Gwendolyn is 19 years old when she marries Laurence Hooper, the owner of a tea plantation in Ceylon, an island nation south of India now named Sri Lanka. Jeffries provides a compelling, sometimes painful glimpse of the mores and assumptions of the heirs of the UK Empire at the outset of the peasants’ rebellion led by Ghandi. Though a few small glitches occasionally distract, this is a strong piece of fiction that fulfilled the writer’s mission admirably. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House-Crown Publishing for the DRC, which I received free in return for an honest review. The book is on sale today.
The protagonist is not a sympathetic one, and those that need a main character they can love should stop even considering this book right now. But some of literature’s most interesting characters are flawed ones, and the development of this one within the constraints of what Caucasians in the UK expected their lives to resemble at this time, and within the even greater constraints of material self-interest, is fascinating. I found myself wanting to haul this character out to the cheese room and tell her that all other women are not her enemies. She has almost nothing required of her by the easy life into which she has married, and as a local gossip points out, Gwen has “never had to fight for anything”.
Gwen has a passel of problems, however, some real, some imagined. She sees her sister-in-law as a rival not only for her husband’s affections and loyalty, but also for his fortune. She sees his wealthy former girlfriend and business associate, Christina, trying to pull him back into a relationship. What about MacGregor, the surly foreman of the laborers? What about Savi Ravasinghe? By the time the book was halfway done, I found myself alternately scolding her for making enemies everywhere and then, a heartbeat later, screeching at her to beware.
Ultimately I didn’t think I was impressed by this story until I looked back on my notes. I had highlighted nearly every warning bell and red herring and made little notations like, “Noooo!” Obviously this story engaged me all the way through. At times I was frustrated, but that was the author’s intention. At no time was I bored. And given the level of suspense and a certain amount of mystery, I realized that one genre tag had gone missing. I added this title to my “mystery” shelf, because there is so much unknown information that will keep the reader up late as well as any whodunit.
The author makes a few missteps that break the spell of time and place momentarily. At one point there is an argument between two of the characters about Ravasinghe, and one accuses the other of race prejudice, while the other responds that it “has nothing to do with the color of his skin!” This is either ignorance or revisionism. In the 1920s and 1930s racism was at a fever pitch. Colonialists based their system of rule partially on paternalism, which overtly declared that the “lesser” races needed the great white fathers to look after them, employ them, house and feed them. In the USA, Jim Crow and the Klan were at their all time most powerful; African-Americans were afraid to walk on the same sidewalks in the South, and in the North they nevertheless kept to their own neighborhoods to the greatest degree possible. Biracial marriage was an invitation to ostracism or even death, and less than one percent of the Caucasian population in any English speaking nation would even pretend that such ostracism wasn’t about race.
In fact, US President William Howard Taft declared that the day would dawn when the United States flag would fly at “equidistant points” that would include North America, South America, and Central America in fact rather than merely economically, and he told the American people that God had willed this due to the moral and racial superiority of Americans—by which he meant Caucasian Americans. In the East, look what the peasantry went through just to get the vote! No, no white folks in the British Empire or USA were going to defend themselves against charges of racism; racism was assumed to be the will of God.
There’s another “oopsie” moment when the roof of a large building catches fire and the fire is put out with a garden hose and pots of water. No.
But all of this is mitigated by the expert manner in which the author describes the setting, having had a family member that lived on such a plantation, or a similar one. Part of the reason I wanted to read this DRC is the fact that it was set in Ceylon, and here Jeffries does not disappoint. I was afraid the ending would either be saccharine or unspeakably brutal, but she deftly avoids both extremes and comes up with a surprising and believable alternative.
So in the end, I recommend this book to you. It’s not always easy for some of us to look in the mirror, or at the mirror of one’s ancestors, but everyone comes from somewhere, and the playing field still isn’t level. Nobody can fix what’s wrong today without knowing where the trouble came from. The Tea Planter’s Wife is a historical treasure in this regard; Jeffries is to be congratulated.