In Ceylon, between the First and Second World Wars, pre-Independence, a young wife arrives from England to join her new husband on his tea plantation. The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies is a portrayal of an island riven by racial differences, a marriage riven by an inability to be honest, concluding that in the end skin colour should not matter.
As her ship from England docks in Colombo, Gwen Hooper feels faint and is helped by a charming dark-skinned man. This is our introduction to Savi Ravasinghe, a pivotal character, a Sinhalese portrait painter who paints the rich in Ceylon, England and America. At this first meeting, Gwen demonstrates her naivety of racial tensions between Ceylon’s native Sinhalese population and the Tamil workers brought to the island by the British tea planters to work on the plantations. Soon after, trying to help an injured worker, she tramples over old sensitivities and the Raj way of doing things. I found Gwen both fascinating and a little irritating. The story is told totally from her viewpoint and, for me, her husband Laurence is rather remote. When Gwen gives birth to twins, the first, a boy, is christened Hugh. The second is a dark-skinned girl. In fear of accusations of infidelity with Savi, and rejection by her husband, Gwen panics. Her ayah Naveena takes the child to be cared for in a nearby village. Conveniently, the birth took place with only the ayah present so secrecy is assured. But Gwen lives on, haunted by her lies to her husband and her failings to her daughter.
This story hangs on the premise that Gwen feels unable to question her husband about the death of his first wife and child. When we finally get the answer in the last few pages, it seems obvious. Except of course the book is set in the late 1920s early 1930s so though obvious to a modern reader, it would not be widely known or understood at that time. To say more would give away the plot. This aside, I enjoyed this fragrant tale of the Hooper tea plantation, the difficulties faced after the Wall Street Crash, the changing times, the fashions and foods. There is a particularly unlikeable sister-in-law Verity, American vamp Christina, and bright and charming cousin-from-home Fran. The story felt alive in Ceylon. Jefferies cultivates a believable world from another time with the scents of cinnamon, sandalwood and jasmine combined with bullock dung, grease and rotting fish, servants dressed in white, and glamorous balls danced to the music of jazz. In contrast the short section in New York when Laurence and Gwen meet bankers and advertising men to launch the Hoopers Tea brand, seems remote and it was a relief to return to the lushness and complications of Ceylon.
Read more about Dinah Jefferies’ other books at her website.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Beneath the fragrance of Ceylon lies dung: THE TEA PLANTER’S WIFE by @DinahJefferies #bookreview http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2Rh via @SandraDanby