“The Fever Tree” is a saga about Frances Irvine, an English woman who moves to South Africa in the late 1800s to escape near poverty in England and marry a doctor she doesn’t love. The contrast between her privileged life in England and her new life in the stark frontier of Africa is mesmerizing.
Frances is living a life of luxury with her widowed father in their comfortable home in England, their needs seen to by servants. Then her father makes some bad investments, becomes ill as a result and eventually dies.
Before her father’s death, Frances receives a marriage proposal from Edwin Matthews, a distant cousin who had lived with them for several years. She rejects his proposal because she doesn’t love him. She mistakenly thinks she will be able to live with wealthy relatives who never approved of her father. Now that her father is dead, however, she is destitute. Her house and all its furnishings are sold at auction.
She has two options: marry Edwin, who is practicing medicine in Kimberley, Africa, or become a nurse and nanny to her aunt’s three children. She tells Edwin she will marry him. He arranges passage for her on a ship. A charity is providing a chaperone on the journey for her and seven other young women who had signed up to be teachers or nurses. At sea, Frances runs into a passenger in first class whom she knew when she was wealthy and is introduced to William Westbrook, a handsome diamond trader who seduces her. On the ship, she realizes how far her social status has fallen; she is not allowed to do things that first-class passengers can do and that she was able to do just a few months earlier. She also learns that William, whom she has fallen in love with, is engaged, but he promises to marry her once he breaks off his engagement.
When she gets to Cape Town, Africa, Frances learns that William is not breaking his engagement. William, who is dashing, is the opposite of Edwin, who seems bland and cold in comparison. But, she knows Edwin is her only option. A smallpox epidemic strikes Cape Town and she is vaccinated. Edwin, meanwhile, had to leave his practice in Kimberley and work in Karoo, four days away by cart. Frances is to meet him there.
When Frances gets to Rietfontein, the farm in Karroo, she finds out that her life will be nothing like she expected. She will live in a small cottage owned by a Dutch landowner in the middle of a desert area. Edwin will spend most days in a quarantine station two miles away trying to prevent smallpox from reaching Kimberley. Frances has a hard time adjusting to African life. She learns that Edwin had written newspaper articles about the horrific life of Africans who work in the diamond fields in Kimberley. They are paid little and are treated more like animals than human beings.
Joseph Baier runs the diamond operation and has tremendous influence. If the status quo is changed, profits will fall, so Baier keeps costs down. It is Baier who had Edwin removed from his practice in Kimberley and sent to Karoo.
Eventually, Edwin tells Frances that they are going back to Kimberley because smallpox is rumored to have reached there. They live in a tent while he investigates. In Kimberley, she sees William again, and learns he did not marry. However, he has become Baier’s second in command. Frances must choose between her husband and her past lover. She must also decide whether Edwin is exaggerating the claims of smallpox or whether Baier and William want to cover it up?
The book is a fascinating account of what one part of Africa and its diamond industry were like in the late 1800s. “The Fever Tree” is McVeigh’s first novel.