A story of guilt, betrayal and secrets, set in colonial era Ceylon.
The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies begins in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) in 1913, with a scene showing a woman leaving a house, cradling a baby with one arm. She had left a letter behind and I wondered what was in that letter and about the significance of her choosing to wear her favourite dress – a vivid sea green dress she wore the night she was certain the baby was conceived. It didn’t become clear until nearly the end of the book.
Move on twelve years to 1923, when 19 year old Gwendolyn Hooper arrives at the same house, the home of a tea planter, Laurence, an older man, a widower she had met and married in England after a whirlwind romance. The house is set in beautiful flower-filled gardens, sloping down to a shining silver lake and rising up behind the lake a tapestry of green velvet made up of rows of tea bushes where women in brightly coloured saris were plucking the tea leaves. Gwen is enchanted by the scene and is eagerly anticipating her new life with Laurence.
But this is not the idyllic life she expected – there are secrets, locked doors and a caste system and culture that is alien to her. Laurence, no longer as passionate about her as he had been in England, leaves her alone more than she would like. But with the help of one of the servants, Naveen and Savi Ravasinghe, a Sinhalese artist, she begins to settle into life on the plantation, even though it’s obvious that Laurence disapproves of Savi. In turn, Gwen is not happy about the way a glamorous American woman, Christina flirts with Laurence.
There is a mystery, too, surrounding the death of Caroline, Laurence’s first wife and when she finds a tiny overgrown grave no one wants to talk about it. The arrival of Laurence’s younger sister, Verity, only adds to Gwen’s problems – she’s bitter and twisted and it looks as though she has moved in permanently. So, when Gwen becomes pregnant she hopes that will improve her relationship with Laurence, especially as he is delighted that she is expecting twins. This is in many ways such a sad and tragic story – none more so than what happened when the babies were born and Gwen is faced with a terrible dilemma, one that she feels she must keep hidden from Laurence.
This is historical fiction set in a time and place that I know very little about, but I thought the setting in Ceylon, was beautifully described, exotic and mysterious. It was a time of unrest too, with political and racial tension between the Sinhalese and Tamil workers and the British plantation owners. Gwen was horrified by the living conditions of the plantation workers but her attempts to improve them and provide basic medical treatment weren’t very successful. I thought the portrayal of Gwen’s character was well done, a young woman with a charming husband, older than her and initially their relationship reminded me of Max and his second wife in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, but the similarity ended there as the story developed.
In her Author’s Note at the end of the book (don’t read it before you read the book as it gives away the main secret) Dinah Jefferies explains that the idea for this novel came from her mother-in-law who told her stories passed down by her family, which included tea planters in Ceylon and also in India in the 1920s and early 1930s. They led her to think about the attitudes to race and the typical prejudices of that time – in particular about how such attitudes and assumptions could spell tragedy for a tea planter’s wife who lived an extraordinarily privileged life. She also includes a list of books that she had found useful whilst researching her book.
I’m not sure that I want to read any more of Dinah Jefferies’s books as although I did enjoy The Tea Planter’s Wife and it held my interest to the end, I also thought much of it was predictable and in places a bit too sentimentally melodramatic for me.
- Paperback: 418 pages
- Publisher: Penguin (3 Sept. 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780241969557
- ISBN-13: 978-0241969557
- Source: a library book
- My Rating: 3.5*