To be a single, upper-middle-class woman in Victorian times was to be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Respectable women didn’t work, period. They were supposed to be the “angel” in the house, an elevating influence in some potentially brutish man’s life. Or they could end up as governesses, who took care of others’ children and could look forward to a precarious old age. Worst of all, relatives might take in a spinster cousin or aunt and keep her around as an unpaid, unwanted servant. These women were often figures of fun in fiction. Writers as disparate as Dickens and Forster mocked them. They had no one to protect them — financially, emotionally or spiritually.
Jennifer McVeigh addresses this problem in her first novel, “The Fever Tree,” set in London and in Kimberley, South Africa. In the 1880s, a smallpox epidemic broke out in the diamond mines owned by Cecil Rhodes, the founder of De Beers. Thousands of natives died from the disease, but Rhodes kept it a secret to protect his investments. McVeigh learned of this while doing research in the British Library, where she found the private diary of a doctor who labored to bring public attention to the epidemic.
From these details, McVeigh has imagined a rich and dramatic story. What if that doctor, Edwin Matthews, was a bit of a prude, with pale skin and a pedantic way about him? What if he was a bit of a know-it-all and frugal to a fault? What if he didn’t have an ounce of charm in him? What if he met and then courted Frances Irvine, a pretty blonde who had been trained up to be a respectable wife?
“She embroidered cushions and slippers, fashioned bell pulls, painted fire screens, and modeled a whole basket of fruit out of wax,” McVeigh writes. “She pressed flowers and learned their Latin names. She acquired hairpins, fancy brushes, and combs, and learned about ringlets, frizettes, and braids and how to pile her hair on top of her head in a bandeau.” But as destiny would have it, no one ever bothered to teach her to make a cup of coffee. An angel in the house needed to be helpless in order for her hero to be able to rescue her.
But you can’t engage in that dynamic without a hefty pot of money, and the characters here don’t have that. Frances’s father dies, heavily in debt. She has the choice of living with her cranky aunt and a flock of unpleasant children or marrying Edwin and following him out to Africa. She chooses the latter, unwillingly.
On the voyage out, whom should she meet but a wealthy, irresponsible relative of Rhodes: William Westbrook, who has “eyes like pools of ink.” It’s a long voyage, and you just know Frances is going to be sadder, but wiser, by the time they disembark in South Africa.
But she marries dull Edwin, who keeps himself busy as illness rages in the mines. There’s a lot more to the plot, but it’s safe to say that at least one principal character comes down with the pox, and not since Pete Dexter’s amazing novel “Deadwood” has that awful disease been treated so graphically. In fact, a lot of these characters get sick and their underwear gets dirty and they seldom get to take a bath. This is the 1880s, in Africa, and life is messy and hard.
The book has its faults. It takes Frances an eternity to figure out that she ought to be doing something constructive instead of painting birds and flowers. Edwin is way beyond frugal and doesn’t begin to treat Frances as any sort of a real human being. William is such a dissolute cad that Frances really does find herself between a rock and a hard place. I guess a rock and a hard place is what you find up that creek without a paddle. Women in the First World may have a hard time now, but it’s infinitely better than it was 130 years ago.
See reviews regularly for Book World.
THE FEVER TREE
By Jennifer McVeigh
Amy Einhorn/Putnam. 425 pp. $25.95