I used to wonder what it meant to “call on” someone and why there were front parlors and back parlors in old Victorian era houses. Then I watched the BBC series Cranford and light dawned. And tea played a part in the solution to the mystery, as you will soon see.
Elizabeth Gaskell had three novellas published from 1849 to 1858 about the fictional village of Cranford in England. The BBC One TV channel in England broadcast the series based on these novellas in November and December 2007. In May 2008 they were shown in the U.S. There was also a two-part Christmas special aired in 2009. What was the appeal? A glimpse into a time in the history of England that had charm and lots of human drama without a lot of gore, swearing, and high-speed car chases. It also didn’t have loud, wild music and lots of split-second cuts so you could barely follow what was going on.
And a lot was going on, mainly among the town’s single and widowed middle class female inhabitants; they were comfortable with their traditional way of life while placing great store in being proper and portraying an appearance of gentility. Part of that appearance was the receiving of “callers” (visitors) for tea in the front parlor (a word derived from the French word parler which means “to speak”). To make things run smoothly, they would take turns during the week being the receiver of these callers, and on the other days they would be the callers.
Another is keeping up appearances even when your finances take a downward turn. Miss Matty, a spinster in the village, suffers a financial loss, but her friends secretly help her with money (that they say is due to a bank error) that she then uses to turn her front parlor from a place to enjoy tea into a place to sell tea – she goes into trade, as the expression of the day went.
Scenes from the series (see image at right):
- Several ladies of Cranford keeping watch to see who would be calling on them for tea. Or are they just hoping to catch something juicy to gossip about over their cuppas?
- Miss Matty in her front parlor that gets turned into a tea shop.
- A tea party typical of the era and definitely not one that you can whip together without considerable advance notice.
The Front Parlor
In the days before TV and video games people used to visit each other in their homes. Certain rules got established over time. One such rule was to confine one’s visit to the special “caller” room, call the front parlor. It was usually kept in peak condition and well-dusted. There would be various knickknacks around. Behavior was strictly proper and congenial. And tea was served, rolled in on a trolley. All of this comes through in the Cranford series and clears up a lot of mystery for us modern day folks.
Modern Day Parlors
These days we have open floorplans and very casual attitudes. We still try to keep things congenial and mind our manners, but it won’t cause a village-wide scandal if we fall short on either account. At least, I hope not!
See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.
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