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The Tea Planter's Wife: A Novel

The Tea Planter's Wife: A Novel

by Dinah Jefferies


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#1 INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER • 1920s Ceylon: A young Englishwoman marries a charming tea plantation owner and widower, only to discover he's keeping terrible secrets about his past, including what happened to his first wife, that lead to devastating consequences

In this lush, atmospheric page-turner, nineteen-year-old Gwendolyn Hooper has married Laurence, the seductively mysterious owner of a vast tea empire in colonial Ceylon, after a whirlwind romance in London. When she joins him at his faraway tea plantation, she’s filled with hope for their life together, eager to take on the role of mistress of the house, learn the tea business, and start a family. But life in Ceylon is not what Gwen expected. The plantation workers are resentful, the neighbors and her new sister-in-law treacherous. Gwen finds herself drawn to a local Sinhalese man of questionable intentions and worries about her new husband’s connection to a brash American businesswoman. But most troubling are the unanswered questions surrounding Laurence’s first marriage. Why won’t anyone discuss the fate of his first wife? Who’s buried in the unmarked grave in the forest? As the darkness of her husband’s past emerges, Gwen is forced to make a devastating choice, one that could destroy their future and Gwen’s chance at happiness.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451495983
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/20/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 174,923
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Dinah Jefferies was born in Malaysia and moved to England at the age of nine. The Tea Planter's Wife is her US debut.

Read an Excerpt

Part One

The New Life


Twelve Years Later: Ceylon, 1925

With her straw sun hat in one hand, gwen leaned against the salty railings and glanced down again. She’d been watching the shifting color of the sea for an hour, tracing the shreds of paper, the curls of orange peel, and the leaves drifting by. Now that the water had changed from deepest turquoise to dingy gray, she knew it couldn’t be long. She leaned a little further over the rail to watch a piece of silver fabric float out of sight.

When the ship’s horn sounded—loud, prolonged, and very close—she jumped, lifting her hand from the rail in surprise. The little satin purse, a farewell present from her mother, with its delicate beaded drawstring, slid over her hand. She gasped and reached out, but saw it was too late as the purse dropped into the ocean, swirled in the dirty water, and then sank. And with it her money, and Laurence’s letter with his instructions folded neatly inside.

She looked about her and felt another stirring of the unease she hadn’t been able to shake off since leaving England. You can’t get much further from Gloucestershire than Ceylon, her father had said. As his voice echoed in her head, she was startled when she heard another voice, distinctly male but with an unusually honeyed tone.

“New to the East?”

Accustomed to the fact that her violet eyes and pale complexion always attracted attention, she turned to look and was forced to squint into bright sunlight.

“I . . . Yes. I’m joining my husband. We’re only recently married.” She took a breath, just stopping herself from blurting out the whole story.

A broad-shouldered man of medium height, with a strong nose and glittering caramel eyes, gazed back at her. His black brows, curling hair, and dark polished skin stopped her in her tracks. She stared, feeling a little unnerved, until he smiled in an open sort of way.

“You’re lucky. By May the sea would normally be a great deal wilder. A tea planter, I’m guessing,” he said. “Your husband.”

“How did you know?”

He spread his hands. “There is a type.”

She glanced down at her beige-colored dress: drop-waisted, but with a high collar and long sleeves. She didn’t want to be a “type,” but realized that if it weren’t for the chiffon scarf knotted at her neck, she might appear drab.

“I saw what happened. I’m sorry about your purse.”

“It was stupid of me,” she said, and hoped she wasn’t blushing.

Had she been a little more like her cousin, Fran, she might have engaged him in conversation, but instead, imagining the short exchange to be over, she turned back to watch as the ship slipped closer to Colombo.

Above the shimmering city, a cobalt sky stretched into distant purple hills; trees gave shade and the air was filled with the cries of gulls as they swooped over the small boats massing on the water. The thrill of doing something so different bubbled through her. She had missed Laurence and, for a moment, allowed herself to dream of him. Dreaming was effortless, but the reality was so exciting it set butterflies alight in her stomach. She took a deep breath of what she’d expected would be salty air and marveled at the scent of something stronger than salt.

“What is that?” she said as she turned to look at the man, who, she rightly sensed, had not shifted from the spot.

He paused and sniffed deeply. “Cinnamon and probably sandalwood.”

“There’s something sweet.”

“Jasmine flowers. There are many flowers in Ceylon.”

“How lovely,” she said. But even then, she knew it was more than that. Beneath the seductive scent there was an undercurrent of something sour.

“Bad drains too, I’m afraid.”

She nodded. Perhaps that was it.

“I haven’t introduced myself. My name is Savi Ravasinghe.”

“Oh.” She paused. “You’re . . . I mean, I haven’t seen you at dinner.”

He pulled a face. “Not a first-class passenger is what you mean, I think. I’m Sinhalese.”

She hadn’t noticed until now that the man stood on the other side of the rope that separated the classes. “Well, it’s very nice to meet you,” she said, pulling off one of her white gloves. “I’m Gwendolyn Hooper.”

“Then you must be Laurence Hooper’s new wife.”

She fingered the large Ceylon sapphire of her ring and nodded in surprise. “You know my husband?”

He inclined his head. “I have met your husband, yes, but now I’m afraid I must take my leave.”

She held out her hand, pleased to have met him.

“I hope you’ll be very happy in Ceylon, Mrs. Hooper.”

When he ignored her hand, she let it fall. He pressed his palms together in front of his chest, fingers pointing upward, and bowed very slightly.

“May your dreams be fulfilled . . .” With closed eyes, he paused for a moment, then walked off.

Gwen felt a little disconcerted by his words and the odd departing gesture, but with more pressing matters on her mind, she shrugged. She really must try to remember Laurence’s lost instructions.

Luckily, first class disembarked first, and that meant her. She thought of the man again and couldn’t help but feel fascinated. She’d never met anyone so exotic and it would have been much more fun if he’d stayed to keep her company—though, of course, he could not.

Nothing had prepared her for the shock of Ceylon’s scorching heat, nor its clashing colors, nor the contrast between the bright white light and the depth of the shade. Noise bombarded her: bells, horns, people, and buzzing insects surrounding her, swirling and eddying, until she felt as if she were being tipped about, like one of the pieces of flotsam she’d been watching earlier. When the background noise was eclipsed by loud trumpeting, she spun round to stare at the timber wharf, mesmerized by the sight of an elephant raising its trunk in the air and bellowing.

When watching an elephant had become quite normal, she braved the Port Authority building, made arrangements for her trunk, then sat on a wooden bench in the hot steamy air with nothing but her hat to shade her, and with which, from time to time, she swatted the clusters of flies that crawled along her hairline. Laurence had promised to be at the dockside, but so far there was no sign of him. She tried to recall what he’d said to do in the event of an emergency, and spotted Mr. Ravasinghe again, making his way out of the second-class hatch in the side of the ship. By avoiding looking at the man, she hoped to hide her flush of embarrassment at her predicament, and turned the other way to watch the haphazard loading of tea chests onto a barge at the other end of the docks.

The smell of drains had long since overpowered the spicy fragrance of cinnamon and now mingled with other rank odors: grease, bullock dung, rotting fish. And as the dockside filled with more disgruntled passengers being besieged by traders and hawkers peddling gemstones and silk, she felt sick with nerves. What would she do if Laurence didn’t come? He had promised. She was only nineteen, and he knew she’d never been further from Owl Tree Manor than a trip or two to London with Fran. Her spirits sank. It was too bad her cousin hadn’t been able to travel out with her, but straight after the wedding Fran had been called away by her solicitor, and though Gwen would have entrusted Laurence with her life, all things considered, she couldn’t help feeling a bit upset.

A swarm of seminaked brown-skinned children flitted among the crowd, offering bundles of cinnamon sticks, and with enormous, imploring eyes, begged for rupees. A child who couldn’t have been more than five pulled out a bundle for Gwen. She held it to her nose and sniffed. The child spoke, but it was gobbledegook to Gwen, and sadly she had no rupees to give the urchin, nor any English money either, now.

She stood and walked about. There was a brief gust of wind, and from somewhere in the distance came a troubling sound—boom, boom, boom. Drums, she thought. Loud, but not quite loud enough to identify a regular beat. She didn’t wander far from the small case she’d left by the bench, and when she heard Mr. Ravasinghe call out, she felt her forehead bead with perspiration.

“Mrs. Hooper. You cannot leave your case unguarded.”

She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “I was keeping my eye on it.”

“People are poor and opportunistic. Come, I’ll carry your case and find you somewhere cooler to wait.”

“You’re very kind.”

“Not at all.” He held her by the elbow with just his fingertips and forged a path through the Port Authority building. “This is Church Street. Now look over there—just at the edge of Gordon Gardens is the Suriya, or tulip tree as it is known.”

She glanced at the tree. Its fat trunk folded deeply like a woman’s skirt, and a canopy studded with bright orange bell-shaped flowers offered an oddly flaming kind of shade.

“It will provide a degree of cool, though with the afternoon heat coming on so strong, and the monsoon not yet arrived, you will find little relief.”

“Really,” she said. “There’s no need for you to stay with me.”

He smiled and his eyes narrowed. “I cannot leave you here alone, a penniless stranger in our city.”

Glad of his company, she smiled back.

They walked across to the spot he’d indicated, and she spent another hour leaning against the tree, perspiring and dripping beneath her clothes, and wondering what she’d let herself in for by agreeing to live in Ceylon. The noise had amplified, and though he stood close, hemmed in by the crowds, he still had to shout to be heard.

“If your husband has not arrived by three, I hope you won’t mind my suggesting you retire to the Galle Face Hotel to wait. It is airy, there are fans and soft drinks, and you will be infinitely cooler.”

She hesitated, reluctant to leave the spot. “But how will Laurence know I’m there?”

“He’ll know. Anyone British of any standing goes to the Galle Face.”

She glanced at the imposing façade of the Grand Oriental. “Not there?”

“Definitely not there. Trust me.”

In the fierce brightness of the afternoon, the wind blew a cloud of grit into her face, sending tears streaming down her cheeks. She blinked rapidly, then rubbed her eyes, hoping she really could trust him. Perhaps he was right. A person could die in this heat.

A short distance from where she stood, a tight bundle had formed beneath rows and rows of fluttering white ribbons strung across the street, and a man in brown robes, making a repetitive high-pitched sound, stood in the center of a group of colorful women. Mr. Ravasinghe saw Gwen watching.

“The monk is pirith chanting,” he said. “It is often required at the deathbed to ensure a good passing. Here I think it is because great evil may have transpired at that spot, or at the very least a death. The monk is attempting to purify the place of any remaining malignancy by calling for the blessings of the gods. We believe in ghosts in Ceylon.”

“You are all Buddhists?”

“I myself am, but there are Hindus and Muslims too.”

“And Christians?”

He inclined his head.

When by three there was still no sign of Laurence, the man held out a hand and took a step away. “Well?”

She nodded, and he called out to one of the rickshaw men, who wore very little more than a turban and a greasy-looking loincloth.

She shuddered at how thin the man’s brown naked back was. “I’m surely not going in that?”

“Would you prefer a bullock cart?”

She felt herself redden as she glanced at the heap of oval orange fruits piled up in a cart that had huge wooden wheels and a matted canopy.

“I do beg your pardon, Mrs. Hooper. I shouldn’t tease. Your husband uses carts to transport the tea chests. We would actually ride in a small buggy. Just the one bullock and with a shady palm-leaf hood.”

She pointed at the orange fruits. “What are those?”

“King coconut. Only for the juice. Are you thirsty?”

Even though she was, she shook her head. On the wall just behind Mr. Ravasinghe, a large poster showed a dark-skinned woman balancing a wicker basket on her head and wearing a yellow and red sari. She had bare feet and gold bangles on her ankles and she wore a yellow headscarf. mazzawattee tea, the poster proclaimed. Gwen’s hands grew clammy and a flood of sickening panic swept through her. She was very far from home.

“As you can see,” Mr. Ravasinghe was saying, “cars are few and far between, and a rickshaw is certainly faster. If you are unhappy, we can wait, and I’ll try to obtain a horse and carriage. Or, if it helps, I can accompany you in the rickshaw.”

At that moment, a large black car came hooting its way through the crowd of pedestrians, bicyclists, carts, and carriages, only narrowly missing numerous sleeping dogs. Laurence, she thought with a surge of relief, but when she looked in through the window of the passing vehicle, she saw it contained only two large middle-aged European women. One turned to look at Gwen, her face a picture of disapproval.

Right, Gwen thought, galvanized into action, a rickshaw it is.

A cluster of thin palms stood waving in the breeze outside the Galle Face Hotel, and the building itself sided the ocean in a very British way. When Mr. Ravasinghe had given her the oriental manner of salutation and a very warm smile, she was sorry to see him go but walked past the two curved staircases and settled herself to wait in the relative cool of the Palm Lounge. She instantly felt at home and closed her eyes, pleased to have a small respite from the almost total invasion of her senses. Her rest didn’t last long. If Laurence were to arrive now, she was only too aware of the sorry state she was in, and that was not the impression she wanted to create. She sipped her cup of Ceylon tea, and then looked across the tables and chairs dotted about the polished teak floor. In one corner a discreet sign pinpointed the location of the ladies’ powder room.

In the sweet-smelling, multiple-mirrored room, she splashed the repeated image of her face and applied a dab of Après L’Ondée, which luckily had been safely stowed in her small case and not in her drowned purse. She felt sticky, with sweat running down under her arms, but pinned up her hair again so that it coiled neatly at the nape of her neck. Her hair was her crowning glory, Laurence said. It was dark, long, and ringleted when unpinned. When she’d mentioned she was considering having it cut short like Fran’s, flapper style, he’d looked horrified and tugged loose a curl at the back of her neck, then leaned down and rubbed his chin on top of her head.

Reading Group Guide

1. Who did you think the woman in the prologue was and where did you think she was going? Did your perception of this character change as you read the novel?

2. Discuss Gwen leaving her life behind to live in a tea plantation. Could you see yourself making this drastic lifestyle change?

3. Upon Gwen’s arrival in Ceylon, Lawrence is withdrawn and distant. Why did you think this was? Were you surprised that he was so different than how Gwen described him?

4. Dinah Jefferies creates a wonderful sense of time and place in the novel. Did you find it easy to picture Ceylon and the tea plantation?

5. Gwen and McGregor clash on how they think the plantation should be managed. Did you ever sympathize with McGregor’s viewpoints? Did you ever think Gwen was overstepping?

6. What did you make of Gwen’s attempt to recreate her childhood hobby of cheese making on the tea plantation?

7. What role do you think Verity serves in the novel? Discuss why you think she was so bitter and manipulative.

8. The night in the hotel after the party becomes a turning point in the novel. As the reader, we only get Gwen’s interpretation of the truth. What did you think happened? Did you ever doubt Gwen’s assumption as you continued reading?

9. Discuss the decision that Gwen makes immediately after childbirth. What do you think you would have done in her shoes?

10. Discuss the issues of race and colonialism in the novel. Do you think racism is a cultural stigma that is learned? The two children in the book get along well and don’t care about the color of their skin, do you think this is an argument that racism is not inherited?

11. Discuss the secrets that the characters kept from one another and how they impacted their lives. How could things have been different if the characters told each other the truth? Do you think there are times when hiding a secret is better than telling the truth? Is this decision easier or harder when it’s someone you love?

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