“Always a tea-drinker”? You’re in for a spooky night with Bram Stoker

As a dedicated lover of Gothic fiction (as I’m sure you’ve found out if you are a regular reader), my favourite time of year is when I get to read spooky short stories to my students. Stories such as Poe’s “The Black Cat” and Wells’s “The Red Room” should always be read aloud and as dramatically as possible in order to build up tension and give the listeners a real fright. Bram Stoker’s 1891 story “The Judge’s Room” is a bit of an acquired taste as it takes a while to get going, but absolutely demonstrates his skill in manipulating the readers’ responses.

If you haven’t read “The Judge’s Room”, it is the story of the twice-named Malcolm Malcolmson, a young and naïve mathematics student who is searching for a remote, quiet place to study for his exams. Stoker makes much of Malcolmson’s rational approach to life; his studied have made him sceptical of anything otherworldly and, as a result, he decides to rent a large house which has been spurned by all others because of the rumours that it is haunted. Undaunted, Malcolmson sits up late each night studying and drinking tea, ignoring the increasingly noisy scufflings of a multitude of rats which live behind the wainscoting. I’m sure you can picture the kind of horrors which happen to poor, foolish, unbelieving Malcolmson at the end of the tale.


At first reading it seems strange that Stoker really belabours the fact that Malcolmson is an inveterate tea-drinker.

He had always been a tea-drinker, and during his college life had sat late at work and had taken tea late. The rest was a great luxury to him, and he enjoyed it with a sense of delicious, voluptuous ease. The renewed fire leaped and sparkled, and threw quaint shadows through the great old room; and as he sipped his hot tea he revelled in the sense of isolation from his kind.

In fact, tea is mentioned 14 times in the story and is the subject of a prolonged conversation between Malcolmson and a doctor he meets in the local pub:

“She told me that she did not like he idea of your being in that house all by yourself, and that she thought you took too much strong tea. In fact, she wants me to advise you if possible to give up the tea and the very late hours. I was as a keen student in my time, so I suppose I may take the liberty of a college man, and without offence, advise you not quite as a stranger.”
Malcolmson with a bright smile held out his hand. “Shake! as they say in America,” he said. “I must thank you for your kindness and Mrs. Witham too, and your kindness deserves a return on my part. I promise to take no more strong tea – no tea at all till you let me – and I shall go to bed tonight at one o’clock at latest. Will that do?”

Of course, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tea was looked upon with some suspicion. A summary of Dr Helen O’Connell’s research into this area is available at https://www.dur.ac.uk/news/newsitem/?itemno=16147 . In her research, Dr O’Connell unearthed sources which demonstrated that tea was considered to be addictive and have “drug-like” effects on the mind. Like many products at the time, the lack of regulation meant that consumers did not always know what was in their food and drink as products were often adulterated to make them go further (see http://www.victorianweb.org/science/health/health1.html). Is it these associations which make the characters so concerned about Malcolmson’s tea-drinking, or is the tea a euphemism for something rather more dangerous? There are many who believe that the vampire’s bite in “Dracula” is a metaphor for drug-taking (most likely opium), so is it possible that Stoker was exploring the same theme in “The Judge’s House”? Is it possible that Malcolmson, in a state of hallucination, imagines the horrific events which take place at the end of the story and that he brings his own doom on himself?

And that is exactly why I love Gothic fiction – it leaves so many questions unanswered and there are so many layers to peel away. And it does this with an intoxicating, knowing melodrama that is highly entertaining.

No recipe this week – except the recommendation that leaf tea is much better than tea-bags! Fairtrade tea, of course, is also recommended!

Whitby 1


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