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Fever TreeThe Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh
Penguin 2013 (2012)
Trade Paperback
343 pages
Historical Fiction



Frances Irvine is the nineteen-year-old daughter and only child of a self-made wealthy merchant who originated from Ireland. Her English mother came an aristocratic family that shunned her for marrying beneath them; only years after her mother died was Frances finally invited to stay with Sir and Lady Hamilton and their two daughters, Lucille and Victoria, in Mayfair. Her aunt and uncle are polite to her but Frances always feels conscious of being of Irish stock, with her red hair and merchant father. She looks at her other cousin, Edwin Matthews, with that same prejudice.

When Frances was thirteen, Edwin came to live at her house. One of many of her cousins on her father’s side, Edwin showed promise and the ability to rise above their poverty under her father’s mentorship. But Frances always saw him as a social climber taking advantage of their generosity, someone of lower class who aspires to more than he should have.

But now, in 1880, at the age of nineteen, Frances finds herself in dire straits. Orphaned and penniless after her father invested heavily in the North Pacific Railway in Canada, the house is being sold around her and she’s left with nothing but her connections. Her uncle, Sir Hamilton, she hopes will take her in; it’s that or she goes to live with her aunt Margaret in Manchester, where she will live out the remainder of her life in drudgery, looking after her aunt’s numerous children in a tiny cramped house that smells bad. Unfortunately, her uncle doesn’t offer to take her in. Instead, he extends Edwin Matthews’ offer of marriage.

Frances has little choice, even though she dislikes Edwin and his cold white hands and what she sees as his pretensions to a higher station. Worse, he’s a doctor living in South Africa, a colony far away, a barely civilised place. It is a choice between two awful situations, but Frances takes the one that will at least allow her to remain in charge of her own household: marriage to Dr Matthews.

With just enough money for the voyage south, Frances boards the Cambrian with the Female Middle Class Emigration Society, a charity helping young women move to the colonies to take up service as nurses, maids, governesses. On ship, Frances meets a handsome, confident man called William Westbrook and lets herself be seduced – by his confidence, by the ease with which he moves among the first class passengers, despite being half-Jewish and someone they include only because his cousin owns most of the diamond mines in South Africa. Frances is young, sheltered and naïve, and fancies herself in love with Mr Westbrook. She believes him when he tells her he broke off his engagement, and she believes him again when he admits he’s still engaged but will appeal to his cousin to break it off and will come for Frances.

On arrival in Cape Town, Frances waits for William but after three days she finally receives word that he’s been unsuccessful in breaking off his engagement. With a great sense of resignation, she sets off to the Veldt to meet Edwin and marry him. This is Boer country, and the small cottage they live in is owned by the Reitzes, hardened graziers who make use of every resource they possess in order to survive. There is drought and livestock are little more than skin and bone. Edwin has been sent from Kimberley to this outpost between Cape Town and the diamond mines to prevent the spread of small pox. He spends all his days at the vaccination tents, and at home Frances has no real interest in getting to know him.

It is in this dry arid but beautiful land that Frances must put aside her resentment, frustration and regrets, and embrace a new life. But can she, when she’s still clinging to the past with high expectations that can never be satisfied?

Jennifer McVeigh’s sweeping, intense and cinematic portrayal of one young woman’s fall from wealth to poverty is a coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of South Africa’s harsh but beautiful landscapes and the depravity and corruption around diamond mining and smuggling. Frances Irvine is not a completely likeable character but she is a believable, relatable one. A product of her times, which means she is a product of her upbringing, her class, her gender and her society, Frances is hobbled by expectations she feels she has a right to, and rather than embracing a new start and making the most of her life, she regrets the choices she’s made, resents being married to Edwin, and wishes only that he could be more successful in order to take care of her the way she’d like to be taken care of.

Yet Frances is someone I found myself really sympathising with. This is down to McVeigh’s excellent writing, and the way she’s captured Frances’ character. Told in third person but wholly from Frances’ perspective, we get to understand the way her mind works, the ways in which she deceives herself, and how she is affected by her surroundings. Interestingly, we don’t have very much more insight than Frances: we don’t know what Edwin’s thinking or feeling any more than Frances, for example. William, being a more obvious character, is easier to figure out, which increases the tension in the novel.

The two men, Edwin and William, couldn’t be more different. Exact opposites, you could say, and neither of them are flawless. It takes Frances a really long time, though, to understand either man’s character, and so it takes us readers an equally long time to get to know them and form a real opinion free of Frances’ pre-conceived notions, prejudices and wishes. And it’s perfectly understandable why Frances, silly girl, would be so attracted to William and fall for his charms, and why she would react the way she does to Edwin for so long. This is a trial-by-fire coming-of-age story for Frances, in which she really does make bad decisions and suffer the consequences.

While in the romantic sense, you might find this novel predictable, I actually didn’t find it that obvious or clear-cut. I didn’t know for sure how things would turn out, where Frances would be at the end of it all, or what she would have gone through to get there. Again, this was because of Frances’ character and partly because, as romantic as this novel seems at times, it’s not romance. For all the comparisons on the book cover to Gone With the Wind (which I haven’t read; I’ve only seen the movie once, a long time ago, and I honestly can’t remember any of it), this is a meaty read covering many issues.

Class figures prominently, with Frances herself embodying the importance of being the “right sort of people”. She chafes at no longer being accepted into the upper crust, and perhaps William appeals partly because he moves so effortlessly within that set and she subconsciously believes that he can rescue her and bring her back into the fold. (Suffice it to say that Frances is someone who has to go right to the extreme of a mistake to learn from it.)

Gender (or sex discrimination and the plight of women lacking a male protector, to be more specific), also figures prominently. Frances embodies this, and true to her nature and upbringing, she has no ability to shake off the expectations of Victorian society and remake her life in her own way. Edwin offers her this chance, but she doesn’t realise it and doesn’t take it. In a way, William offers it too, but not in a way that would make Frances respect herself. The 1880s was one of those periods in the cusp of change, with tentative beginnings into the way people think about the roles of women in home and society. Take, for example, the idea behind the “Female Middle Class Emigration Society” and what it really means for the women.

The hot, crowded little cabin reeked of shame. They were cargo being shipped for export. Women without choices. Their families had thrown them out to save the embarrassment or expense of keeping them at home, and emigration was an acknowledgement of failure. [p.51]

Frances, interestingly (considering how much she lets herself remain caged by the social expectations of Victorian society), even gets involved in a heated discussion (read: argument) with some first class passengers on the ship, when she’s invited by William to join them for dinner. One lady, Mrs Nettleton, a friend of Frances’ cousins, complains about these women who emigrate in order to take up positions and then abandon them to marry.

“I wasn’t arguing against emigration,” Mrs Nettleton cut in, sounding shrill and affronted. “Indeed, I wholeheartedly support Mrs Sambourne, but she can be naive. … Sometimes a little plain speaking is called for. Emigration societies are only as good as the girls they take on. Even she complains that most of her proteges lose all semblance of principle once they step on board ship. You should hear the stories she tells!”
“Come, it can’t be as bad as that.”
“I admire your aptitude for fair-mindedness, but really, you know as well as I do that emigration societies are little better than marriage bureaus.”
Frances sat very still, anger welling up inside her. She twisted her napkin around her forefinger. These people knew nothing of the helplessness of the girls in the second cabin, their sense of failure and rejection, and the personal tragedies which had brought each of them on to the Cambrian. They couldn’t imagine what it felt like to be shipped out of England.
“And why shouldn’t they be marriage bureaus?” she asked in a cold voice, looking around the table. … “The raison d’être of London Society is to marry off eligible women. Why shouldn’t those who aren’t deemed good enough for England try their chances elsewhere?”
“Because, my dear, we pay our good, charitable money so that they can find work in the colonies, not run off with the first ship steward who takes a shine to them!”
… When Frances spoke her voice seethed with anger, and she stared at Mrs Nettleton, trying to hold eye contact. “One would think the least these girls could count on would be the support of their own countrymen. And yet you heap prejudice on top of penury. Is it any wonder they take the first opportunity to marry?” [pp.83-4]

In South Africa, issues of exploitation, greed and corruption are ever-present, with the plight of native black workers always on the radar. The Boers are handled with dual perspective: extreme negative opinions given to Frances about their barbarity and racism, and her own experiences with the hard-working Reitz family. The cruelty and ruthlessness with which the Europeans did business, notably around diamond mining, is breath-taking but not surprising; we’ve seen similar things in other European colonies around the world.

McVeigh is a wonderful writer, and her extensively-researched novel (loosely based, or at least inspired by, true events regarding the small pox epidemic) is rich in period and setting details. I learned many fascinating things from this book, like how they used chickens to clean chimneys (drop one in the top and in its panicked decent it sweeps the soot with its flapping wings before dropping onto the hearth, dirty but otherwise unharmed) or meerkats for keeping the house on the Veldt clear of the numerous spiders and other insects that inhabit it. The workings of the diamond mines, the handling of the smallpox outbreak, the machinations of economic policy and greed, are all brought to life just as much as the Veldt, and Kimberley itself.

This is a gripping novel that had me completely absorbed. “Entertained” isn’t the right word, but in true cinematic fashion I was drawn back to Frances’ trials and tribulations (and self-made dramas) again and again. “Sweeping” would be a good descriptor, as is “intense, vivid and richly detailed.” I was greatly impressed not only by the quality of writing or the development and portrayal of the characters and locations, but also by the wealth of research that went into bringing this story to life. It’s dramatic in true theatrical fashion, but never over-the-top: rather, I mean “theatrical” in the sense that McVeigh captures both the small and the big all at once: the little details and the larger contexts or perspectives. It had all the depth and detail that I crave when I read stories like this, but never loses its focus on the human side: the play of human nature versus social pressures, love and grief and prejudice. I just loved this, and highly recommend it.

I read this book as part of the Penguin Books Fever Tree Blog Tour; however, the copy of this book was my own.

Casual Tourist 2014

________________________________________

Other Reviews:

“Do not be fooled by the love story or by the somewhat predictable plot. The Fever Tree, Jennifer McVeigh’s debut novel, is a tightly written story of a young woman’s awakening from the confinements of Victorian society to discover the beauty of a wild continent and the independence won by hard work.” Beth Fish Reads

“In spite of its flaws – its predictability, its clichéd and fairly unlikeable characters – readers will still marvel at the ambition and scope behind The Fever Tree.” That’s What She Read

“[R]eading The Fever Tree was the first time I truly experienced a truly stupid, brainless, blind protagonist. … I actually really enjoyed The Fever Tree—rather, I would have enjoyed it, if Frances had been a different person, or maybe just nonexistent.” Respiring Thoughts

“There are elements of melodrama in the landscapes and Frances’ ill health, but like her naive behaviour they are saved by McVeigh’s brilliant writing. Still the melodrama might put some people off but it won’t if you at all like 19th century literature as the tone here is quite similar. … No doubt fans of Victorian literature will enjoy it, but anyone else may as well. Not bad at all for a debut novel.” These Little Words

Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.

________________________________________

The Fever Tree Giveaway!

Thanks to the generous people at Penguin Books, I have ONE copy of Jennifer McVeigh’s The Fever Tree to give away. The rules are simple:

– enter your details in the form below
– giveaway runs from today, 27th January, to Sunday 2nd February 2014 (midnight, my time)
– the winner will be announced on Monday 3rd and contacted by email. (If I don’t hear back within 24 hours I will need to pick a new winner.)
– this giveaway is for residents of the United States only, and you will need a valid mailing address (no PO Boxes)
– the winner will receive the book from Penguin Books USA; I cannot be responsible for lost, delayed or damaged mail

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