The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies is a beautiful book. I believe I first came to it because I had seen it on a recommended books list, and although it is slightly more modern than my usual choice, I really enjoyed this novel for its references to early 20th century fashion, to events of the time, but most of all, for its heart rending story. Apart from a prologue set in 1913, the main parts of this narrative take place in the mid-1920s to 30s. For those interested in historical fashion, there are plenty of references to the dropped waistlines and hairstyles of the 1920s, through to the butterfly sleeves and two piece suits of the 1930s.
With shadows of a gothic romance, this story concerns a young and naïve heroine, Gwendolyn, who has married a man much older than herself, and who has a dark and secretive past. The novel is set in Ceylon which is where Gwen’s husband, Laurence owns a tea plantation. Not having travelled nearly enough, I wondered whether the setting of the novel would put me off – I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to imagine what it was really like in Sri Lanka. But Dinah Jefferies does such a good – such an evocative – job of describing the scenery, the foliage, the colours, scents, sounds and the weather that whenever I took this novel out to read, I found myself utterly transported. Indeed, I think it’s made me want to travel more.
The characters in this novel are very compelling. Apart from the hero and heroine, there is Verity, Gwen’s petulant and unpleasant sister in law; Christina, a former flame of Laurence’s and Ravi – a charming and handsome Sinhalese man who remains enigmatic throughout. I have named just a few, but each one is carefully sculpted and thought out and, just like the setting, they are all very physical.
The plot to the story mainly revolves around Gwen’s introduction to her new life as a married woman in a foreign country. Having grown up in a privileged household in England, she is swept off her feet by the handsome and successful Laurence. Although it is clear from the start that the couple share a deep love, Gwen later remarks more than once that she was perhaps too young when she married him, especially in light of what has befallen her. She leaves her family and her home, and goes to live in Ceylon, where she has to get used to running her own household, dealing with new people and to the ways in which different people, races and cultures regard each other. This, on its own, provides an absorbing narrative, but it is after Gwen becomes pregnant that the plot really thickens and becomes darker, more compulsive and more affecting.
The Tea Planter’s Wife is – in places – not an easy read. It is emotional and there is a feeling when one reads it of its realism. There are certain writers whom the reader can trust not to do anything too upsetting; not to throw anything out there that is too unsettling. Not so with Dinah Jefferies. But it all fits; it is all believable and it all combines to create a truly absorbing, resonant and edifying novel.