March 23, 2012 10:03 pm

Cape fear

A flawed romantic heroine struggles with desire, class divide and disease in 19th-century South Africa
 

One of the forgotten scandals of the 19th-century South African diamond rush was the attempt – orchestrated at the behest of Cecil Rhodes, founder of De Beers – to deny that a smallpox epidemic was sweeping the Kimberley labour encampments that kept the profits pouring in.

This waymark on the lethal march of colonialism across South Africa’s history forms the impetus of Jennifer McVeigh’s debut novel, sending her flawed heroine – for this classy work of historical fiction comes with a strongly beating romantic heart – from a life of ease in London to scratching a living in the Cape.

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Frances Irvine is left penniless when her father dies. Her titled relatives decline to take care of her and, faced with a life of nursemaiding, she accepts a proposal of marriage that she had previously disdained. Her suitor is Edwin Matthews, who had lived with her family as a child after being taken in by her father. Edwin, a doctor, has grown into a serious man whom she fears she cannot ever like, let alone love.

As debt collectors rake through her home she agrees to join Edwin in South Africa, where she hopes he will one day have a thriving practice. Edwin leaves for Cape Town and Frances follows alone, setting the scene for a tumultuous sea voyage: one of love, scandal, gossip and – of course – a great storm that throws her into the arms of handsome William Westbrook: “only the most eligible man on the Cambrian”, as one of her excited sailing companions squeaks.

McVeigh rescues all this from romance fodder by her skilled unfolding of the casual unkindnesses of Victorian class divides. More critically, she lays out ominous foreshadowings of the horrors that are to come: the gross cruelties of racism, superheated by the lust for diamond wealth.

It is in Cape Town that the real shocks come. Not only is Frances in love with Westbrook but the man she is to marry has been sent to run a smallpox quarantine station. She and Edwin are to live not among Kimberley society but as hardscrabble tenants on a struggling Boer farm. Worse, Edwin is unpopular – when smallpox arrives in the mines he refuses to join a conspiracy to mislabel the disease.

McVeigh’s inspiration was her discovery in the British Museum of the long-unopened diary of a Victorian doctor who had fought to expose the truth about the disease that cut such a swathe through South Africa’s mineworkers.

The journey on which McVeigh sends Frances is, like the landscape, thrillingly huge: one of love, self-knowledge, human and political self-respect. Frances treads out every step and is a naive and intriguing character who brings alive a momentous – and appalling – part of history.

Sue Norris is associate editor of FT Magazine

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