Tea at Four o’clock is a psychologically astute novel of family tyranny and dominance, the title deliberately misleading with its connotations of cosiness. Set in the author’s native Belfast it is the story of a woman’s cautious attempt to reclaim the life she sacrificed to her exacting family.
Now middle aged, Laura Percival has spent her life at the Percival family mansion Marathon, in thrall to first her father, and later her elder sister Mildred. Laura and Mildred’s brother George, having incurred his father’s wrath and disapproval left the family home twenty years earlier, never to return. Having nursed the exacting, bullying Mildred for the last few years, Laura is left bewildered in her sudden freedom when Mildred dies. Mildred a woman who demanded that tea should be served at precisely four o’clock each day, that the plants should be watered each Thursday, exacted a disabling obedience from Laura. On the day of Mildred’s funeral, Laura takes a small amount of pride in the Rev McClintock’s word of praise – in her “…exemplary devotion (who) did not spare herself in the long months of nursing” Living temporarily at Marathon with Laura is Miss Parks, a strident figure once Mildred’s teacher, who had moved in to help, quickly making herself indispensable and now has little intention of moving back to her bedsitting room on the other side of Belfast. Miss Parks, showing a convenient devotion to the memory of Mildred and her habits sets out to continue the management of Laura, having not reckoned on the reappearance of George Percival on the very day that Mildred is laid to rest.
“George’s memories of his home had been dominated so strongly, and for so long, first by his father and then by Mildred, that he had thought little of Laura during his years of absence. Any picture he had of her was of a quiet child who in her obedience to her father’s or Mildred’s bidding had seemed to accomplish much more than George ever had by his flouting of it.”
George has been living in another part of Belfast, in a smaller kind of house altogether, his wife rather common wife Amy and their daughter Kathie have never met George’s sisters, and have naturally always had an enormous curiosity about Marathon and its inhabitants. Having spotted the announcement of Mildred’s death in the newspaper, Amy persuades him to go to the house and attend the funeral; George arrives just in time to see the funeral cars leave the house, knowing the funeral is over, George decides to reacquaint himself with the sister who is left alone now in the old family house. George’s motives are suspected by both the reader and the family solicitor Mr McAlister, who has his own designs on Laura. George is not easily repulsed, and to the extreme irritation of Miss Parks spends a lot of time over the next few days with Laura.
In trying to reclaim the life she has given to others, Laura must confront and understand the past, the part she and others played in the consequences which resulted from her one aborted bid for independence. McNeill’s masterly at slowly revealing the truth of both the past and the present, and ultimately Laura cannot help but be seen as having been complicit in her own oppression.
“During Mildred’s illness the hour after lunch had always been treasured, an oasis, a withdrawal into herself, a renewal of courage while the invalid rested. Now the necessity of idleness confronted Laura and became a weight, a terror. What was there for her to do? She glanced through the newspaper, reading the words, but understanding little of what she read. At last, in an agony of loneliness she went down the passageway into the kitchen.”
Told in flashback, we see Laura as a young woman, an art student, who meets Tom, a friend of George’s in her art class. Forever after, Laura is haunted by the ambiguity of the words he spoke to her once twenty years earlier, “I never told you I loved you.” Now Tom is dead, having gone to America and married the first woman he met, his son another young artist is visiting Belfast, and Laura hurries along to meet him. George would like to move his family into Marathon, and rather thinks he too can manage Laura, however Laura turns out to be not quite so easily managed. The novel ends spectacularly with McNeill gently twisting the knife just one last time.