A nice cup of lime-blossom tea

Tea and madeleines. Note the scallop-shell ridges.

Today’s blog gets passionate about Proust.

Marcel Proust By André Szekely de Doba – https://bassenge.com/lots/116/34680, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=102904653

The father of the modern novel died one hundred years ago this month, November 18th 1922. I’ve already got passionate about his hawthorn; today it’s time for that iconic madeleine.

‘Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure.’

‘For a long time I used to go to bed early…’ so begins the first volume of A la recherche du Temps Perdu, the stupendous 7-volume work relating the author’s journey of self-discovery through his reflexions on time, memory, art and love.

These early pages describe the young Marcel’s holidays at his grandparents’ country house in Combray as he remembers them. They are dominated by the psychodrama that played out each evening, the narrator’s ‘bedtime torture’.  Dinner was served indoors or, when the weather was fine, in the garden behind the house. But whatever the setting, the young Marcel would be filled with dreadful anticipation of the inevitable moment he would be sent off to bed. While bedtime can be a source of anxiety for many children – ghosts in the dark , monsters under the bed – Marcel’s ‘hours of anguish’ arose from the  hours of separation from his mother, and in particular, the  thought that she might be prevented from coming up to give him his bedtime kiss. (What would his contemporary, Sigmund Freud have made of this?) One of the regular guests who unwittingly thwarted Marcel’s felicity by retaining his mother à table, was their neighbour, Monsieur Swann, later to exert a profound influence on Marcel’s life.

Tante Léonie’s House, Combray -Illiers
Par Fabrice Bluszez — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44191779

The real significance of these childhood holidays, and how they set him on the ‘two paths’ of self-discovery, would only be revealed later, in the famous episode of the madeleine. ‘For many years, Combray had only existed for me insofar as  it concerned  the theatre and drama of my bedtime,’ the author tells us, before  launching into  what is surely  the most well-known passage in the entire 3000 pages. A tired, depressed Marcel arrives home one dreary winter evening. His mother suggests a nice cup of hot tea accompanied by ‘one of those short, plump cakes called ‘petites madeleines’, which look as though they have been moulded in a ridged scallop shell’.

He breaks off a piece of the cake, dips it in the ‘tea’ (an infusion of lime blossoms, ‘tisane de tilleul‘) and raises the spoon to his lips. Immediately, an extraordinary thing happens: it’s as if he’s received an electric shock. A shudder runs throughout his body, followed by an intense, exquisite sensation of expanding pleasure. His existential doubts and anxieties vanish, replaced with a joyful optimism.

Mystified, Marcel struggles to identify the source of such powerful emotions; the answer eludes him, until, at last, he feels something shift and break loose inside him, becoming ‘unanchored.’

It is a memory. In ‘a Proustian rush’ he is once more in Combray, but this time the neurasthenic, sickly child waiting for his mother’s kiss is replaced by the Marcel of Sunday mornings, going to say hello to Great Aunt Léonie. This famous widowed aunt is a malade imaginaire – a hypochondriac confined to bed with a mystery illness and whose ‘inadvertent’ death serves to comfort in their opinion not only those who had always believed her strict confinement would finish her off, but also those who believed she really did have a fatal illness.  During the holidays, Tante Léonie has an unvarying Sunday breakfast ritual:  summoning her great-nephew to her bedside, she dips a madeleine in her tisane and gives it to him to taste.

Unlike memories triggered by visual and auditory stimuli, those associated with our sense of taste and smell linger on when everything else has died. Proust calls them ‘fragile souls’ buried deep within us, waiting to be discovered. In a beautiful image he describes them as ‘remembering…hoping, on the ruin of everything else, bearing unflinchingly on their scarcely perceptible droplet the immense edifice of memory.’

The waterlilies on the

The chapter finishes on a breath-taking wave of poetic intensity as Marcel experiences the full force of this  ‘involuntary’ memory. His perspective on the ‘old days in Combray’ is transformed; the narrow ‘panel’ of the house and his bedroom expand into a vast panorama. First the entire house appears, ‘ the old grey house on the street’, then ‘the small extension at the back built for my parents, opening on to the garden, then the town, from morning till night, in all weathers, the square where they sent me before lunch, the streets where I ran errands, the paths we  set out to walk when the weather was fine. And, as in the Japanese game where shapeless bits of paper are dropped into a china bowl full of water, then begin to unfurl, spin, infuse with colour and finally become distinct shapes – flowers, houses, solid and recognisable people – so now appeared all the flowers in our garden and the park of Monsieur Swann, the waterlilies on the Vivonne, the good people of the village, their  cottages and the church, and all Combray and its surroundings, the whole, town and gardens, emerged into solid shapes, out of my cup of tea.’ *

What Proust is describing is something that is familiar to us all, but the way he describes it is unforgettable. Those fragile ‘souls’ of taste and smell have the power to resuscitate ‘an old dead memory’, to cause an entire world to unfold and bloom in the mind’s eye with the same magic as those paper flowers in their bowl of water.**

For one brief, glorious moment the ‘lost’ past detaches from ‘the immense edifice of memory’ to join the present:  time stands still.

By Miyuki Meinaka – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17590870


Marcel Proust, 10 July 1871 – 18 November 1922


* Caveat: my own loose translations of the original text.

** I’ve come across different queries about these Japanese flowers on Internet. In the last half of the 19th C  there was a craze for ‘japonisme‘ in France (la folie japonaise). Such flowers seem to be impossible to find nowadays, but as one British poster said, they used to be a Christmas stocking staple in the 1970s.  You can still buy Chinese flowering tea, a similar concept.

©Laurette Long 2022


18 thoughts on “A nice cup of lime-blossom tea”

  1. Laurette never ceases to inform , educate and impress – truly a Lady of Letters who writes with knowledge and enthousiasm about a whole range of ideas and observations that would easily be appropriate for BBC R4 ( or French equivalent ) or a University course on the Life and Times of Marcel Proust !
    How do you generate such insights – the sights and the sounds of the Tarn or just Yorkshire grit ? Did Proust ever meet a Hare ?

    1. Just stopped laughing at your last question… Did Proust ever meet a hare? Sounds like the germ of an idea for a great book or documentary – a project for your leisure moments, perhaps? ‘My quest to find out if the author of La Recherche ever…etc etc’ Merci cher Pierre for all your encouragement through another lovely comment, I shall never get my hat on today, or my boots (in French it’s the ankles that swell! ) xxx

  2. I knew nothing about Proust. Then I stumble onto your blog and into a whole new world of knowledge. I love ” fragile ‘souls’ of taste and smell have the power to resuscitate ‘an old dead memory’,” because I’ve never thought about it. Usually things I see and hear give life to distant memories, but taste and smell? Such a wonderful thing I’ll have to pay attention to now. Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Dear Denise It’s always such a pleasure to have a virtual chat with you and exchange ideas. Very pleased that I could share this bit of Proust. I still have a million things to discover about him, his work is so rich with so many resonances and connexions with other artists and writers I admire. I know it’s the kind of thing that you ‘get’, plus the fact that you’re so open to new perspectives on the world. May the force, Proustian and otherwise, be with you in your current writing explorations. Thanks so much for reading, commenting and encouraging ;-)xx

  3. So pleased to see you’ve returned to Proust. As you well know his great work was one of my specialist subjects for my degree. Your blog made me look up my original ( now 60+ years old ) Bibliothèque de la Pléiade copies of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. I can’t honestly say I shall reread them as my command of literary French is probably not what it once was and in further mitigation the print is VERY small! However he has had a massive and long lasting influence on my thinking over all the intervening years. Here at home we often refer to a Proustian moment, not necessarily related to taste but also to smells and sounds, even touch. Who isn’t transported back to the past in an instant, that feeling of recall and reawakening, by a sudden rush of one of our senses? It took Proust to fully explore that. Rereading your previous blog on Proust and Hockney, I saw you referred to the difficulties of translating Proust adequately. Whilst I never had to do that as all discussions were on the French text, nevertheless I have always thought that the well know translations into English never really captured the essence of the title. Is Remembrance of Times Past or even In Search of Lost Time just what Proust had in mind? Easy to criticise because I can’t come up with a better version! As always Laurette your blogs are thoughtful, erudite and beautifully written. Chapeau to you and Proust!

    1. Chère amie, thank you so much for taking the time to read, and replying with such an interesting comment. Yes, as I’ve said before I think you are the only person I know who has read ALL Proust – and now you mention the editions from that period, how did anyone ever read them? Such small, faint print. I now re-read him on the editions I have downloaded onto the Kindle from the wonderful site of Project Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org/) It’s an absolute treasure trove. I can see that next time we meet (soon??) we are going to have a long and doubtless hilarious, fascinating discussion about Proustian moments, the difficulties of translation, and how our former linguistic ease has now become arthritic! Merci encore for all your encouragement, hoping all well in the southxxx

    1. Thank you dear and faithful friend and commenter 😉 xx. The book…it’s still in the playpen. I’m struggling to write the ‘Acknowledgements’ page – don’t you find those hard?? Also trying to check exactly where I stand on quotes – the book is full of them, I’m poring over legal texts, any advice on that to prevent me being sued by some writer’s estate?? Aargh… what have you got cooking?

      1. So much going on in the world, it’s tempting to do another Vodka Wardrobe Book! Mrs Singh has got a framed picture of Rishi above the cash register

        1. Oh please please do! Just read your comment on the Hares and Hedges post, Rishi’s side-parting is going into MY next book if you don’t put it in yours! Hilarious…xxx

  4. Hi! When I was ten or so my family spent a summer in Seattle. The city was, to me, fascinating an exotic in every possible way from the flowering plants to the International District. I had never seen fuchsias or rhododendrons. Sedums, when seen for the first time, are definitely weird.
    But one of my memories is the delight I felt while watching Japanese paper flowers unfurl in a glass of water after a family trip to the Japanese equivalent of a dime store. Wonder of wonders!
    Thank you for bringing back a memory.

    1. Hi Laura, how nice to hear from you! Yes, it’s all about the memories… also really pleased to have a comment from someone who has actually seen the famous Japanese flowers. Thanks so much for sharing your experience of them, and the real exotic specimens in Seattle – I have one of those weird sebums in my garden 😉
      For readers who don’t know Laura’s wonderful book ‘The Dog Thief’, (writing as Jill Kearney) and others, check it out here:

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