The Girl from the Tea Garden
Janet Macleod Trotter
In the dying days of the Raj, Anglo-Indian schoolgirl Adela Robson dreams of a glamorous career on the stage. When she sneaks away from school in the back of handsome Sam Jackman’s car, she knows a new life awaits—but it is not the one she imagined.
In Simla, the summer seat of the Raj government, Adela throws herself into all the dazzling entertainments 1930s Indian society can offer a beautiful debutante. But just as her ambitions seem on the cusp of becoming reality, she meets a charming but spoilt prince, setting in motion a devastating chain of events.
The Girl from the Tea Garden is the third novel in the India Tea series which follows the exploits of Adela Robson, the daughter of Wesley and Clarissa from The Tea Planter’s Daughter who moved back to Belgoree.
Most of the story takes place in the mid-1930s with war brewing in Europe and the talk of independence in India on the rise, however Adela is more concerned with her dreams of becoming an actress and she begs her parents to allow her to go to school in Simla. The moderate climate in Simla makes it a popular place for British families to spend their summers during the hot season so society life is well established and Adela soon finds herself at the heart of it.
Adela meets Sam who was introduced in The Tea Planter’s Bride as the son of a man who runs a boat, however with his father dead, Sam is going through a hard time and Adela is only thirteen. As Adela grows up, she becomes increasingly attracted to Sam but the usual misunderstandings keep them apart for large parts of the novel and when he turns up at her seventeenth birthday party, he is working as a missionary after going off the rails for a while. With Adela narrating most of the story, we are rarely given an insight into Sam’s life and we don’t get to witness his struggles at this stage which would have been a great contrast against the frivolity of Adela’s life in Simla.
I found Adela to be quite a self-centred character but was willing to overlook it thinking she would change once she had grown up a little, however I found myself getting more and more frustrated with her. When we first meet Adela she is being bullied at school by some classmates who tease her for having an Indian great-grandmother, Adela seems to have been unaware of this information and she is horrified she is different from the other students. The fact Adela doesn’t seem to know about her Indian blood really confused me because her mother was never one for hiding it and why would Adela be ashamed of it when she is so close to her Aunt Sophie who is married to an Indian man? Adela continues to be close to various Indian people throughout the novel and expresses a great deal of sympathy towards the plight of the women in particular, yet she never really acknowledges she was wrong about her ancestry.
As Adela enjoys life in Simla, she tries to balance the partying with voluntary work and this is when we get to see glimpses of the woman Adela could become, however Adela is soon embroiled in an affair with an Indian prince. Adela is at her most naive at this point as she falls for Sanjay’s empty promises with predictable results. When Sanjay shows his true colours, a brokenhearted Adela returns to Belgoree for her eighteenth birthday but a tiger hunt leads to tragedy and she decides to leave India.
While in Newcastle, we get to meet some familiar faces from The Tea Planter’s Daughter, including Aunt Olive who is as miserable as ever, as well as the women who befriended Clarissa. As Adela remains in Newcastle for the duration of the war, she learns to depend on these women to get her through some hard times. Although Newcastle is bombed hard during the war, this is skimmed over in favour of Adela’s continuing stage career and when she eventually joins the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), she finds herself back in India.
The conclusion of the book seems quite rushed as Adela and Sam finally have the heart to heart they should’ve had chapters ago and with everything laid bare, there is a surprising twist in Sam’s parentage which you can see coming a mile away. The abrupt finish leads me to believe there may be another book in the works as the war hasn’t finished and partition is still to happen. The issues around independence have been mentioned throughout the novel, however they have never been the real focus so the upcoming upheaval is going to have a real impact on most of Adela’s family.
While I think Trotter is very good a creating a setting for her novels, whether it be India or Newcastle, the books just don’t have enough depth for me when it comes to the history of the regions and it’s left me feeling frustrated more than anything else.