In 1999 a librarian noticed a hand-written diary at the British Library, open at a page with an amusing watercolour sketch, entitled “Indigo planters after tiffin.” He mentioned it to Jenny Balfour-Paul, an indigo expert. Her resulting quest to follow the life of Thomas Machell, the writer (and painter) of that journal, has resulted in this extraordinary book.
On their own, Machell’s adventures would be fascinating: a young man, an excellent writer, with a mysterious unnamed “defect” disqualifying him for the Army life of his brothers, he set off on a merchant ship at 16 in 1840 and travelled widely through the Middle East, India (particularly India), Polynesia, and China, dying at 37.
When he was 17, Thomas was enmeshed in the First Opium War. Later, he became an indigo planter in Bengal, returned to Europe on an Arab ship dressed as an Arab merchant, and fell in requited love with a Polynesian chief’s daughter.
But this book is much more than a series of marvellous accounts of a Victorian Englishman abroad. Because what Balfour-Paul begins to find, as she reads the diaries and later travels to follow Thomas’s trail, is that her own (also extraordinary, brave and eccentric) life eerily echoes Thomas’s.
It is not just their shared indigo passion, nor that on the same days in 1848 and 2010 they were on alert for pirates off Yemen, nor that as a hippy teenager she had already visited Thomas’s home area in Bengal – it is that there are coincidences in this beautifully written, cleverly structured book which seem to crack open the very nature of life itself.
At one point in the Malabar Hills, Balfour-Paul undergoes a past life regression, something she had never imagined herself doing. In the following days she finds herself describing some of the gaps in Thomas’s biography, and especially his last six years (for which no diaries exist) and his death.
Later, she asks her literary agent, Gillon Aitken, should she include all of it? Even the weird stuff? Yes, he said, she should include it all. Then it turned out that Aitken had worked for the publisher Hamish Hamilton, where Thomas’s great-nephew Roger had been a partner, and knew the main beneficiary of Roger Machell’s will. And that led to Balfour-Paul’s being shown an ancient wooden box of documents found in Roger Machell’s basement, which had not been read for years. Amazingly, they told the stories of Thomas’s final years ….