“A sweeping tale this”
A sweeping tale this, wonderfully evocative of late-Victorian London and Colonial Africa. Jennifer McVeigh really has done her research; the detail of life at the height of empire more than 130 years ago is painted as clearly as if it passed only a decade ago. A provincial boy visiting a smart London home for the first time has never encountered gas-lamps before; he blows his out like a candle before retiring to bed and nearly blows up the household as a consequence.
McVeigh’s story centres on Frances Irvine. It is 1880, and Frances leads a sheltered, privileged life in the capital. Her father, an Irish self-made man of business, married into her mother’s wealthy family, much to their snobbish, prejudiced disapproval. But she is long-dead and Frances and her father live happily enough alone together in their large, comfortable London home. Well, alone apart from the servants, obviously.
Then, almost without warning, he dies. There are debts. There are bad investments. There are voracious creditors. With dizzying speed, a grieving Frances realises she has not just lost a beloved father; she has lost an entire lifestyle. Everything must be auctioned off and Frances faces destitution.
Her mother’s family refuse to take her in, but offer her a way out – of sorts. Either she moves to Manchester and earns her keep as a skivvy and nursemaid to one of her father’s poverty-stricken relatives, or she emigrates to the Cape – Africa – and marries an émigré; a childhood acquaintance who has long lusted after her, but for whom she has no love.
It is a bitter choice.
What struck me, as I moved through Jennifer McVeigh’s absorbing pages, was just how little power women had in late 19th century Victorian Britain. One of the greatest queens in the nation’s history may have been on the throne, but most women – even wealthy, upper-middle class ones like Frances – were the prisoners of their sex and – in her case – male relatives.
After her father’s death Frances goes to see her mother’s brother. If she hopes to be rescued and taken in to the bosom of his family, she is in for a shock. Her uncle is determined to farm her out as a servant to distant relatives, or pack her off to Africa and marriage to an ambitious family friend. Anything to be rid of her – and she realises her only options are the ones he deigns to offer her. She is an importunate beggar at his table.
Of course, Frances opts to travel to the other side of the world, and take her chances under a southern sun. What awaits her there is the stuff of really rich, satisfying and thrilling novels like this one.
There are two men. One is driven by cold ambition; the other is an unfashionable idealist. There are great riches to be won in the colony – or the promise of them. Frances’s destiny seems to lie in Africa’s stupendously valuable diamond mines – but there, she discovers a terrible lust for wealth and a ruthless determination to keep the mines operating, whatever the human cost.
Yet again, Frances has a choice to make, with potentially shattering consequences. Indeed, this is a book about choices – there is even one on the final page of The Fever Tree which Frances must make.
I’d become very fond of her by then. But I can’t reveal whether Frances’s final choice is the right one. Anyway, that’s for you to decide.