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J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Green Tea: A Two-Minute Summary and Literary Analysis


With the sole exception of “Carmilla,” “Green Tea” reigns as J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s most widely celebrated and well-known supernatural tale. I know of many people who, when asked if they know anything about Le Fanu, will list these two stories and mention something about “Gothic horror” or “early weird fiction,” drawing comparisons with Poe, M. R. James, and Wilkie Collins. While these good people know a decent amount about “Carmilla” (presuming they have never read it – that it is a story about lesbian vampires, that it inspired Bram Stoker, that it is a Gothic mystery), “Green Tea” has only one common feature that those who have heard of it but who have not read it will call to mind: “that’s the one with the demonic monkey.”

The idea sticks in the brain and sometimes leads to disappointment when these horror readers finally pick up the story and read it: the idea of a hellish simian is somehow much more powerful in the abstract and loses its potency in Le Fanu’s prose. But even if readers are let down by “Green Tea” (most who complain site its narrator and his anticlimactic deductions), the story still disturbs and remains as firmly seated in the memory as the Monkey squatting on the Bible. There is something deeply collective and archetypal about this frolicsome antagonist: many people – especially children – adore monkeys’ unencumbered embrace of pleasure and folly: they are astonishingly human, but lack restraint, shame, or self-respect.

They play, languish, fight, fornicate, and ogle without the slightest censor. For most people the monkey is a symbol of care free enjoyment, liberty, and independence – a reminder of our simian ancestry and of the animal life (a seemingly libertine paradise) we chose to forsake for the stability of civilization. There are those who gaze into monkey cages at the zoo with wistful smiles or jealous smirks. But to Le Fanu there was something darker behind the symbol of the monkey – something even more primitive than the promise of freedom: the fear of appetite (more on that later).

Most critics who have pondered “Green Tea” have recognized its similarity to two late Victorian literary masterpieces: the exploits of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In fact, there are many who might compare the story to a piece of contemporary fan fiction where Jekyll consults Holmes about the problem of Hyde. In the narrator – an arrogant, showy consultant who diagnoses his clients life stories with a glance, instinctively senses trouble, shows off his deductive skills like a parlor game, and is chronicled by his devoted assistant/editor (himself an invalid doctor) – we have a prototype of Sherlock Holmes. This “great detective,” the idle metaphysician Martin Hesselius, is one of the earliest (though hardly the first) supernatural sleuths, and is the model for Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing, Blackwood’s John Silence, and Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-finder, though – like all the preceeding luminaries – he is an insufferable blowhard whose pseudo-scientific theories, arrogance, and windy explanations get in the way of the horror.

He is more effective in the “Room of the Dragon Volant,” but serves as a fascinating counterpoint to his suffering client, the Rev. Dr. Robert Jennings. Jennings, for his part, plays our Jekyll: a respectable society man (and a confirmed bachelor) hounded by his self-loathing, simian Doppelganger – a manifestation of his repressed Id which is summoned by the ritual drinking of a beverage. In “Jekyll and Hyde,” the good doctor describes his alter-ego in monkey-like terms many times: his strength, size, hairy hands, tempers, lusts, and – above all – self-preserving fears are spoken of in terms of human evolution – as representing that of a devolved form of mankind. In “Green Tea” our “Jekyll” did not intentionally call forth his “Hyde,” but is accidentally brought from its repressed state by the drinking of a mystical potion. Jekyll used a blood-red form of phosphorous and a salt-like powder, which – when combined – create a pale green fluid.

Jennings uses green tea – a drink associated with the Far East, once wildly popular (adored by the Shelleys and Byron) until the mid-Victorian period when the unfermented tea leaves (typically sold by Chinese rather than British merchants) were suspected (sometimes rightfully) of being diluted with chemicals and rubbish in order to sell more of it at a lower price (rather like how cigarettes are loaded with floor sweepings, arsenic, and glue). Hesselius’ vilification of green tea may seem ludicrous to us today, but in Le Fanu’s time, its lack of regulation attracted a great deal of fear: Charlotte Bronte refused to drink a single drop of it before bed out of fear that the off-market stimulants it was suspected of being cut with would prevent her from sleeping all night. So there is more of a physical than metaphysical explanation behind why green tea is suspected of opening up Jennings’ third eye: its chemical additives have inflamed his blood, which – according to Hesselius – in turn inflames his nervous system, causing the spiritual window of his mind to open, revealing his skulking Doppelgänger.

Critics have frequently accused “Green Tea” of racist undertones or colonial distrust, but I think they completely overlook the role that Jennings himself has in his suffering. Hesselius frequently commands him to stop worrying about his demonic visitor because he is in God’s hands (even going so far as to imply that his situation is like that of the biblical Job whom God allowed Satan to test with horrible losses, before rewarding him for his fidelity), but Hesselius seems to miss what contemporary critics are missing when he soothes his friend’s anxieties: the Monkey is not an Oriental djinn or a Chinese god sent from the Far East to torment this pious Christian, a punishment for his only sin – not drinking good ol’ British black tea; no, as the text clearly suggests multiple times, the Monkey has always been there.

His being a Monkey has more to do with Jennings’ personal archetypes than any connection with the Far East (besides which, the Monkey appears to be a South American breed) – it is his Hyde, his inner tormentor, and all that the green tea is guilty of is opening Jennings’ eye to the monster which he has been harboring throughout his life: the depraved manifestation of decades of masochistic repression and sycophantic yes-man-ing – the child of his own resentment.

II.

Dr. Martin Hesselius is an eccentric physician, student of the esoteric, and occult investigator -- something of a cross between Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, Van Helsing, and Father Brown -- who was travelling through England during the Regency Era when he encountered the strange and unsettling case of Rev. Jennings, a studious vicar whose only apparent vices are an obsession with mysticism and late night reading binges fueled by green tea. Nonetheless, Jennings' friends are concerned about him: he seems to be depressed and -- although they downplay it -- he is growing paranoid, and even appears to be seeing things.

He has taken a leave of absence from his parish in the Warwickshire countryside and is spending more and more time cloistered in the library of his townhouse in the London suburb of Richmond. Hesselius agrees to meet with Jennings to assess whether he is suffering from something psychological, supernatural, or -- possibly -- both. Hesselius finds him to be neat, polite, and congenial, but unquestionably nervous and disturbed: he notes that the vicar's eyes frequent track along the carpet as if watching some invisible thing move back and forth on the floor.

After meeting at the house of one of Jennings' friends, Lady Mary, Hesselius takes her aside -- Sherlock Holmes style -- to test his deductions: he has inferred that Jennings is a bachelor, that he is currently working on a complex book on an abstract nature, that he drinks copious amounts of green tea (a fact he was not previously aware of), and that at least one of his parents had reported seeing ghosts. Lady Mary is stunned since she had made no mention of these particulars, and each is true. Hesselius' professional interest has been engaged, and he agrees to visit Jennings at his townhouse on the wooded outskirts of Richmond.

He is fascinated by Jennings' character -- well liked and admired, yet reclusive; a respected Anglican reverend, yet obsessed with Oriental occultism. In many ways the two men are very similar: they are both single, confirmed old bachelors who have traded the warmth of family life for monastic, literary pursuits. Indeed, Jennings is familiar with Hesselius' metaphysical writings and is honored by his visit.

***

When he is shown inside by the servant, Jennings is not there, so Hesselius waits in his library. It is a fittingly Gothic room: dark, tall, and shadowy, with two long windows (overlooking a band of dark, lonely woods) and an almost shockingly vast collection of occult works. As in Poe's "Haunted Palace," it becomes apparent that the library is an allegory for Jennings dark mind (complete with the two windows for eyes), and Hesselius is drawn to a desk where he finds an open book (a volume of the famous philosopher/theologian/mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg's "Celestia Arcana") which is heavily annotated.

One bookmarked page has the following quote underscored: “When man’s interior sight is opened, which is that of his spirit, then there appear the things of another life, which cannot possibly be made visible to the bodily sight.” Swedenborg goes on to theorize that there are some demonic spirits which can be drawn from hell to associate with human beings who share some spiritual trait with them; however, once the spirits realize that their companions are mortal and not of the spirit world, they will become driven with hatred to seek their host's destruction. In the margin next to this paragraph, Jennings has written: "God [have compassion on] me." At this moment, Hesselius looks up into the mirror over the desk and sees Jennings face.

The clergyman is standing behind his guest and reading over his shoulder (with his face "so dark and wild" that he is almost unrecognizable), and Hesselius quickly recognizes that he has trespassed upon Jennings' inner thoughts. They both pretend that embarrasing has occurred, however, and they begin to discuss a manuscript of Hesselius' metaphysical theories which Jennings has enjoyed reading. They briefly touch on Jennings' maladies -- he dismisses the theories of his physician, Dr. Harley, as the stupid chatter of a "mere materialist" -- but he remains reserved and secretive on the topic. After a polite but unsubstantial conversation, they part ways, and Hesselius is left to ponder his findings.

***

It isn't long after, however, that Jennings -- who had returned to his parish in an attempt to resume his preaching -- unexpectedly retreats back to London and begs Hesselius to see him. He arrives at dusk as the scarlet sunset clashes with the deepening shadows, underscoring the story's themes of intersecting dimensions and the shadowy liminal spaces between the material, mortal world and the spiritual, psychic realm. When Hesselius enters Jennings' gloomy study, his ghostly surroundings are striking:

"The faint glow of the west, the pomp of the then lonely woods of Richmond, were before us, behind and about us the darkening room, and on the stony face of the sufferer for the character of his face, though still gentle and sweet, was changed rested that dim, odd glow which seems to descend and produce, where it touches, lights, sudden though faint, which are lost, almost with out gradation, in darkness. The silence, too, was utter: not a distant wheel, or bark, or whistle from without; and within the depressing stillness of an invalid bachelor's house.I guessed well the nature, though not even vaguely the particulars of the revelations I was about to receive, from that fixed face of suffering that so oddly flushed stood out, like a portrait of Schalken's, before its background of darkness..."

Convinced that honesty is his only hope, Jennings begins his tale. Four years prior he had begun a massive literary project -- a book on the Gnostic mysticism of Ancient cultures -- that led him to spend late nights reading, fueled by regular cups of strong, black tea. However, after much experimentation, he decided to switch to green tea: unlike black tea, it kept him awake without clouding his mind or making his nerves jittery. From this point on, he started to become addicted to the drink, and began keeping later and later hours, poring over metaphysical texts on the occult.

Now, at this point we should pause to note why green tea -- today considered a tame, health-conscious, Zen beverage -- should be so sinister. Green and black tea are made from the same leaves: black tea, however, is dried and oxidated first, while green tea is raw and untreated. It was first introduced to Europe in the 1600s, and was popular with teetotalers, vegetarians, and health buffs in England for two centuries. The Shelleys drank only the best green tea, it was heartily recommended by doctors, and it even constituted 1/5 of the tea destroyed in the Boston Tea Party. The tides turned in the early 1800s, however, when concerns rose that unregulated Chinese exporters were adulterating their shipments -- not at all unlike cigarettes, factory farmed chickens, or steroid-pumped vegetables -- with addictive substances, cosmetic fillers, and unnatural stimulants. Among the substances discovered in green tea were sheep dung, arsenic, paint, dye, iron fillings, hawthorn, and other chemicals meant to improve their appearance and over-stimulate their consumers. A common fear of green tea consumption was that it would cause chronic, long-term insomnia. Charlotte Bronte was so frightened by the idea of becoming addicted to green tea -- and suffering sleep deprivation -- that Elizabeth Gaskell hid from her, during one visit, that her black tea was cut with green tea. Its toxic, addictive, and insomniac properties were much overhyped, but nonetheless held a grain of truth during the Victorian Age.

Kept awake by this ostensibly tainted green tea, Jennings begins to see strange things at night: two parallel red balls of light moving about the floor. One night, while riding home on an omnibus, he notices the button-sized balls of light watching him from the darkness. As they move about the empty bus, he realizes that they are the glowing eyes of a small, black monkey, which grins -- knowingly and malevolently -- at him from the shadows. He pokes at it with his umbrella, but it passes through the monkey as through mist. It follows him when he steps off the bus, and although he writes it off as a hallucination caused by indigestion, it begins to haunt him from that day forward.

Often it would appear sluggish and lazy, but whenever he preached from the pulpit, it would grow violent -- crouching on the Bible and blocking its words while grinding its fangs. It had a habit of disappearing at intervals, and once -- after a three-month absence -- it returned angrier than ever, preventing him from praying, by muttering blasphemous obscenities in his ear as he begs for redemption. Eventually, it grew so strong that he began to see it even when he closes his eyes, and its messages become even more sinister: ordering him to harm himself or others. In fact, the monkey's voice melds into Jennings' own inner thoughts and begins urging him to commit suicide.