To my shame, this is the first time I’ve read Ursula Bloom in any of her many authorial guises. As Mary Essex, Bloom wrote at least eight books (that I can find) and here provides us with a somewhat spiky rural village comedy. Not many of her characters are particularly likeable, and she has a mordant wit when it comes to the foibles and emotional weaknesses of the post-war middle-class. She manages to be downright funny whilst showing her characters to be selfish and often cold-blooded in their decisions.
Published in 1950, but set a couple of years earlier, Tea is So Intoxicating follows the domestic difficulties faced by Germayne as her second husband, Commander David Tompkins, a man without much direction it must be said, decides that their rural cottage is the ideal place to establish a new venture.
‘“I shall turn this into a tea-house, with lunches if requested, and shall serve pleasant meals in the Orchard,” announced David, “and with my penchant or cooking I ought to make a fortune.”
“Oh dear!” said Germayne.’
Village life is changing – the war’s deprivations are still being felt, admittedly – and David is keen to capitalise on the renewed interest in daytripping. We learn that Germayne left her first husband, the slightly-bullish-but-has-a-good-heart Digby, for David before the war. By the time we meet them a decade later, the excitement has worn off and Germayne is tiring of her new husband’s enthusiasms. She’s been brought up to believe she isn’t very bright, but she sees far more clearly than David that writing out a menu in French isn’t going to mean your business is a roaring success.
‘The French distressed Germayne, who couldn’t be quite sure it was French. The “toast” seemed peculiar to her, and she challenged David on this point; in a pained manner her told her that all good restaurants put it that way. Sur toast was the right thing. Sur pain roti would have been singularly schoolgirlish. He had seemed to be disgruntled on this point, and annoyed that she had dared to dispute it.’
As the novel goes on, and David’s plans start to founder, he becomes more and more petulant. At the same time, antagonism towards the new tearoom from the villagers is building, headed up by the fearsome Lady of the Manor, Mrs Arbroath (a character who slowly gained my sympathy, it must be said). Thrown into the mix is Mimi, a young Viennese woman with fabulous legs and an ability to irritate long-suffering wives, who is employed by David to cook for the tearoom. The result is a darkly funny, often farcical, tale of blustering men and exasperated women. And it’s another excellent addition to the British Library’s Women Writers series.