Getting to Know the Women Behind the Dickens Universe’s Beloved Tradition

October 24, 2022

By Jillian Allen, Dickens Project Assistant 

Makiko Morikawa, Barbara Keller, and Helena Michie at an afternoon tea (circa 1997).
Beverly Ballard, Roberta Wamboldt, and Beth Penney relaxing after their tea service (circa 2005).

A Special Thank You

Thank you to our Friends who have assisted us with Victorian tea since the beginning. The volunteers have varied over the years, but many, many fine hands go into the serving of Afternoon Tea to the Universe! 

Fresh Strawberries: Lin Wyant, Dan Atwell, Jon Varese

Dishwashers: Frances Laskey, Michael Stern, Ernie and Cindy Peterson, Tom Savignano, Gerald Brown, Dan Atwell, Carl Wilson, Bob Davis

Servers: Joyce Emrick, Hilary Schor, Helena Michie, Teresa Mangum, Margaret Loose, Becky Tracy

General Helpers: Amy Keys, Aleck and Nancy Darr, Julie Minnis, Alice Haddad, Kimberlyn Forte, Angie and Mick Mason, Beverly Ballard, Wayne Batten, Mark Gordon, Dan Sewell, David Brownell, Phillip Collins, David Parker, Gordon Philo

Victorian Tea Punch: Roberta Wamboldt, Susan Nordlof, Karen Hattaway

Transportation: Trude Hoffacker

Presentation: Makiko Morikawa

Flower Arrangements and Table Settings: Beth Penney

Tea Historian: Elizabeth Walker

We want to share our deepest appreciation for each volunteer at our continually evolving tea service! (And please let us know if there is a name missing from this acknowledgement!)

This summer, I had the privilege of being a student assistant at the Dickens Universe, an enriching and rewarding experience despite its occasional frantic moments of hustle and bustle.

One of my favorite events to work was the Victorian Tea, mostly because I got to see the whole community come together for a beloved Universe tradition. Since I’ve only worked for the Dickens Project for a small fraction of its long history, I wanted to know more about the early days of the Victorian Tea, so I talked to Barbara Keller and Beth Penney, who many of you know as two long-standing Universe participants and Friends of the Dickens Project board members who were instrumental in the conception and continuation of the afternoon tea tradition.

When I spoke with Barbara Keller at her home, I learned that her first Dickens Universe was in 1987. She had been teaching Dickens’s novels as a high school teacher for some time and consequently decided that it was time to get involved with the Universe. She called it an “intense experience,” one she quickly fell in love with, and described it as “ instant group” full of “people who were so open and so exposed.” She also appreciated the Universe’s welcoming inclusion of high school teachers, an inclusion kept her coming back year after year.

Victorian Tea initially began as an event Barbara planned with her high school students. The event was originally supposed to be a Christmas dinner. However, planning a dinner caused too many problems, so they instead planned a tea-time. Barbara then began to incorporate directions for holding a classroom tea time into the workshops she led at the Universe as a way to show how teachers could make learning Dickens an enjoyable experience for their students.

Over the years, Universe participants outside of Barbara’s workshops also wanted to get involved with the tea, so it began expanding. The first Victorian Tea that was open to all participants was, according to Barbara, around 1995. This expanded tea caused all sorts of problems for Barbara and the other volunteers, such as where to store supplies, how to get supplies up to campus, and how to serve iced tea punch to so many people. Barbara jokingly told me, “My house was a Dickens closet because of all the tea cups,” and attendant supplies which she had to store. Though I saw remnants of the storage problem when I visited Barbara,  over the years storage problems were worked out, and Victorian Tea became what we know it to be today.

This past summer, Barbara took a step back from the Universe, so Beth Penney took over leadership of the teas in her place. Beth’s first Dickens Universe was around 1984, so she had been attending the Universe for a few years before Barbara began Victorian Tea. Once the teas began, however, Beth knew it was something she wanted to be involved with as she is an avid collector of china, so she volunteered to help.

I asked Beth what she thinks makes the Victorian Tea special and important and why it’s continued to be so popular over the years. She responded, “I think it's important as a tradition, and traditions are important to me. While the Universe affords many opportunities for people to get together over drinks, food, or both, and chat, the teas offer something besides institutional coffee service and food, and people appreciate that.” She hopes that as in-person attendance at the Universe begins to increase again, attendance at the teas will increase as well so that this important tradition can continue to expand and grow.

One of the most special things about the Victorian Tea’s continuation throughout the decades is, in Beth’s opinion, the way it has stayed relatively consistent in what it offers. She told me, “We've always prided ourselves on having home-made cookies, a silver service, china cups and saucers, pottery teapots for the brewing, and glass punch cups. That's what makes it a ‘Victorian Tea,’ rather than just tea as opposed to coffee in the afternoon.” This gets at the heart of what makes the teas so important: it’s not only a chance for community and a continuation of tradition, but it’s also an experience and a pleasant break from all the rewarding, yet challenging intellectual demands that the Universe asks of its participants.

Beth is happy to carry on with the tradition, saying, “It's a labor of love, and as long as we receive the positive response from the attendees and the University that we do, I think it's important to continue with tradition.”