The Tea Planter's Wife
Growing up, I was completely addicted to the novels of M.M. Kaye, Mary Stewart, and E.M. Forster. Their books were all about the British Colonial period and took place in exotic locales, extoling the mannerisms and lifestyle of an era long gone by. In The Tea Planter’s Wife Dinah Jefferies does a magnificent job of recapturing that era with grace and warmth, placing us firmly in a lush, tropical atmosphere filled with exotic birdcall, and air scented with cinnamon, sandalwood, and jasmine – and underlying it all, a subtle but striking scent of death and decay.
It had been a whirlwind courtship. Thirty-seven and widowed Ceylon Plantation owner Laurence Hooper had been the last man nineteen year old Gwen’s parents would have wanted for her, but she had been completely captivated from the moment she met him. While he had offered to stay in England to appease her family and give her the life she had been brought up to expect, Gwen was insistent: his heart was in Ceylon and that is where she would make her home. When our story starts, Laurence has been in Ceylon for several weeks, taking care of some issues he had wanted ironed out before Gwen arrives. She is exuberantly watching for him from the deck of the ship, excited to catch a glimpse of her new husband as she enters her new homeland. Ominously, Laurence is nowhere to be found.
His arrival, late and full of apologies, seems to set the new tone for their relationship. While Laurence seems to say all the right things and offer all the right answers, a frustrated Gwen finds herself sleeping alone and wondering where the passionate man she had known in England has gone. The plantation house and grounds, so far removed from what she is used to, are full of perilous problems. Helping a young worker with a damaged foot gets her a resounding “talking to” from Laurence and puts her on the bad side of the plantation manager. Exploring her new home leads only to clues – locked doors, a mysterious grave with the name Thomas Benjamin but no date or relevant family data to explain its presence in her yard, a trunk full of beautifully preserved baby clothes – to a life and past that Laurence refuses to discuss with her.
Adding insult to injury, Gwen finds herself even further down Laurence’s priority list when his sister Verity comes to stay. It is clear to the reader from the outset that Verity will be trouble. A liar with a nasty habit of clinging to her brother, she makes Gwen’s attempts to win Laurence’s affections back even more difficult. Determined to change her marriage from a polite, companionable charade to the passionate union it began as, Gwen plans a grand seduction for the night of the Golf Club’s annual ball. The events of that night and the repercussions from them are to haunt her for years to come.
While reading this book I was greatly reminded of the historical portions of The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig. In that novel, Addie’s overwhelming love for Frederick is the impetus for the tale. In this story it is Gwen’s love for Laurence and her son Hugh that drive the narrative. Secrets, scandals, betrayals and lies are all wound up in the desperate plays Gwen makes to keep her family united and strong in a world that is rapidly – and dangerously – shifting and slipping through their fingers.
It is just that strength and determination that make this book so very readable. The odyssey of Gwen’s growth, from eager young bride to strong, resilient matriarch is the underlying thread that weaves the fascinating history and captivating character studies into a sensuous, sumptuous tale of romance and heartache. I was firmly in her corner throughout the entire story, cheering for her, crying for her, angry for her as she faced and overcame each new challenge. This epic is very character driven; without Gwen’s growth the read would have been interminable and irritating. With it, even when she is just taking baby steps, it is addictive.
Another strong factor for this book is the look it takes at marriage. While romance often utilizes a rose colored glasses approach to matrimony, The Tea Planter’s Wife is all about the reality of it. Gwen and Laurence start their union with Laurence holding back a great deal of information from Gwen. That deceit worms its way into their every interaction and it is not long before Gwen begins to mirror Laurence’s behavior, keeping to herself things she would rather he not know. While they deeply love each other, their trust is limited. Adding to Gwen’s reticence is an imbalance of power between them; divorce will have a far more profound effect on her than on Laurence. She won’t walk out the door an equal but a loser. Gwen also struggles with the fact that she is both younger than Laurence, making her less experienced and unfamiliar with Ceylon while he grew up there. She doggedly wears away at these disadvantages, though it takes year for them to approach anything near an honest, balanced relationship.
While Gwen is rather forward thinking and relatable, Laurence is a man firmly steeped in his time. He takes a very patronizing tone with his wife, has an intractable will and a tendency to lay down the law rather than discussing things with his partner in life, and has the British Colonial attitude of natural superiority to all those around him that was so common in that era. When we learn his full history, it is hard to like him. The author does a magnificent job, though, of making him rather sympathetic; showing us how he is both a product of his time and an antidote to it. Laurence is no revolutionary but he has taken steps to distance himself from his father’s time of flagrant native abuse. He builds a school for his worker’s children and tries hard to be a fair and equitable employer. He is not so much a believer in the system as he is a product of it and that gives us needed space to accept him while rejecting much of what he stands for.
Which brings me to a warning: this novel requires an open mind to read. The subject of racism and the overwhelming underlying misogyny might disturb some readers. The fact that there is no great moment of vindication for some rather dismaying events might prove to be too great an irritant to those who want perpetrators of these attitudes sternly criticized and denounced. While the author in no way condones the attitudes that were so prevalent during that era, she doesn’t condemn the characters that hold them either. In very subtle ways she lets us know that what happened in that time and place was all kinds of wrong and led to all kinds of horrible problems but she doesn’t act as the voice of God in the text, using mouth-piece characters to spell that out for us. This worked for me but I know some readers may require a greater reckoning.
Beautifully written, with strongly compelling themes, richly drawn characters and a heart-rending mystery at its center, The Tea Planter’s Wife is an engrossing tale of love in another time and place. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical novels flush with period detail and vibrant in their rendering of setting.