Inspired by her mother-in-law, Joan Jefferies´ stories about her childhood in India and Burma in the 1920s and 1930s, Dinah Jefferies produces a historical novel filled with heartbreak, tension and mystery. At first glimpse, The Tea Planter´s Wife seems like yet another romantic novel, about intrigue and heartbreak, delicate women and absent husbands. The novel opens with Gwendolyn Hooper stepping off the steamboat that has taken her from her home in England to her husband´s plantation in Ceylon. Her delicate nature cannot handle the Eastern heat and her husband is late to pick her up, and when he does, he seems distant and not at all the loving romantic that Gwen recalls from their days together in England.
Gwen struggles to find her place among the other British ladies, the American in which her husband seeked comfort after his last wife´s death, her servants, and her sister- in- law, Verity. In spite of the novel´s disappointing start, where you are introduced to the stereotypical nature of a woman´s role at her husband´s plantation – a boring everyday life filled with yearning for more intimacy with her husband and lack of understanding for how the plantation is run – the novel takes an interesting turn when Gwen gives birth to twins, one of which she feels obliged to hide away as ‘A God-fearing Englishwoman does not give birth to a coloured child’. The decision to sen her daughter away greatly affects her health and her relationship with her husband, and in her quest to find an explanation to her unfortunate situation, she uncovers dark secrets and mysteries from the past.
What saves the novel from being just another book about just another relationship filled with clichés, is Jefferies´ ability to combine a story about love and self- discovery with an intriguing examination of historical events concerning the racial situation at tea plantations in the East, as well as diving into the consequences of the economical changes after the Depression and how they reached as far as Ceylon. Additionally, Jefferies takes great advantage of the setting in which the story takes place, and she describes the beautiful nature with an admirable awareness of details.
The Tea Planter´s Wife is an easy read and I found it to be a perfect relief from the overwhelming pressure of reading nothing but essay- related books and articles these days. The novels offers a welcoming escape from the looming deadlines, and even though the ending made me roll my eyes at the expectancy of such a romantic reconciliation, I also appreciated this portrayal of love as something honest and encouraging, something that will make sure that everything will be ok at the end.
Image: Charles T. Scowen