Tea With Mr Rochester by Frances Towers

Persephone Endpapers

I started reading Tea With Mr Rochester at the end of the first Persephone Reading Week and I realise now, at the start of the second, that it has been on my bedside table ever since. 

Because it is a long book? No. The ten short stories that make up Tea With Mr Rochester fill just one hundred and sixty-two pages. It has lingered because the stories are so lovely that they need to be savoured slowly. So lovely that I read many of them more than once; that I was reluctant to read the last story, to never again be able to come to one anew.

Yes, it really is that good.

It is a book to transport you to a different world. England in the 1950s, and a series of well-appointed drawing rooms. Each is distinctive, but there will always be beautiful furnishings, with just the right individual touch. And they will always be adorned with flowers, and with music. Such beautiful descriptive writing.

“It was, of course, a peculiarly gracious room, with its high ceiling and Adam chimney-piece. The shining white walls were painted with light and dim reflections of colours, and a thick black hearthrug smudged with curly pink roses – an incongruous Balkan peasant rug in that chaste room – somehow struck a note of innocence and gaiety, like the scherzo in a symphony. That rug, and the photographs on the lid of the grand piano, the untidy stack of books on a table; and a smoky pseudo old master over the fireplace, with the lily of the Annunciation as a highlight, a pale question mark in the gloom, gave the room an oddly dramatic quality.”

Young women pass through these rooms. Genteel young women who have had sheltered lives, and whose pictures of the world, whose ideas of romance, have been painted from literature: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice.

In the title story a young girl wrapped up in Jane Eyre imagines onew of her aunt’s friends as Mr. Rochester, and is thrown into confusion when her aunt takes her to tea with him.

“They went on with their gay, incomprehensible conversation as if she was not there. It was quite safe to steal glances at Mr Considine, recalling the moments when he had played with Jane, as a cat with a mouse, the delirious moments when he had broken short a sentence with a betraying word, all the moments of agony and bliss one had shared with the little governess. And that most wonderful moment of all, when he at last declared his love and gathered her into his arms, and one had nearly fainted with delight.

But suddenly Mr Considine took her by surprise. The blue eyes looked straight into her own, and then he said, with an amused smile – “Prissy has been weighing me all this time in her invisible scales. And what, Prissy, if I may ask so personal a question, is your private opinion of me?””

Yes, men are dark and mysterious creatures. And other women are darker too. More knowing, and often troublesome.

For all of this to work the writing needs to be perfect, and it is. The descriptive writing is lovely, but it is also clear and exact. The observation of the characters is exact; empathy is there always, but sentimentality never.

The construction of the stories is elegant, the storytelling is flawless, and although they are set in a very real world they often have the air of fairy-tales. 

Their sphere may be narrow, but they are wonderfully diverse. Some are gently satirical, some are fanciful, some are haunting. All are romantic, in the best sense of the world.

My heart wants to tell you about them all, but my head says no. These are stories should creep up on you, and delight you, as you read.

And read them you must.

Frances Towers died in 1948, leaving behind just this one book.

But this one book is perfect.

36 responses

  1. I loved these stories too – I wish I had savoured them more but I will certainly revisit them. Wish Frances Towers had written more…

    • These are definitely stories that you could reread many times. I fear if Frances Towers had written anything else it would be very difficult for it to live up to the expectations generated by this book.And would her writing have worked so well at novel length? I don’t know.

  2. I was very tempted to buy this collection for Persephone Reading Week but I resisted. I am quite relieved now that you recommend they be savoured and I shall purchase them at a later date.

    I read a Frances Tower short story in Angela Carter edited Wayward Girls and Wicked Women, but I’m not sure if it is collected in Tea With Mr Rochester too; I highly enjoyed it.

  3. I can tell already that my Persephone wish-list is going to expand exponentially this week. I love short stories… this is the first addition.

    • There’s nothing else by Frances Towers that I can compare this with, but I do feel that the short story was her natural form. You will love this!

    • I came across the Penguin edition in a charity shop and was horribly tempted. Fortunately the rational side of by brain won over the emotional side, and I was delighted to see the book had been sold last time I was in the same shop. Somebody else in town will be discovering its delights!

  4. What a wonderful review of what it sure to climb atop my TBR pile, which has reached a critically delicate balance, though I’m not worried. I can always start a new one!

    I love books, like this one seems to be, where you just don’t want to read the last page close its cover.

    Thank you for this great review.

  5. Well you’ve sparked my interest! Next time I’m in Persephone I’ll be sure to pick this one up. I love collections of short stories. I’ve had the Whipple Closed Door Persephone volume on my bedside table in a similar manner!

    • I wish I could say “next time I’m in Persephone. I used to work within easy walking distance of the shop but I moved out of London before I discovered the books.

  6. You’ve really sparked my interest to read this book and shall store it in my holiday reading list. I find short stories work best for me on holiday so they can be ‘savoured slowly’.

    • This would be a lovely holiday read. I read mainly in the winter, but the prevailing season, I think, is summer.

  7. The quotes from the story make me want to read more. The writing is so beautiful but, then, so is yours. I love short stories and I’m going to have to get this one.

  8. This was my Persephone Secret Santa present, and I loved it so much that (having been unable to resist saving it and consequently reading it well before Christmas) I immediately gave a copy in turn to my own Secret Santa recipient!

    The stories are absolutely enchanting and you’re right that they have more than a whiff of the fairy tale about them. What a wonderful start to Persephone Reading Week!

    • What a good Secret Santa. I went forthe Virago Secret Santa and resisted the Persephone, but I do wish now that I had gone the other way.

  9. Oh goodness, what a lovely sensitive review.
    This book has not been on my Persephone wishlist at all, but has just jumped right to the top! The Mr Considine quote has my heart beating fast… can sort of relate to life and art getting a little muddled up in the mind!

  10. I have several Persephone books on my to-read shelf and I’ve just ordered another! Sadly, we don’t seem to have as many available here in the U.S. I did buy one of mine from a fantastic independant bookstore in Austin, TX, but I’m embarassed to say I bought the others at Barnes & Noble. I’m intrigued by their catalog and must search diligently for others.

    • Karen, you do realise that Persephone will mail to you direct? Not cheap of course but I have heard that they are very efficient and relaible.

  11. A simply wonderful review: I must move this up the pile. It’s nice to know, too, that I am not the only person who takes many months to read a book even when — sometimes especially when — the book is adored.

    For those wondering about having this enticing volume shipped overseas, I’ve found the rates from Persephone to Canada surprisingly reasonable, and the editions IMO are even more attractive than the Classics editions that are more readily available “over here”.

  12. Pingback: Tea With Mr Rochester | Paperback Reader

  13. I’m halfway through reading Tea with Mr Rochester for the first time, which I found among my late mother’s books. It is so enchanting that I looked it up on the internet, because I just had to know that it was remembered and appreciated by someone. Thank you for your beautiful review which does it so much justice. Each story is a beautiful jewel, waiting, like its heroine, to be discovered by a sensitive soul. I’m very glad it is still available, as I would love my sister and daughter to read it, but I honestly don’t think I could bear to lend it to anyone. I will come back to your website, as you sound very interesting – but first I must go back and finish the book!

    I will come back to your website – but first let me finish the book!

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