‘At all events, I felt the want, and I supplied it. Tea was my companion – at first the ordinary black tea, made in the usual way, not too strong: but I drank a good deal, and increased its strength as I went on. I never experienced an uncomfortable symptom from it. I began to take a little green tea. I found the effect pleasanter, it cleared and intensified the power of thought, I had come to take it frequently, but not stronger than one might take for pleasure’.
It sounds harmless enough. A couple of pots to keep the stamina up through long nights bent over books. I’ve tried it once or twice, I admit. I’ll even cop to having enjoyed it. But not any more. I’ve been scared straight by Sheridan Le Fanu’s horrifying account of the Reverend Mister Jennings’s ultimately fatal dalliance with mind-altering substances.
Green Tea, Le Fanu’s 1872 exposé of an insidious threat to the mental health and moral integrity of every Englishman of an intellectual disposition, introduces us to the tragic Jennings at his moment of vulnerability to this scourge, when he is engaged obsessively in ambitious and potentially subversive research on the metaphysical beliefs of ancient pagans. I need not detail here the inherent dangers of dabbling with ideas of that sort at any level; they are well-documented, but Jennings has recklessly thrown himself into his study without regard for maintaining the correct scholarly detachment. As he confesses to his doctor, he has allowed himself to become entirely consumed by his work, always thinking on it, always dreaming about it, always reading and writing between the hours of eleven at night and three in the morning. Worse, he has begun experimenting with black tea – the gateway tea – as a stimulant to boost his productivity. Inevitably, black tea leads him to the green, and Jennings’s fate is sealed.
One day, while riding an omnibus, Jennings sees two piercing red eyes staring at him, gradually realising that they belong to a demonic black monkey. This grinning nightmarish vision persecutes him for the rest of his days, sitting on his books and interrupting him while he studies, shrieking curses and blasphemies to drown out his prayers, tempting him to perform evil acts, and eventually, perhaps inevitably, commanding him to commit suicide, which he does, slitting his own throat with a single-edged razor.
One would have hoped that society at large might have heeded such a potent warning, but sadly, no. Even now, one-hundred-and-forty years later, walk into any supermarket in the UK and there, occupying at least half an aisle are teas of every description – not merely black and green, but white and infusions, too. It makes me shudder to think of the peril susceptible scholars are unwittingly faced with every day of their lives in every corner cake shop, at every Chinese restaurant. What is the point, I ask, of a government that allows our streets to be overrun with this poison? If ever there were any questions of the social relevance of literary studies, then surely it must lie in our ability – nay, our duty – to ensure that cries from the past, like Le Fanu’s, do not go unheeded. The temptation is insidious. Green tea may have the allure of a key to knowledge, power, or terrible secrets, to a world beyond ordinary human understanding, but it is a chimera, unpredictable and dangerous; open the doors to perception and what lies behind them is all too capable of taking on a life of its own, taking possession of the mind and the body, and of wreaking havoc on our way of life. So remember: say ‘no’ to tea.