The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies, is a mesmerising tale of the damage that secrets can cause within even the most loving of marriages. Set in Ceylon (now the nation of Sri Lanka) between the first and second world wars it portrays the differing attitudes of the colonists and natives during the final decades of British rule. However, whilst the politics simmer in the background, this is a story of people, of the precarious nature of relationships, and of the tragedies resulting from entrenched prejudices.
Gwendolyn Cooper is nineteen years old when she travels alone to Ceylon following her marriage to Laurence, a widower who owns and runs a vast tea plantation in the hills. They are deeply in love but have only known each other for a few months. As Gwen explores her new home she discovers clues to a past that Laurence has not disclosed. His friends in the colony include an American widow, Christina, who treats Laurence with a proprietal air. His sister Verity’s passive aggression undermines Gwen’s attempts to establish herself as mistress of their home at every turn.
When Gwen discovers that she is pregnant all appear to be delighted. Gwen desires nothing more than to be a good wife and mother. However, complications during the birth mean that she must make a heart-breaking choice which she cannot reveal to her husband. This moment changes her life, threatens her status in society, and takes a terrible toll on her health.
In the years that follow Gwen must learn to live with the consequences of her decision. Laurence has been badly affected by the western world’s financial problems, and the local population’s growing discontent with colonial rule threatens their comfortable way of life. The dour estate manager is struggling to deal with these changes and appears to blame Gwen for her unwillingness to condone the societal hierarchies he imposes. Verity and Christina continue to be thorns in her side.
As the secrets that Gwen and Laurence keep begin to unravel, Gwen questions if the price she has paid to hold her marriage together has been too high.
Stories of love, marriage and secrets are not my usual fare but this author’s writing raises her books above the crowd. Her settings are brought vividly to life with her descriptions of the sounds, smells and colour of the country and its people. In reading her words I was transported to Ceylon. Likewise each of her characters, main and supporting, are presented fully rounded. I empathised with their desires and fears. However appalling, I could understand not just their dilemmas but their reasoning.
I had guessed at the denouement early on but it was still poignant. Reading this book felt like living Gwen’s life, it was the journey through the pages that I enjoyed. I can understand why this book has become a best seller.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.