Richard and Judy Review: The Tea Planter’s Wife – Dinah Jefferies

Richard and Judy Review: The Tea Planter’s Wife – Dinah Jefferies

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“The Tea Planter’s Wife is so much more than a conventional love story”

Richard’s review

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.”

Judy’s review

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.

Press reviews

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

2 thoughts on “Richard and Judy Review: The Tea Planter’s Wife – Dinah Jefferies

  1. What a wonderfully evocative read! Ideal for a booktrail since it takes you on a journey to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and to the heart of a tea plantation. Young Gwen goes there to live with her new husband and she is soon faced with having to adapt to the local customs and understanding the labour struggles. She is then faced with a very difficult decision and she feels all alone and afraid. I read this with interest for it must have been an scary situation for a young girl to be in back then and unusual – no spoilers here but it’s very interesting! The setting is lush and the words sing from the page. Oh you will have such a colourful and aromatic picture in your head as you read this.Talk about a novel transporting you to a new time and place! Utterly enchanting writing – poetic and captivating. Can not recommend enough.

  2. The Tea Planter’s Wife Dinah Jeffries
    This is a book about Race and how following social mores damaged every relationship in the story. White people mix only with whites, and shun the local people. The story is set in Ceylon in the 1920s, the protagonists were the family of White Brits working and owning a tea plantation, they were kindly, enlightened and generous, making social developments by creating better quality housing, and building a school and a clinic. Corporal punishment of the tea pickers is part of the story, some of the characters were against harming employees in that way. These were good people.

    But they could not step outside their social norms regarding Race.

    The story stays with you when you put the book down, as you wonder how these main characters felt — they are white people who can only mix and marry other whites, and the two races are kept very much separate. This separation poisons relationships, and you feel for the people who are hurt and, in some cases, trapped.

    This is a good plot, it is quite detailed and carries you along with it. It does hold British Raj up to scrutiny, and points the weaknesses that come from such social rigidity. Without wanting to provide a spoiler for the new reader, all family relationships are spoiled by such mores. Servants run the home and live with the family all their lives, and share all the ups and downs of the white family, births, childhood illnesses, they watch the children growing up then getting married. But the servants, who have been so involved in caring, are kept at a distance and never given complete equality.

    I have to say that I felt that the written style is heavy and not easy to follow. The first chapter of the book is difficult to get into, and the way the author has written it does not help. There are some scenes where people have some difficulties, and are dealing with their not insignificant problems; you are full of sympathy for the characters, but the writing does get in the way.

    I agree with Richard and Judy above, about the strong pioneering spirit of these women in this period , who went to the other side of the world to live and work in such difficult conditions. Our heroine was a business woman and starts cheesemaking, the business of her family in England, but using buffalo milk. And Dinah Jeffries also gives us the life of sisters, bored older wives, tennis players, bridge groups, and women’s tea afternoons, where life is not so full.

    Is this a story worth telling? Yes, definitely, you will enjoy it.

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