The Tale of the Great Tea Thief and Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea For Cancer

Various branches of the Library Service are holding events in support of Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea for cancer this week. I’m not going to be in my branch on the day we bite the cupcakes for a good cause, so I thought I’d try to be there in spirit, by reading and reviewing For All the Tea In China, by Sarah Rose, which is a delightful book, although its claim to be non-fiction stretches credulity.

It starts beautifully, by explaining that just over a century ago, the greatest empires in the world went to war over the fate of two flowers, a poppy and a camellia. Now, opinions on these things vary, but to my mind that’s a great opening image: what they call an “eyeball kick” in the trade.  Ms Rose follows this up with an account of the life of Richard Fortune, the historical, if aptonymically named, man who stole the secret of growing tea from the Chinese, so that the East India Company could transplant it to India. It’s an almost Kiplingesque yarn of Victorian industrial espionage, filled with unlikely disguises, lucky escapes, and the sort of daring chicanery people don’t do in novels because it seems so unlikely to work in the real world.

I have a few problems with the book as non-fictional  because it is clear that Fortune’s own papers were destroyed, so it seems difficult to accept that the reactions to situations, and the whole inner life, which the author ascribes to Fortune are anything other than a fictional character designed to stand in the stead of the historical one.  As an adventure yarn, it lingers too long, in that like a lot of biographies, it dwindles away at the end, instead of choosing a strong point in the life of the lead character at which to stop. It also seems to take a pro-British stance concerning the Opium Wars, which seems extraordinary, so perhaps I’ve misread it.

These reservations aside, the author turns phrases in a lovely way, and the story she is telling is intrinsically interesting.  As a history buff, a reader of travel writing, and a foodie, I thought this was an enjoyable book, if slightly mispackaged.