Invitation to Tea
By Monica Lang
Peoples Book Club, 1952
This book certainly wouldn't have remained on my tea bookshelf so long if I'd known what a fascinating and tender story it contained! I only wish I'd known to have a box of tissues nearby ...
The story begins with the account of Monica's early life in London, where she grew up in a well-run household with a doctor father, an efficient and loving mother, and four brothers who gave her fits. The boys' friend George McCrie was a dear friend of the family, born in India to a tea-planter father and sent back to Europe for his education. George spent his vacations from boarding school with her family, and he was someone Monica had always looked up to. Eventually there came a time when George decided to become a tea planter like his father. Years passed, and then a trip back home resulted in his first encounter with Monica adult-to-adult. Sparks flew. Soon a whirlwind courtship and engagement ensued, and before you can say "teatime" the new Mr. and Mrs. George McCrie were setting up housekeeping in their bungalow in the jungles of India.
Frankly, it was difficult to remember this book was not a novel, as it was certainly written in the style of one. Lang did a fine job of balancing the romance with the reality of life on the tea plantation. The romance: She had an adoring husband whose tenderness toward his new wife was touching. Her efforts to set up housekeeping and establish English style gardens were often humorous. The reality: The couple's honeymoon train was knocked off the tracks by some stray elephants, surely a sign of things to come! Monica learned the hard way that mosquito boots had to be worn at all times because of the ever-present threat of malaria. And lions and tigers and bears, oh my, were they ever a part of everyday life on the tea plantation!
Naturally, I especially loved the bits where "tea" concerns entered into the story. George's cultural insights about the locals were fascinating, and a living, breathing picture of the tea plantation came into sharp focus. Monica enjoyed learning about the tea production at the factory, and this was one of her earliest impressions: "George was already in the factory, and a lovely, warm, pungent, aromatic smell, which seemed to come from inside the factory itself, pervaded the atmosphere. Small boys were busily carrying baskets of green leaf on their heads into the building and a long line of pluckers stood some distance away beside a little shed where each one was having the contents of his basketful of afternoon plucking carefully weighed. The low hum of machinery in action was audible all around. I had little idea how the fresh green leaf finally appeared as the finished product which reached the grocery store shelves …"
Life on the tea plantation was often lonely, and the few friends they were able to make and keep were cherished. Monica's insights about men and women definitely rang true for me, although I was amused at how so much of it was so innocent and so (beautifully!) politically incorrect. Still, it's almost hard to believe a woman ever got accustomed to the monsoons, the leeches, the sorrow of having to send young children abroad for school (although I wanted to cry out, "Homeschool, y'all!" at several points in the book!).
I hadn't really paid much attention to the timeline of this book until 1939 when the war intervened. There, Invitation to Tea took a turn I did not see coming, and that's all I'll say about that. Except to say this: This is one of the most touching books I've ever read, and I fully believe my fellow tea lovers would adore it. And happily, I found a link to Invitation to Tea so you can actually read it for free! Enjoy!