Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Tea Lords

Hi Flower!

How could I possible resist a title like The Tea Lords? It screams historical fiction, colonialism, exotic lands and of course tea drinking which I do all the time. A possible perfect fit. Was I right? Aren't I usually?

The Tea Lords was written by Hella Haasse. Are you familiar with her novels? She's written many. Haasse lives in the Netherlands and published her first novel in 1945. So what's that? 66 years ago. In those 66 years this is only her fourth book to make it into English and only three of these four have been published in the U.S. That's sad for readers of first rate historical fiction but maybe an opportunity for a publisher.

Dutch colonialism in the East Indies (now Indonesia) is the setting for The Tea Lords. Rudolf Kerkhoven, a young rule follower from Holland, goes to the East Indies in the 1870's to join his Father's tea plantation. Rudolf has all the virtues of his age. He is: conservative, honorable, frugal, hard working and aspires to always do the right thing. He has all the prejudices and self importance of his age also. Those attributes will never allow him to see his choices as anything but proper. Gradually Rudolf falls in love with his new home. He marries a lawyer's daughter from Jakarta, Jenny, and over the years through great effort and great thrift makes a success of the plantation.

Jenny brings a vague touch of the first Mrs Rochester to The Tea Lords. Jenny was island born and raised. She sees the Dutch colonists for the opportunistic interlopers that they are and not as the saviors and adventurers they see themselves to be. There are secrets to Jenny's family unknown to Rudolf when they marry. One of those secrets will come to life slowly as Jenny gets further away from the coastline she grew up on and spends more time in the close humidity in the interior of the island at the plantation.

The Tea Lords is an big,old fashioned, completely satisfying novel, rich in detail and authority over it's subject matter. It moves at it's own pace introducing many characters and developments. Haasse's writing is subtle and precise making the story paramount. There is sufficient, interesting explanation of the economics, politics and farming of the time to give the novel flavor and make it specific to it's setting. The natives verses colonists aspects are heartfelt and illuminating but this is ultimately a family saga. Haasse based this novel on documents and letters from the Dutch families who lived and farmed in Indonesia in the 19th century. She called this book "a novel but not fiction".

I ordered The Tea Lords from a U.K. bookshop. So far it's not available from a U.S. publisher. To be honest given how few and far between any books of Haasse's have been translated into English I doubt this one will brought out over here. The Tea Lords is worth the effort and expense to import personally but you could also start with the three of her titles that are available here: In A Dark Wood Wandering, The Scarlet City and Threshold of Fire.


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