November 24, 2013

The Missionary's Wife, Tim Jeal

I am almost ashamed to admit that this paperback novel had been in my TBR (to be read) pile for so long it had gathered more than dust, it had become atrophied to the point where the pages were crumbling, before I got around to reading it. I paid the princely sum of 50 cents for it in a charity shop and spotted it only because I am familiar with Tim Jeal’s other works on Africa, including his epic biographies of Livingstone and Stanley, but I hadn’t been aware he had written novels prior to gaining real success with his non-fiction. 

There is a single bland review of the novel on Amazon and a dismissive one-line opinion on Goodreads. This seems to indicate that few people have read the novel, or at least not recently. (I never fully trust reviews on Goodreads which for me is a bit like Wikipedia and should be treated with a certain amount of caution and only used as a starting point for your own discovery.) 

This novel was written and published during the 1990s when African colonial history was undergoing a revisionist process to give a more balanced account of the points of view of the indigenous inhabitants, and rightly so. Even authors of adventure fiction were increasingly aware that earlier imperious or gung-ho tales of Empire derring-do had to be tempered to give Africans a more enlightened role to match the expectations of the modern reader. But despite this, there were still very few novels featuring a woman in a leading role in what continues to be the most macho of all historical novel environments. 

The missionary wife’s is Clara. Jilted in love by a spineless gent, she rediscovers religion when she is inspired by Robert Haslam, a missionary giving lectures while on leave in Britain. Much older than her, the widowed Robert’s charisma and unswerving belief in his cause and duty draws Clara in. Despite her father’s vehement objections at the prospect of losing his only daughter to the Dark Continent, Clara marries Robert shortly before he returns to his remote mission in Rhodesia but he will not let Clara join him until he is sure that the chief of the local Venda tribe, Mponda, has become a Christian. Clara is forced to kick her heels until the call finally comes for her to travel. On her long and arduous journey, she meets the attractive young soldier, Captain Francis Vaughan, who is on a hunting expedition with the American scout, Heywood Fynn. It is perhaps inevitable that the love-starved Clara will find Francis attractive, but she does not let go of her moral principles and puts him out of her mind as she embarks on life at the mission with her husband.

However, when she arrives it seems Robert has deceived her and things are far from certain. Mponda has not yet committed himself to becoming a Christian. The chief vacillates, knowing that whatever he does there will be friction and animosity created between his son and the witchdoctor whose daughter is one of Mponda’s wives and who must be put aside for just one wife once he is converted. With the encroachment of “civilisation” and the indigenous population’s growing hatred of the white invaders, rebellion looms on the horizon.

The machinations of life at the mission and in the village are intense and at times slow up the narrative by becoming a little too long-winded and complicated. Clara struggles to deal with Robert’s uncompromising commitment while she bears unhappy witness to the fracturing of culture that Christianity will inevitably bring to the community. And later, when Francis and Fynn return leading a patrol to flush out rebelling Africans, Clara has reawakened desire for Francis to add to her troubles. Meanwhile in his military role, Francis himself has other trying moral and ethical decisions to make that will affect his whole future.

This is a surprisingly complex book. Despite its outward appearance, including the cover blurb from The Guardian ... “look forward to sleepless nights with this book clamped in your sweaty palms” ... it is not a lightweight romantic adventure novel but delves into uncomfortable truths about Christianity colliding with paganism, the pros and cons of colonialism, about the brutality faced by men at war, and the nature of love in all its many facets.

I would have liked a few author notes at the conclusion as to whether any of the characters were real or were inspired by those who were. For anyone who knows something of Rhodesian history, certain episodes or scenes may seem familiar. 

This drawing found online reflects some of the uncomfortable truths that are included in the novel:

Artist unknown

The American Fynn has much in common with the famous scout, Frederick Russell BurnhamAnd although I haven’t read it right through, with the tiny settlement of Belingwe featured in the novel, some elements of this book on the Matabele Rebellion may have been used.

The ending is a little predictable with some indication that things weren’t quite concluded and a sequel may have been intended. I would have liked to know how Clara coped with her later life. I couldn’t imagine her settling long for dull domesticity in England after the challenges of the life she once led in Africa.

4 stars

No comments: