The idea for this novel came as my mother-in-law, Joan Jefferies, reminisced about a childhood spent in India and Burma during the 1920s and early 1930s. As she told stories passed down by her family, which included tea planters in both Ceylon and India, I began thinking about attitudes to race, in particular the typical prejudices of that time.
My next stop was the audio collection at the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, where I found wonderful recorded voices which brought the period to life. Once I’d written the first draft of the book, I went to Sri Lanka. Although Hatton, Dickoya and Nuwara Eliya are real places, Hooper’s Plantation is an amalgamation of several locations and is placed at a higher altitude than Hatton or Dickoya really are. And while I stayed in a Ceylon Tea Trails planter’s bungalow beside a reservoir, it is, of course, not the lake of the novel.
In the hills of a romantic tea plantation, swathed in mist, my ‘Tea Planter’s Wife’ would have lived an extraordinarily privileged life, but I created a predicament for her that would test all her assumptions about racial differences, and that would explore colonial attitudes and how they spelt such tragedy for her.
It is medically possible for two different men to father non-identical twins, but regarding the birth of a distinctly dark baby to an apparently fully white couple, the best documented case is of Sandra Laing – born to white Afrikaaner parents in 1950s South Africa but who looked typically black in skin colour, with tight curly hair and other distinctive features. To read more about Sandra, see Judith Stone’s When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race or pages 70–73 in Who Are We – and Should It Matter in the 21st Century? by Gary Younge.
In the early days it was quite usual for British men going out to work in India and Ceylon to take a ‘native’ bride, as it was felt the men would settle and be better able to deal with the local population. This situation changed, however, especially with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. As more unmarried white women began to travel out to ‘fish’ for a wealthy husband, those born of mixed race were less well tolerated; it was also thought that they might not be as loyal to the Crown.
Those familiar with the history of Sri Lanka will notice I have shifted the timing of a couple of events to better suit the purposes of the narrative. One was the riot over the language to be taught in schools and one was the battle of the flowers.