Hubby lights the fire and shovels the back step before he heads out for the ski trails. When everyone gets here we can tuck in. I’m so excited. Maybe even a bit “flappy” as we say in my family.
And then the guests arrive. Introductions are made, coats hung up, tea poured, plates passed. Conversation is a bit stilted at first. But soon everyone is sipping and munching and yakking. Spoons clink on tea cups. Laughter erupts. We’re all in sweaters, jeans, and sock feet, or woolen skirts and embroidered slippers. I refill the tea pot umpteen times. Susan and Mum refurbish the plates more than once, with more of everything. And the conversation… the conversation is wonderful.
We talk of books. The ones our guests have written, and those they’ve read and loved. We talk about life. Where ideas come from. How it feels to grow older in a youth crazed society. Coping with spouses, lack of spouses, loss of spouses. Children and grandchildren for those who have them. I remember to ask Penelope Lively what we should call P.D. James. Phyllis?
I see Barbara pull out her knitting. Helen plumps down on a cushion on the floor next to Margaret Drabble’s chair; they launch into a discussion about gardens. Mum asks Donna Leon about Venice. I ask Anne if she’s ever read Laura Lippman who also sets her novels in Baltimore. Kate and Barbara talk, to Barbara’s delight, about the changing view of “spinsters.” Phyllis and Mum talk of Jane Austen, and Death Comes to Pemberly, and I join in with the story of Mum’s and my love for the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice, and the famous (in our house anyway) story of “Mistah Bennet and Mistah Eccles.” Penelope and Margaret MacMillan (too many Margarets) and Susan begin to talk of history, and the spectre of the past repeating itself. We all eventually listen in on their conversation, and things get a bit solemn. Then I jump up to refill the teapot, trip on my own feet, and end up in Helen Humphreys’ lap. We all laugh and the solemn mood is broken.
It’s dark, now. I turn the lights on and notice that it’s been snowing for a while. I can smell fresh bread baking in the kitchen. Hubby has returned from his ski. He comes in, meets everyone, and then announces that the roads are terrible, and the plow won’t be coming by for hours. But there’s a huge pot of chili on the stove that’s been simmering all afternoon. He’s made the bread, opened a couple of bottles of red wine to breath, and has started on a salad. Everyone will stay for supper. The two Margarets set the table; Susan and I finish the salad. Kate piles bowls on the kitchen counter and then, when Hubby has filled them with chili, she and Donna ferry them into the dining room. Anne and Helen pour the wine and set glasses of water on the table. Everyone sits down, and Hubby lights the candles. He proposes a toast: to good books, good food, and good friends, new and old.
Then, we eat. We drink. And we talk long into the night.
Sigh. That’s how every tea party would be if I had my way.
You probably noticed that even though it’s been snowing and Hubby has been skiing in my story, there’s no snow in the shot above. Or maybe you wonder how in heck we squeezed all those people around our dining table that only seats six.
Ah, but you must remember… it is a fantasy party after all. And you, my friends, are invited too.
If you want to play along just let us know in the comments who you will bring as a guest to our fantasy tea party, and why. And if you want to bring something to contribute to our feast, well, that would be lovely too.
*For those non-Canadians, NAFTA stands for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is in jeopardy. And is currently being renegotiated.