Jennifer Talks to Richard & Judy about The Fever Tree
Richard and Judy ask Jennifer McVeigh
1) So . . . why the Cape, and why then? What drew you to that particular place and time?
A few years before I began writing The Fever Tree I travelled to Namibia, in southern Africa, with my husband. We rented a Land Rover, stocked it with enough food and water to last us two weeks, and set out to drive the length of the country, from the desert dunes on the coast to the drought-ravaged plains on the Angolan border. Namibia is over six times the size of England, with only two million inhabitants. The interior is virtually deserted, and I felt as though we had stepped back in time to an earlier world, where the wilderness was still truly wild (albeit with a satellite phone and a mini-fridge for a cold G&T stowed in our boot). We free camped every night, hundreds of miles from any town, and cooked our suppers over a primer stove by the light of a kerosene lamp. It made me wonder what life must have been like for the early pioneers who travelled to Africa at a time when the land was scarcely populated, and the terrain was raw and untouched. One day, towards the end of our trip, we drove past a high wire fence which marked the boundary of a diamond mine, and I remember thinking: who were the men and women who first came to these beautiful but desolate places to mine the land? What kind of lives did they lead, and how did they survive?
When I got back to England I read up on diamond mining in southern Africa, devouring the stories of English pioneers who came to the Cape looking for diamonds. One afternoon, while reading in the British Library, I stumbled upon the diary of a doctor who had lived and worked in Kimberley at the end of the nineteenth century. He talked about a smallpox epidemic which had broken out in the mines. The story he told was extraordinary: the great statesman Cecil Rhodes, terrified that he would lose his investments in the mines if smallpox was publicly announced, paid the doctors in Kimberley to deny the epidemic. The doctor writing the diary had fought, at great personal risk, to expose the cover-up. This story became the nugget of truth that lies at the heart of The Fever Tree.
2) Your description of life in Victorian London is vivid and detailed, down to the blowing-out of a gas lamp by an ignorant out-of-towner, which nearly causes catastrophe. What were your sources?
The moment when Edwin blows out the lamp is – like so many details in the book – drawn straight from a nineteenth-century diary. I have always loved history, and The Fever Tree gave me the perfect excuse to spend day after day in the British Library reading first-hand accounts of life in London and South Africa. It was easier researching the male characters, because so many of them kept diaries of their experiences at the Cape. Frances was slightly harder to pin down. I started with her life in London, piling my desk high with women’s magazines from the 1880s, sifting through advice on etiquette and fashion, and turning over patterns for embroidery and lace, just as she might have done. But I needed to go further. I wanted to know what would drive her to South Africa, and it wasn’t long before I discovered the emigration societies which specialized in shipping women out to the colonies to work. Later, when I was in Kimberley, I found a book of old photographs that showed women sorting diamonds in the mines, camping in the dust and the grime alongside their husbands. Soon enough Frances emerged; a sheltered young woman, on the brink of huge change.
3) Frances is given a real Hobson’s choice by her uncle at the start of the story. As a modern woman, how do you think you might have coped with the extraordinary lack of freedom of choice and movement for women in those times?
I was unsettled by the limited choices presented to women in the nineteenth century – they were absolutely at the mercy of the men who headed up their families and, unless they were very lucky indeed, they had little or no say in their own futures. It wasn’t common for men to take out life-insurance policies, so when they became sick or died the women who were reliant on them were often left completely exposed, unable to work or marry. Towards the end of the century even that mainstay of a Victorian woman fallen on hard times – the governess – was subject to qualifications and training, something most women simply hadn’t been given. The choice faced by many was either to tumble down the social ladder to a life of gruelling work and virtual enslavement, or to attach themselves to a charity that specialized in helping women to emigrate.
As a modern, educated, working woman, it is hard to imagine being faced with a choice this stark. And yet The Fever Tree is partly about the idea that choice isn’t always a good thing. Frances, given the choice, would have stayed in England, in her father’s house, a place where she felt safe but not necessarily happy. Sometimes it is the things we are forced to do which – terrifying though they may seem – give us the greater chance of happiness.
4) What do you think about the spirit and drive of the Europeans who went out to take their chances in remote, inhospitable and dangerous lands?
There is no question that it took determination and courage to make a success of life in nineteenth-century South Africa, and it is hard not to be caught up in the romance and adventure of the pioneers, most of whom arrived on the diamond fields with little more than the shirts on their backs. They worked hard and took chances, and their fortunes didn’t come easily. But living so far from England gave them a certain freedom from its laws, and from its judgements, and this paved the way for a moral degeneracy which is harder to admire. The shadow of the speculators who mined South Africa which is harder to admire. The shadow of the speculators who mined South Africa for a profit stretches right across the last century, into our own. I hope The Fever Tree captures a little of both my admiration and my dismay.