The White Camellia is an atmospheric novel of family secrets and revenge set against the background of the Suffragette movement.
Juliet Greenwood plunges us into the lives of two women from vastly different backgrounds but united in their determination to control their own destiny.
One is Sybil Ravensdale, a Cornishwoman of lowly stock who has become a wealthy owner of hotels in the United States. When the book opens she has returned to England to expand her business and decides to buy Tressillion House, a Jacobean style manor on the Cornish coast that has fallen into disrepair.
The other is a young woman born into riches but now living in straightened circumstances in London with her widowed mother and younger sister. Beatrice Tressillion had to leave Tressillion House when her father died and the family was tainted with the scandal of an accident at a mine on the estate.
Revenge And Mystery
As the story unfolds it’s evident that Sybil Ravensdale is a woman seeking revenge; for what we don’t exactly know. But it’s somehow connected to Tressillion House and to Beatrice. The mystery element is well handled because, though there are plenty of hints, Sybil’s secret is not revealed until the very final pages of the book.
Juliet Greenwood does a fabulous job of creating the atmosphere of the two principal settings. The London sections come full of dark alleys, poverty and drunks while Ross and Demelza Poldark would feel quite at home in the chapters set on the Cornish coast. There’s even an abandoned iron mine (rumoured to contain a rich seam of gold) for Ross to try and re-open.
Even more appealing however was the historical context for the novel. The year is 1909, a time which marked an escalation of the fight for the right of British women to vote in public elections. After years of peaceful campaigning and meetings, the women and their male supporters take to the streets with larger scale demonstrations and even greater determination. The police are equally determined to stop them.
Beatrice stumbles into this world via The White Camellia Tearoom. It’s a fictional location but represents the kind of London cafe and tearoom that allowed women to meet in safety without fear of molestation or accusations of improper behaviour. The women who work and patronise the tearoom give Beatrice courage to face her dilemma: to secure her family’s future by marriage to a wealthy man or follow her own desire for a career and a life of freedom from control.
Fighting for Independence
The White Camellia shows the issue at the heart of the suffragette movement; the constraints felt by the women of this period and their lack of opportunity. With the marriage her mother desires, Beatrice will get security and status but lose her independence and her dream of becoming a journalist. Without marriage, she will be confined to lowly paid jobs and a life of hardship.
Faced with the same challenge, Sybil Ravensdale decided to take the path of independence, fighting her way to prosperity against men who viewed her as a commodity:
.. she’d seen other women fall for a charming smile and attention, until marriage gave a suitor control over their lives and a fortune. As far as she could see that was hell on earth. She would never hand over to another the power to take all her hard work away, leaving her back on the streets.
This could so easily have become a novel bogged down by detail and ‘message’ But the factual information was so skillfully woven into the book that I got the benefit of the context without feeling I was being subjected to a lecture. And the characters are so vividly constructed that when they talk about their attitudes to freedom and female emancipation they don’t sound as if they’re reading from a script.
That authenticity is exactly what you need in a historical novel. If you want a book that gives you the feeling of being on the streets during a suffragette march, or underground in a disused mine, The White Camellia will more than satisfy your need.
The White Camellia: End Notes
Juliet Greenwood is a historical fiction author based in Wales. Having worked in London for nearly ten years, she now lives in a traditional Welsh cottage in the mountains of Snowdonia.
She began writing seriously about ten years ago, after a severe viral illness left her with debilitating ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Now recovered she spends her time writing, working on local oral history projects and helping aspiring writers.
The White Camellia was published by the Welsh independent press Honno in September 2016. Juliet has two other novels also published by Honno: Eden’s Garden and We That Are Left.