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A Victorian family is left high and dry when its lord and master sails off to China to bring back the first tea of the season. Absent for six months at a time, he never ceases to dominate the lives of his wife and children.

The yearly race to be the first home with the tea is underway, with every ship vying for both kudos and the prize money. The year is 1866, and as both Ariel and Taeping are surging up the channel, Caroline, the second daughter of the oppressed family, begins her own voyage of discovery.