“The Tea Planter’s Wife is so much more than a conventional love story”
What I love about this book is its confident depiction of a vanished age. Set in the 1920s it is a period (just) within living memory, and yet the white tea-planters with their wives and their whole complex colonial-era society are as extinct now as are the Pharos. In a single generation, they have evaporated, never to return.
Author Dinah Jefferies was born in Malaysia and grew up there, so her depiction of life in Ceylon has an authentic ring.
Gwendolyn Hooper, her 19-year-old heroine, speaks for an empire-branded breed of gutsy young British women who left the security of England to embark on extraordinary adventures abroad. Not the back-packing, ‘lonely planet’ travels of today, gap-year kids constantly connected with the folks back home via internet and smartphones, and usually safely and predictably back home for good inside a year. Girls like Gwen married men who made their living and fortunes out in the colonies – or what until very recently had been colonies – and went out to join them, standing shoulder-to shoulder with their husbands to face down hardship, danger, disease, monsoon, drought, and not least the simmering and sometimes murderous resentment of locals.
In other words, The Tea Planter’s Wife is so much more than a conventional love story, with all its twists and turns and guilt and betrayal. It is a recognition that girls like Gwen had guts, and commitment, and a willingness to take risks. They were deeply impressive.
“A gripping, intelligent, and tropically infused read.”
Gwen, as Richard writes here, would today be a gap-year girl. But back in the 1920s she is a brand-new bride, stepping off a steamer in Ceylon to join her tea-planter husband, Laurence. He is a widower. She met and married him in England after a whirlwind romance and is powerfully in love and determined to be a good, supportive and enabling wife to her handsome new husband, both in the bedroom and with his work on the plantation.
But there is a serpent in paradise. The man she married has changed. His mood is fitful, precocious, unpredictable. Sometimes he is the laughing, loving person she fell head over heels for; but for much of the time he broods, and keeps his distance. Their sex life, deeply satisfying and enriching at first, has become sporadic and clumsy.
Something is very wrong.
Gwen begins to make unsettling discoveries in the house and grounds of Laurence’s plantation. A yellowing wedding dress in a musty trunk. A tiny grave, overgrown and abandoned; seemingly that of a child’s. Laurence refuses to answer Gwen’s questions and withdraws from her still further.
And then, a shaft of sunlight in the relationship: Gwen falls pregnant. Laurence is overjoyed, especially when twins are diagnosed.
But on the night Gwen suddenly goes into labour, with Laurence away from the house, she is presented with a dreadful dilemma; a choice she feels she must make without her husband’s knowledge. Can she keep such a powerful secret? If not, can Laurence possibly condone what she has done?
A gripping, intelligent, and tropically infused read.
Here are a selection of the reviews for The Tea Planters Wife
“Rich and incredibly evocative, The Tea Planter’s Wife is historical fiction at its very best. It’s just spellbinding”
The Sunday Express
“Jefferies captures all the exciting exoticism of colonial Ceylon, its fusion of masters and workers, rich and poor, cinnamon and jasmine, light and shade, but without losing sight of the inherent racism and decaying colonialism that make the political backdrop to this very human drama so palpably tense and dangerous”
Lancashire Evening Post