Love, Loss and the Big Picture

24th February 2017

Following the success of 'The Tea Planter’s Wife', writer Dinah Jefferies will be coming to Chorleywood next month, to talk about her romantic new novel. Kathy Walton meets her…

There can’t be many people who have never googled the meaning of their first name but novelist Dinah Jefferies is one. The best-selling author of romantic, sometimes bitter sweet, novels set in wonderfully exotic Asian locations is about to publish her fourth novel, Before the Rains, about a passionate affair between a young English widow and a brooding Indian prince in Rajasthan, during the last days of the British Raj.

Dinah is delighted, but not at all surprised, when I tell her that women named Dinah are typically free thinkers who prefer the ‘big picture’ and are often imbued with a strong desire to serve others. They are also capable of tremendous compassion and deep love and consequently, are easily hurt.

“That’s me!” she laughs, while drinking tea (which she emphatically calls by its Asian name of chai.) “I’m certainly independent by nature and quite broadminded and I always care about what happens to people and society. Years ago I even went on the odd march, but these days I can’t remember what for.”

Now 70 and a grandmother, Dinah currently lives in Cheltenham with her second husband Richard Jefferies, a retired management consultant, but it is her earlier and highly unconventional life that continues to provide inspiration for her novels.
Born in Malacca, Malaya to British parents in 1948, she admits that she has never got over her profound love affair with the East. Listening to her talk, you sense that England, which she didn’t experience at all until her family returned here to live when she was nine, was – and, to an extent, still is – a real culture shock.

Perhaps to escape what she perceived as the dreariness of England, Dinah had a stint as an au pair for an Italian countess after leaving school and then pursued her first love – ‘big pictures’ – at Birmingham Art College, before reading English Literature at the University of Ulster, where she fell pregnant with her son, Jamie, in 1971. Unusually for an unmarried mother at the time, she kept her baby, although she and Jamie’s father soon separated. Within two years, the ever unconventional Dinah was living with rock band member Jon Owen (by whom she had a daughter during their brief marriage) in a musicians’ commune in Suffolk, owned by two of the Lascelles brothers, sons of the 7th Earl of Harewood and his wife, Marion Stein (by then married to the Liberal party leader, Jeremy Thorpe).

The commune, which consisted of some 20 adults and eight children, lasted long enough to catch the attention of the BBC, who made a documentary about it in 1973, but eventually members fell out and the commune disbanded. Even so, Dinah remembers her period there with great affection, especially the time she spent with Jamie.

“The comradeship and companionship of the commune has always stayed with me. It was like an extended family, but like any family, there were arguments,” she recalls.

If life has always been colourful for Dinah, it has not always been happy. Tragedy struck in 1985 when Jamie was killed in an accident at school: he was only 14 and had just won a scholarship. It is an experience that, she says, inevitably informs her writing.

“A loss like that changes you and while it’s not something you grieve over all the time, it is part of you and it won’t ever go away. But just like Jamie’s life and me being a parent are part of me, so [loss] must figure in my writing because loss will always be an element [of my work] and it will always come out. I couldn’t write a light-hearted rom-com for instance, because it’s not me.”

Loss, usually in the shape of shattered dreams, dashed hopes and disappointment in love, is a constant motif in Jefferies’ novels, perhaps nowhere more strongly than in her first novel, The Separation, published in 2014, and written when she was 65.

Set in Malaya in 1955, The Separation draws on painful memories of Dinah’s arrival in England in 1957. “We came back to Worcester, to my grandparents’ home, with only one room that was heated, by a smoky fire. It was cramped, dark and wet,” she recalls. What a contrast after the open, spacious rooms and verandas overlooking colourful, sunny gardens that characterised her early years in the East.

“I loathed England and it took me a long time to feel I belonged here,” she admits. Worst of all was her overwhelming grief that her beloved Malaya was irretrievably lost to her. For reasons she she didn’t understand, her parents never spoke about it again.

It was many years before she ‘reclaimed’ her time abroad, as she explains. “Researching and writing The Separation gave me back Malaya and a part of myself that was there before Jamie died.” This was important, she says, “because when a child dies, it tends to define you, but The Separation gave me back a part of me that I’d forgotten about.”

Dinah’s second and third novels, The Tea Planter’s Wife and The Silk Merchant’s Daughter respectively, both topped the Sunday Times bestsellers’ list. It’s ironic to remember that writing wasn’t her original métier, but one that came out of financial expediency when she and Richard found themselves virtually penniless.

“We were living in Spain, in a stunningly beautiful, heavily forested area in Andalucía, near the Portuguese border, with waterfalls and cobbled walkways and donkey trails… it was idyllic. Richard had retired and I was painting and also restoring our little house. I learned plenty of Spanish ‘builder-speak’,” she remembers.

An injury to her right shoulder put an end to the painting and, to make matters even worse, she and Richard lost their retirement money in the financial crash of 2008 and then took nearly 18 months to sell the house in Spain. Suddenly, Dinah found she had both time on her hands and very little money – and turned to writing.

“It gave me something to focus on. I sat down and wrote, but if I hadn’t really fallen in love with doing it, I wouldn’t have carried on. I’ve been lucky, which is rare because it’s a hard grind, especially if you spend a year on a novel and it gets rejected.”

Dinah’s recollections of the Spanish countryside provide more than a hint of the powerful talent for description that makes her novels so evocative of time and place, and I ask her why she chose to set Before the Rains in Rajasthan, in 1930, in the run-up to Indian independence.

Without hesitation, and with the same passion that is evident in her writing, she says: “I like to depict a period just before momentous changes and bring it to life. I want to pay homage to the palaces and desert of Rajasthan, to [create something that will] shimmer with spice, silks, scents and the atmosphere and beauty of the place, that shines through the pages.”

Finally I ask Dinah what will become of English rose Eliza and her handsome prince Jay, because, right up to the final page of Before The Rains, they, like the reader, have no idea what lies ahead. “I wish I knew,” she admits, before adding by way of explanation: “It’s the most romantic of all my books, a story of love against the odds, with real dilemmas and real choices.”

An Evening with Dinah Jefferies, hosted by Chorleywood Bookshop, is on Tuesday 7 March at 7.30pm at Chorleywood Library. For event vouchers (£8, to include a glass of wine & Indian nibbles) see www.chilternbookshops.co.uk or call 01923 283566.

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