Shall I be mother?

‘Shall I be mother?’ is one of the comforting phrases of the British way of tea. It is deeply embedded in the foodways of Anglophone tea, and means, more or less, ‘I volunteer to pour out the tea from the teapot’. Being ‘mother’ means taking charge of the teapot and being responsible for pouring tea into cups, adding milk as required, overseeing the distribution of cups, and managing their replenishment. ‘Mother’ is an actor-director role in the theatre of tea-time. As Partridge says in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, ‘mother’ can be ‘a person of either sex’, and as such, offering to be mother has a frisson of gender pluralism.7241fab2f6ffe98ae894b4e0a1c48536

Partridge says the phrase derives from ‘Mother’s role at the traditional tea-table’, an etymology that is rather circular, and that it derives from the 1950s. It is in fact a little older than that, associated with the imaginative life of children in Victorian Britain. Elizabeth Sill, a children’s poetry writer, adopts the phrase in a children’s tea-party:

WILL you come to our party to-day, Carrie Wynn?

The party is all ready now to begin;

And you shall be mother, and pour out the tea,

Because you’re the oldest and best of the three.

This poem, called ‘The Children’s Party’ was published in The Nursery: A Monthly Magazine for Youngest People in 1873 [full text below]. This play practice was well enough known to be noted in Alice Bertha Gomme’s The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1894): ‘To be “mother” a child will pretend to pour out tea, or sew, or do some act of household work, the doing of which is associated with ” mother”.[1]

From nursery tea-time the phrase made its way into adult and polite society. The very minor Edwardian novelist William Pett Ridge, a laureate of the polite ways of the suburban lower middle classes, used the phrase in four novels betwee20000StreetsUnderTheSkyn 1904 and 1910. In his Next Door Neighbours (1904), a character called Emma Jane declares “I suppose I’d better be mother and pour out”, as she presides, somewhat unorthodoxly, over the tea-table.[2] Patrick Hamilton picked up the phrase in the 1930s, in his novel The Plains of Cement, later incorporated into his trilogy of quotidian London life Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1935). Here we find a young couple courting in a tea-shop, that anonymous space of modernity in which young women might eat cheaply and with propriety – and as such a paradigmatic site of sexual spectacle, as Scott McCracken has it.[3] Hamilton specifies the basement of the Express Dairy Restaurant in Great Newport Street, Covent Garden; the time, after the theatre. Meeting with an awkward pause, Ella and her strange suitor Mr Eccles are pleased by the ‘timely appearance of the waitress with the tea-things’, as ‘human thought was submerged for a moment or two in the brusque clatter of china upon marble and itself’.

Shall I be mother?” said Ella, and started to pour out the tea. But the episode was not closed. “What were you saying about beautiful young people?” asked Mr. Eccles, as the teapot was yet poised in the air over the first cup.[4]

The phrase is not quite yet empty, but is beginning to seem less than it semes. 

TheCollector

By the time John Fowles used the phrase in the 1960s, it was no longer smart talk. In his  abduction novel The Collector (1963), the use of the phrase explores the class difference between the kidnapper Clegg and his victim, the beautiful Miranda Grey. When the kidnapper makes tea (‘some special China’), his offer ‘to be mother’ provokes a violent reaction from Miranda.

When it was made, I said, shall I be mother?’

“That’s a horrid expression.”

What’s wrong with it?

“It’s like those wild duck. It’s suburban, it’s stale, it’s dead, it’s . . . oh, everything square that ever was. You know?”

I think you’d better be mother.[5]

To ‘be mother’ is stale, suburban, dead, and square, and as such ripe for exploitation. Which leaves us with Quentin Tarantino’s favourite swearword.

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Elizabeth Sill, ‘The Children’s Party’ [full text]

WILL you come to our party to-day, Carrie Wynn?

The party is all ready now to begin;

And you shall be mother, and pour out the tea,

Because you’re the oldest and best of the three.

My white cups and saucers that came Christmas Day

Are all set out nicely on Hatty’s gilt tray;

Real milk in the cream-jug, and real sugar too;

But only play-tea–we pretend that it’s true.

We’ve got a whole orange, and three macaroons,

And some blanc-mange–we’ll eat it with Hatty’s new spoons;

And we’ve carried our table out under the trees:

So come, Carrie Wynn, to our party, do, please!

Hatty’ll sit at one end, and the other you’ll take;

And I’ll cut the orange, and she’ll help the cake:

You’ll see something funny–the reason, don’t ask it–

When we’ve eaten the cake, we can eat up the basket!

We invited the dolls; but they both have the mumps;

And yesterday mine got two terrible bumps:

So we left them in bed; and I do not much care,

For dolls never _will_ sit up straight on a chair.

Then, nicest of all, when our party is done,

We’ll wash up the dishes; and won’t that be fun!

Then scrub sticky fingers and sugary thumbs;

And the sparrows and robins may clear up the crumbs.

Elizabeth Sill, The Nursery: A Monthly Magazine for Youngest People, February 1873, XIII: 2, p. 54

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Notes

[1] Alice Bertha Gomme, The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland: With Tunes, Singing-Rhymes, and Methods of Playing According to the Variants Extant and Recorded in Different Parts of the Kingdom. 1894.

[2] William Pett Ridge, Next Door Neighbours. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1904, p. 123. Almost the same phrase used is used in Ridge’s Nine to Six-Thirty (London: Methuen, 1910); Name of Garland (London: Methuen, 1907); and Mrs. Galer’s Business (London: T. Nelson, 1905).

[3] Scott McCracken, Masculinities, Modernist Fiction and the Urban Public Sphere (Manchester, 2007), p. 128,

[4] Patrick Hamilton, The Plains of Cement. London: Constable & Co, 1934 also in Hamilton, Patrick. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky: A London Trilogy. London: Constable & Co, 1935), p. 60.

[5] John Fowles, The Collector (London: Jonathan Cape, 1963), p. 56.

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4 thoughts on “Shall I be mother?

    • No, we haven’t found it used in the eighteenth century. The earliest we know of, as the post says, is 1873, but it really only takes on its status as a commonplace expression after 1950. The blog is called Tea in Eighteenth-Century Britain, but the post is called “Shall I be Mother?”.

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