The Tea Merchants
An evocative account of the lost world of the Dutch East Indies
Hella Haasse is the ‘grande dame’ of Dutch letters. She made her name with lengthy, excellently documented, fast paced historical novels on subjects ranging from the life of Charles d’Orleans in early fifteenthcentury France to the Papal court in Rome (the ‘scarlet city’) a century later. The most successful of all her novels with historical settings is Heren van de thee (The Tea Merchants), which continues to sell.
The story of the Dutch couple Rudolf Kerkhoven and Jenny Roosegaarde Bisschop, who travel to a remote tea plantation in Preanger, Java, in 1871, is an evocative account of the lost world of the Dutch East Indies. Haasse spent her childhood on Java – a period she describes as dreamlike – before moving to the Netherlands to study in 1938. She was never able truly to say goodbye to Java and the island has left its mark on much of her work. The power of The Tea Merchants lies in its combination of a true story about an expatriate family, based on family archives, and a sensitive, enchanting, vibrant portrait of the mysterious character at the centre of the book: the island of Java itself.
‘He wanted to remain there, in the embrace of the primeval forest, for ever. He had reached the place where all his unlived reality was waiting for him.’