To be a single, upper-middle-class woman in Victorian times was to be up the proverbial creek without a paddle. Respectable women didnt work, period.
They were supposed to be the angel in the house, an elevating influence in some potentially brutish mans 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 didnt have an ounce of charm in him? What if he met and then courted Frances Irvine, a pretty blonde who had been trained to be a respectable wife?
But you cant engage in that dynamic without a hefty pot of money, and the characters here dont have that.
She marries dull Edwin, who keeps himself busy as illness rages in the mines. Theres a lot more to the plot, but its safe to say that at least one principal character comes down with the pox.
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 doesnt 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 its infinitely better than it was 130 years ago.