Claire Robertson’s latest, astounding novel revolves around a central deceit — but to betray it would obliterate the joy of potential readers.
So we need to tread carefully though the luscious plants, around the Victorian dresses with their asphyxiating corsets and limiting bustles, and the vast Natal sugar-cane plantation on which the English settler heroine, Mrs Chetwyn, is living her daunting and complicated life.
There is something peculiar about her fifth child, young Cosmo, that must be kept secret. "There are questions for Mrs Chetwyn to answer: perhaps there ought to be charges," Robertson writes. "Instead, she rehearses for her son the story of his settler family, for when he is old enough to be schooled in the sympathetic fictions."
The story starts with the arrival of Mrs Chetwyn by ship from India, where she married her British captain husband, with her little daughter, Sophronia, and the ayah Griffin.
They are carried through the surf to D’Urban’s shores, sitting on the interlaced arms of sweating, half-naked black men with Mrs Chetwyn’s gloved hands resting on two shoulders. That is about as overtly racy as life got for a Victorian woman in 1857.
Robertson hasn’t given Mrs Chetwyn a first name. "It gives her a superpower not to have one, like Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice," she explains during an interview.
Mrs Chetwyn’s husband, who travelled ahead of her, is already in the interior looking for suitable land to cultivate. He returns to find a letter from his father, who has paid for their passage and has given him a sum for the purchase of land. But there are strict conditions to this "generosity" and the captain strides into town to write a response to his father.
As she waits for him to return, Mrs Chetwyn has an adventure of her own. She sets off on a walk, "in a shockingly wide stride" and is beyond the settler settlement when she reaches swampy land. She unhooks her boots, unbuttons her stockings and when she reaches firmer territory, tries to wipe mud off her feet and legs.
"A sudden handful of sacking appears over her shoulder in a male hand … has he seen her toes?" Robertson’s evocative descriptions tell in sparse words of the horror for an upper-class Victorian woman of being observed in less than every bit of her all-concealing attire.
A lawyer, aptly named Meager, appointed by Chetwyn senior back in England to oversee his dashing and impetuous son’s affairs in Port Natal, delays the young couple’s departure to the hinterland by refusing them funds to purchase farm implements.
Chetwyn’s wealthy British father has declared that although the couple may farm land he buys for them, only a son may inherit it. So, when Meager hears that Mrs Chetwyn is pregnant, he is galvanised into action and money is forthcoming.
At last the family departs for the glorious virgin land of which they take possession. Accompanying them is Fuze, a Zulu man who has left his tribe to work for the Englishman. They travel by wagon, live in a wattle and daub house and as the years pass they build a successful sugar cane mill and move into a white castle on a hill. Mrs Chetwyn gives birth to four more children, three girls and a boy.
Outwardly all is febrile fertility, the great cane fields thriving and Mrs Chetwyn’s passion, her beloved garden, blossoming. So why is Robertson’s taut tale so laced with tension and why is the little boy Cosmo so strange?
Robertson’s third book is as exquisitely penned in the art of classicism as are her first two. She won the 2014 Sunday Times fiction prize as well as a South African Literary Award for her debut novel, The Spiral House.
Her second novel, The Magistrate of Gower, deals with homosexuality, miscegenation and propaganda as the National Party rises to power.
In Under Glass there are multiple themes, including Victorian acquisitiveness, possession and dispossession. White settlers took SA’s land and dispossessed the indigenous people. White women could not own property
In Under Glass, Robertson continues to deal in the huge, overarching themes that typify the eras she chooses to write about, but always doing so in the most minute detail.
In The Spiral House her language was that of the time, almost archaic. In the Magistrate of Gower it reflected the formality of the 1930s but also the suspicion and small-mindedness of small country towns.
In Under Glass there are multiple themes, including Victorian acquisitiveness, possession and dispossession. White settlers took SA’s land and dispossessed the indigenous people. White women could not own property.
Robertson, who is descended from 1820 Settler stock, says she chose her theme because Victorian Natal set her on fire.
"I love the idea of that period, an era of artifice and self-involvement," she says in an interview from her tiny Victorian cottage in Simon’s Town.
Robertson might have concentrated her formidable literary prowess on her ancestors, "but I didn’t want to spend nearly three years with the Xhosa wars and the scrabbling existence of the 1820 Settlers," she explains.
"Natal is beautiful and I visited an early sugar plantation there. The Durban Botanic Gardens, established in 1840, are spectacular."
There is a great deal about plants in Under Glass, about their profusion and their magnificence. The cover illustration – one of the most breathtakingly elegant I’ve yet seen — has a serpent’s head winding inside it.
The endpapers, pasted inside the hardcover book, have white plants etched on coppery paper that shines under light.
Publisher Umuzi realises the treasure it has in Robertson and pays tribute to her singular talent in this exceptional book.