The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"Green Tea" (1869)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“Green Tea” was written by J. Sheridan Le Fanu and first appeared in All The Year Round (Oct. 23-Nov. 13 1869). Le Fanu (1814-1873) was a noted Irish poet, novelist, and author of short horror stories. He wrote widely, but it is “Carmilla,” along with “Green Tea,” for which he is best-known.

“Green Tea” is about the unfortunate Reverend Mr. Jennings. He is rather too tense and suffers from periodic mental break downs. In particular he has the habit of looking at the carpet as if following the movements of something which isn’t there. Doctor Hesselius, a physician, meets him and eventually gets him to discuss the problem. Four years ago Jennings had been concentrating hard on a book he was writing and had fallen into the habit of drinking two or three pots of tea every night as he wrote. This had the unfortunate effect of opening up Jennings’ “inner eye,” although he did not know that at the time. One evening, while riding on an omnibus, Jennings noticed “two small circular reflections...of a reddish light,”hovering in the ‘bus. The lights move around the ‘bus, and as Jennings concentrates on them he sees a black outline around them. The outline resolves itself into that of a “small black monkey, pushing its face forward in mimicry to meet mine; those were its eyes, and I now dimly saw its teeth grinning at me.”Nobody else on the bus can see the monkey, however, and when Jennings pushes his umbrella at it, the point of the umbrella goes through the monkey, which nonetheless quickly begins to terrify Jennings and inspire feelings of loathing and horror. He leaves the bus as soon as he can, but finds that the monkey is following him. Jennings goes to his home and decides to abstain from tea, but on sitting down in his drawing room the monkey enters the room and stands on top of a table and looks at him with its glowing eyes.

For three years’ time this “satanic captivity” continues. Jennings describes his tormentor in this way: “It is a small monkey, perfectly black. It had only one peculiarity–a character of malignity–unfathomable malignity. During the first year it looked sullen and sick. But this character of intense malice and vigilance was always underlying that surly languor.”3 It is not always with him; it sometimes leaves, first growing uneasy, then angry, then advancing on Jennings, and then jumping up the chimney and staying away for at least two weeks, sometimes as long as three months. Jennings sees a noted specialist, Doctor Harley, who is too much of a materialist to see the truth of what is plaguing Jennings, and Harley’s cure is no good. Eventually the monkey begins talking to Jennings, saying the most “dreadful blasphemies” and even urging him to commit awful deeds, like throwing himself down a mine shaft. Jennings feels himself helpless and places himself in the hands of Doctor Martin Hesselius, a German physician. Hesselius’ response is to urge him to look on his illness “strictly as one dependent on physical, though subtle physical causes,”4 and that God Himself had saved him from suicide. Hesselius’ analysis, based on his belief in some of the Swedenborgian precepts set forth earlier in the story, is that the monkey is a spirit escaped from Hell come to haunt Jennings, and that Hesselius can eventually dull Jennings’ inner eye so that he will not be able to see the monkey any longer:

I by no means despaired of Mr. Jennings’ case. He had himself remembered and applied, though in quite a mistaken way, the principle which I lay down in my Metaphysical Medicine, and which governs all such cases. I was about to apply it in earnest. I was profoundly interested, and very anxious to see and examine him while the “enemy” was actually present.5 

Hesselius does not tell Jennings this, however, instead just urging him to have faith and to send for him if the monkey returns. Hesselius than leaves to stay at an inn nearby, so that he can attend to Jennings as need be. Hesselius also warns Jennings’ man that Jennings is in a bad way and should be looked in upon frequently. Hesselius is in transit when a note from Jennings arrives for him: “It is here. You had not been an hour gone when it returned. It is speaking. It knows all that has happened. It knows everything–it knows you, and is frantic and atrocious. It reviles. I send you this. It knows every word I have written–I write....”6 By the time Hesselius makes it back to Jennings’ house, Jennings has cut his own throat. Hesselius attaches a epilogue to the story in the form of a letter to a former patient of his; in the letter he explains how he would have cured Jennings had he had time enough: “You are to remember that I had not even commenced to treat Mr. Jennings’ case. I have not any doubt that I should have cured him perfectly in eighteen months, or possibly it might have extended to two years.”7 

"Green Tea” is one of the most analyzed of all horror stories, and the analyses generally fall into one of two categories. The first, the religious, sees the monkey as a divine punishment for Jennings’ sins. The second, the psychological, has the monkey as the product of a neurosis or schizophrenia. These explanations are reductive. There is no textual evidence that Jennings is a sinner who would deserve such a ghastly punishment, and there is little in “Green Tea” which indicates that Jennings is anything more than shy. What’s worse about these explanations is that they miss the point, or one of them, of Le Fanu’s stories. As in “Schalken the Painter,” “Green Tea” presents a universe of meaninglessness, lacking in moral redemption, without easy solutions or explanations, and in which the guiltless, Jennings, are punished as much or more so than the guilty.

“Green Tea” has another similarity to “Schalken the Painter:” both have no redeeming lesson, no reassuring moral with which the reader can comfort themselves. This is part of the horror of the story: Jennings, a good man, is hounded to his death by a disembodied spirit of evil, and for no good reason. Hesselius’ narration and epilogue, in which he serenely dismisses his own mishandling of the case, does not help. He is magnificently callous about Jennings’ emotional agony, and was exactly the wrong sort of person Jennings should have consulted. In fact, the psychological aspect of the story, the piteous torment Jennings undergoes, is far more frightening than the may-or-may-not-exist monkey. Jennings is a soul in pain, and Hesselius’ unfeeling approach and statement about Jennings’ “hereditary suicidal mania” show him to be the Colonel Blimp of doctors.

Doctor Hesselius is often described as an early version of the occult detective, with some critics seeing him as the prototype for the occult detective and other critics seeing him as the first occult detective. This is incorrect. It is true that Hesselius is a kind of investigator of psychic and occult matters, but Hesselius differs significantly from his predecessors, like the titular doctor from Samuel Warren’s “The Diary of a Late Physician” (Blackwood’s, 1830-1837), and his successors, like E. & H. Heron’s Flaxman Low (see: The Flaxman Low Adventures)—not least in Hesselius’ lack of success. Hesselius is ultimately hapless and wrong-headed, so blinded by his own vanity and preconceptions that he is unable to effect any change or help others. Hesselius is not a protagonist; he is almost a secondary villain. Nor did Hesselius inspire any immediate imitations, the way that Flaxman Low and Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence (1908) did.

“Green Tea” is a complex horror tale that retains its power to unnerve.

Recommended Edition

Print: J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Green Tea and Other Ghost Stories. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2015.



1 J. Sheridan Le Fanu, “Green Tea,” In a Glass Darkly vol. 1 (London: R. Bentley, 1872), 50.

2 Le Fanu, “Green Tea,” 52.

3 Le Fanu, “Green Tea,” 60.

4 Le Fanu, “Green Tea,” 78.

5 Le Fanu, “Green Tea,” 83.

6 Le Fanu, “Green Tea,” 81-82.

7 Le Fanu, “Green Tea,” 92.