The Narrow Corner by W. Somerset Maugham (1932)

If Dr Saunders was somewhat lacking in sympathy, he made up for it by being uncommonly tolerant. He thought it no business of his to praise or condemn. He was able to recognize that one was a saint and another a villain, but his consideration of both was fraught with the same cool detachment. (Chapter 11)

I started reading this 200-page novel because I saw it in the charity shop for £1. But it turns out, by accident, to be closely linked to the last Maugham novel I read, The Moon and Sixpence. In his typically breezy preface Maugham explains that he created the character of Captain Nichols in that book, a disreputable sea captain, based on someone he’d met in the South Seas, because he needed three or four ‘witnesses’ to help the narrator piece together the latter stages of the life of Charles Strickland, the ‘primitivist’ painter who is the subject of The Moon and Sixpence.

But the character stuck in his mind, along with another minor character, Dr Saunders, who he had created to make a cameo appearance in his first travel book, On a Chinese Screen. Both haunted and niggled at his imagination until here, 13 years after The Moon, they finally appear in their own story.

The plot

Dr Saunders is the short, ugly but immensely competent doctor based in Fu-Chou, China. He is persuaded by a well-known Chinese rogue and mastermind of all kinds of dubious businesses, Kim Ching, who lives on the distant island of Takana, to come and treat Kim’s cataracts.

Kim Ching’s two dutiful sons, who bring the invitation, offer to pay Dr Saunders a lot of money and so he overcomes his reluctance and goes. He arrives on the island, is put up at the best (in fact the only) hotel and performs the operation successfully. Kim is happy, pays up and offers him any little luxuries he needs but Dr Saunders is a man of modest needs. Now the doctor has to pass the time until the monthly ship arrives, to take him off the island and back north to his home in China.

So Dr Saunders eats on the balcony of the hotel, reads the out of date newspapers and smokes opium, prepared for him by his sleek young Chinese help, Ah Kay. The text gives several very evocative descriptions of the technical preparations and then the state of mind created by smoking opium. Saunders floats serenely and watches the world go by.

Ah Kay now made himself a couple of pipes, and having smoked them put out the lamp. He lay down on a mat with a wooden rest under his neck and presently fell asleep. But the doctor, exquisitely at peace, considered the riddle of existence. His body rested in the long chair so comfortably that he was not conscious of it except in so far as an obscure sense of well-being in it added to his spiritual relief. In this condition of freedom his soul could look down upon his flesh with the affectionate tolerance with which you might regard a friend who bored you but whose love was grateful to you. His mind was extraordinarily alert, but in its activity there was no restlessness and no anxiety; it moved with an assurance of power, as you might imagine a great physicist would move among his symbols, and his lucidity had the absolute delight of pure beauty. It was an end in itself. He was lord of space and time. There was no problem that he could not solve if he chose; everything was clear, everything was exquisitely simple; but it seemed foolish to resolve the difficulties of being when there was so delicate a pleasure in knowing that you could completely do so whensoever you chose. (Chapter eight)

Then one day two white men walk into the bar and they all get to chatting. One is the tremendously shifty, cockney, middle-aged, stubbly, nervy Captain Nichols. The other is a handsome young Australian man introduced as Fred Blake, who is also oddly nervous.

After some conversation Blake makes his excuses and leaves, whereupon Captain Nichols confides to Saunders that he was ‘on the beach’ without a job in Sydney, and desperate to get away from his nagging wife when he was approached by a powerful underworld figure who offered him money and the lugger he has just arrived in, to take a young man off for a cruise. Anywhere special, asks Nichols. ‘Just away from here,’ comes the threatening reply. All very suspicious.

Nichols continues to describe to Saunders the way he was given a cab ride to an out-of-the-way bay, rowed out to the boat – the Fenton, a relatively small vessel which can fish for pearls or do smuggling, as required – and had barely got his bearings before young Blake was put aboard from another dinghy. Nichols was handed £200 to go cruising and keep a low profile, and then the dodgy but obviously well-connected fixer who’d arranged all this disappeared back to shore.

And so it is that Nichols has spent the last month captaining the lugger as they cruise aimlessly round the south seas, all the time trying to puzzle out what Blake’s mystery is…

Later that day Saunders asks Kim Ching about the newcomers. Kim knows Nichols and says he is a no good man, and warns Saunders to have nothing to do with him.

Nonetheless, Saunders is impatient to go home and decides to ask Nichols if he can hitch a lift on the lugger, if it’s heading north. Nichols says sure, but Blake is dead against it and they have a fierce argument about it right in front of Saunders. Obviously Blake is hiding something pretty big.

But Nichols insists that he is captain and the captain’s decision is final. He also admits that he partly wants the doc to come along because he – Nichols – has bad dyspepsia which he (rather comically) complains about all the time and so he hopes the doc can cure him.

So Ah Kay packs Saunders’ bags, they say goodbye to the grateful and influential Kim Ching, and go aboard.

Saunders likes to think of himself as a connoisseur of character. Like many a Maugham narrator, like the narrator of the travel book The Gentleman in the Parlour, he is cool and non-judgmental. He observes men with all their foibles and is amused. Nichols knows that Saunders knows that he is a crook. They amuse each other with their canniness. (‘Nichols took an artist’s delight in his own rascality’.) Blake on the other hand is young and earnest and nervous, his temper constantly ready to snap.

Another perennial theme of Maugham’s – that people often have unexpected aspect to their character – is demonstrated when a big storm blows up. It quickly becomes too rough for Saunders and he retreats below decks. The point is that Nichols, although without doubt a shifty crook, is able to show his true colours as a supremely confident master of sailing. He is in complete control of the little lugger, making all the right decisions, and absolutely fearless while enormous waves crash over it and threaten to capsize it for hours on end. Nichols may be a dodgy geezer, but Saunders has to admire his stamina, courage and competency.

This is the central Maugham theme – that people aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but complex mixtures of contradictory characteristics, which is why ‘judging’ them is so futile. On the contrary, the doctor not only doesn’t judge, he savours, like a fine wine, the complicated blend of aromas and scents, qualities and characteristics, which each human presents for his delectation.

For the first 160 pages or so, the novel is slow-paced, lazily describing sea voyages, green islands, warm seas, blue skies, slow natives, smiling Chinese, opium nights, and Dr Saunders leisurely contemplating the odd people fate throws in his way.

After a while it reminded me of the Symbolist classic, Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans from 1884 in which the élite protagonist, a moneyed aristocrat, retires from the world altogether to a secluded chateau and devotes himself to the world of the senses, cultivating collections of fine paintings, rare wines, exclusive scents, erotic books and so on. Although in a different setting, Dr Saunders has much the same approach to life, a decadent almost symbolist approach.

After surviving the storm our crew of Saunders, Ah Kay, Nicholas, Blake and the two ‘blackfellows’ who man the ship, are relieved to put in at the nearest sheltered haven, Kanda-Meira, twin islands belonging to the Dutch East Indies.

Here they encounter the characters who will trigger the main action. The island is a decent size, is administered by Dutch officials, has a main town which is bustling with all ethnic groups (Chinese, natives, Indians, Arabs).

Our team bump into a pleasant, big, strong Danish man named Erik Christesson. He volunteers to show them round the island and, while Saunders and Nichols are content to drink and play cards, Erik and young Blake soon form a strong friendship, going on some long hikes together up the side of the local volcano and around the ruins of the original Portuguese forts. They become close friends, Blake more or less hero-worshiping the strong young Dane who is so confident and bluff, while the Australian remains so nervous and unhappy.

A gay novel?

The suspicion had been growing on me that this was a sort of gay novel. Obviously nothing overt or obvious, homosexuality was illegal in Maugham’s day, but:

1. Dr Saunders has a very close relationship with his servant Ah Kay, who he describes a couple of times as beautiful, slender, slim, well-dressed, obedient, smooth-skinned and generally lovely.

2. On a growing number of occasions Saunders notices just how devastatingly handsome young Fred Blake is, with a Grecian profile, sensual lips, and a handsome body when he strips off to wash in the sea.

As he sat there, in the mellow light, in his singlet and khaki trousers, with his hat off so that you saw his dark curling hair, he was astonishingly handsome. There was something appealing in his beauty so that Dr Saunders, who had thought him a rather dull young man, felt on a sudden kindly disposed to him. (Chapter 17)

3. The Dane Christessen (aged about 30) is described as a bit thick and slow, but is nonetheless physically impressive and Saunders, once again, on a number of occasions notices the puppy-like devotion he inspires in handsome young Blake.

So nothing especially overt but, in the lazy sensual atmosphere of tropical climate, opium nights, stripping off and swimming in the sea, and of repeated descriptions of trim native boys and strapping white men, I began to enjoy the rather homoerotic atmosphere.

Femme fatale

And couldn’t help thinking that Maugham himself enjoyed himself writing this first three-quarters of the novel, with its lazy inconsequential sensuality. Unfortunately, all this evaporates in the final quarter which descends a bit into melodrama and also involves a lot of backstory and explication i.e. becomes a lot more harassed and gnotty.

Christessen introduces our characters to a household which lives on a nutmeg plantation. The place is owned by old Swan, a man so decrepit and wizened that he gives the impression of being only half there, off in his own dream world of memories a lot of the time. His daughter, Catherine, married an Englishman named Frith, a former teacher from Britain – a particularly odoriferous Maugham creation, a fat lazy man gone to seed who has spent twenty years translating the Portuguese epic poem, The Lusiads, into rhyming English verse, and also, given half a chance, starts sounding off about Hindu philosophy.

Fat old Frith and his wife had a daughter, Louise, before his wife, Catherine, died suddenly of heart failure. So now Frith lives with his batty father-in-law and his beautiful daughter.

After Erik has introduced them all, Frith hosts a dinner party, old Swan tells disreputable stories, Saunders is entranced by the eccentric Frith, Captain Nichols just tucks into the grub and Blake… Blake is stunned when the lissom young Louise walks through the door. She is stunning, breath-takingly, staggeringly attractive.

She was wearing a sarong of green silk in which was woven an elaborate pattern in gold thread. It had a sleek and glowing splendour. It was Javanese, and such as the ladies of the Sultan’s harem at Djokjakarta wore on occasions of state. It fitted her slim body like a sheath, tight over her young nipples and tight over her narrow hips. Her bosom and her legs were bare. She wore high-heeled green shoes, and they added to her graceful stature. That ashy blond hair of hers was done high on her head, but very simply, and the sober brilliance of the green-and-golden sarong enhanced its astonishing fairness. Her beauty took the breath away.

Later the others drink and play cards but Louise takes Blake for a stroll round the tropical garden and he kisses her, then touches her breasts. After more kisses they go back in.

But it is enough. Blake knows he can have her. He knows she wants him.

Later that night, Christessen drops in for a drink at Dr Saunders’ hotel and tells the doctor that he and Louise are engaged. As a young man he had a great respect and devotion to Catherine, Mrs Frith, the girl’s mother and she asked him to marry her daughter and look after her. From the way he tells it, Saunders suspects that Christessen was actually in love with the mother, who gave him the kind of love and security he had lacked since coming out to the East as a vulnerable young man. Anyway, when Catherine passed away, Christessen promised to keep his vow.

That night big simple Christessen goes back up to the nutmeg plantation where he spent so many happy days as a young man. He sits in the rocking chair outside the darkened building while everyone is asleep and reveries about the old days.

Which is why he is startled when an upstairs French window – which he knows is Louise’s  – opens, Louise comes out onto the verandah, beckons someone else, and a man’s figure tiptoes out, climbs over the balustrade and drops to the garden beneath.

Louise goes back into her room and silently closes the window, but in those few moments Christessen has walked over to the figure on the ground, which is still fastening his shoes. Christessen hauls him to his feet and starts strangling him, without thought or remorse. Someone has been with his beloved Louise. He will kill him.

Until a stifled squeak makes him look again and – he realises that the man is none other than Fred Blake – the young man he’d come to look on as a new best friend, as a younger brother to mentor and look after.

Horrified Christessen lets Blake drop to the floor choking, and staggers off into the night.

To cut a long story short, Blake recovers, puts his boots on, goes very cautiously down the road back into town, and heads for Christessen’s house, determined to find out what on earth the big Dane was doing outside the Frith house, and why on earth he attacked him like that.

Remember: Blake doesn’t know that Christessen considers himself engaged to Louise. Only we know this because Maugham created the scene where Christessen explains it all to Dr Saunders.

Blake arrives at the hotel room where Christessen lives, opens the door, tiptoes in, lights a match – and sees the big man lying on the floor with half his head shot away. He has committed suicide.

Terror-stricken, Blake stumbles out and blunders across town to Saunders’s hotel, where he wakes the good doctor from a pleasant opium haze.

Saunders listens impassively to Blake’s confused story – and then tells him that the Dane was engaged to Louise. Blake is horror stricken and collapses in tears. He is devastated at causing the death of his big strong friend. And hates Louise for not telling him about the engagement.

For him, Blake, she was just another bit of skirt who threw herself at him because he is so damn handsome – if he’d had any idea they were engaged he’d never have slept with her. Why oh why didn’t she tell him? Saunders gives Blake a knockout shot of morphine and they both go back to sleep.

In the morning the Dutch police call as a formality. They have found Christessen’s body and can see that it was obviously suicide, they just want to double check his last movements. So Saunders gives an accurate description of Erik’s coming to have a drink with him the night before, then leaving, at which point everything had seemed alright.

The police attribute Christessen’s suicide it to the intense loneliness of the East which undermines so many good men. Blake is in the clear.

Blake’s story

So far so suddenly and abruptly, melodramatic. But as if this wasn’t enough, the book now lets us in on the reason Fred Blake is on the run. This is the result of another tragic love affair.

Blake’s father is a successful and influential lawyer in Sydney. Among his many contacts is an important politician, Pat Hudson. Blake’s dad has him and Mrs Hudson round for dinner. Unfortunately, Mrs Hudson – thin, old, a bit leathery – falls head over heels in love with handsome young Blake. (Blake tells this long convoluted story to Saunders in by far the longest chapter in the book, which lasts 25 pages.)

Blake and Mrs Hudson have sex everywhere. She is voracious. She is imaginative and teaches him all sorts of new tricks (I thought this must be a bit racy for a novel published in 1932). She takes insane risks of being caught or seen. She wants to live dangerously.

Eventually Blake gets sick and tired of it all, and tries to end the affair. She refuses to take no for an answer, bombards his home and office with phone calls, sends letters, waits outside his office morning, noon and night. She becomes a stalker.

Finally, Mrs Hudson sends Blake an unusually sober and sensible letter saying she sees his point, maybe he is right, maybe they should call it a day, but she has to tell him that her husband has been told some gossip  about them and now suspects. Can she see him just one last time so they can straighten their stories out about the few times they’ve been seen (at the cinema together, things like that)?

Naively, Blake agrees and goes along to her house. Mrs Hudson starts off the conversation by continuing with the line about getting their stories straight. But then she asks for just one last goodbye kiss, then a goodbye grope and then — then she begs him to make love to her one last time.

Weak as only a young man can be, Blake agrees, and they are in mid-coitus when the door opens and the husband walks in. Seeing his wife being penetrated by young buck, no-nonsense Pat Hudson strides over to Blake without a word and attacks him. They have one hell of a fight, punching, wrestling, pushing, throwing, smashing up all the furniture.

Eventually Pat Hudson has Blake in a death grip on the floor, kneeling on his neck and intending to snap it when Blake, scrabbling around with his hands, feels a gun being placed into one of them. He grabs it and fires. Hudson falls off him. Blake fires again. Hudson is dead. There is blood everywhere.

He realises that Mrs Hudson planned it all. She lured Blake into her honey trap and made sure her husband would come home to find them, all the time having a loaded gun to hand. Now she wants to run away with him to America and get married and make love to him all day long.

Appalled by what has happened, Blake staggers home, tries to eat an ordinary dinner with his mother and father, but breaks down and tells them everything. His father is a hard case. A general election is due and Hudson was a vital supporter of Blake Senior’s Labour Party. This adds a power political element to an already messy situation. His dad decides Fred will have to ‘disappear’. He contacts one of his best fixers to find a boat and a skipper who won’t ask any questions. For the time being, to avoid the police investigation, Fred is admitted to hospital on suspicion of having scarlet fever – this will put the cops off the trail and also stall Mrs Hudson.

A few days later, his dad gets Blake spirited out of the hospital and onto the same lugger Captain Nichols had been deposited on only half an hour before. At this point the backstory and the main narrative join up. Now Dr Saunders understands why Blake was so nervy right from the start, and this also fills in all the background to Captain Nichols’ story of being hired by a mystery man.

It also explains the couple of occasions on their cruise together, when Nichols or Saunders have had the opportunity to read fresh newspapers from Australia (always at a premium in the East) and Fred has hidden or thrown them away.

Then, in one of them, he had read that Mrs Hudson, widow of the leading politician Pat Hudson, had been found hanged, obviously being distraught at the still unsolved murder of her husband and having committed suicide.

Blake is even more horror-stricken. His father obviously arranged the ‘suicide’. She was mad and obsessive, but… they had slept together, he knew her, he feels awfully to blame for her ‘death’.

And now, as the story arrives back at ‘the present, Blake tells Saunders how he feels like a doomed man, a fated man. Everywhere he turns his handsome good looks attract women and instead of innocent fun and games, somehow it always seems to lead to death and disaster.

All this time Saunders has listened, the great collector of human stories, the connoisseur of human weakness and foll, with a grim detached expression on his face.

It’s at this moment, with a distraught Blake sitting in Saunders’ hotel room, that the door opens and Louise walks in. They stare intently at each other, neither talking, Blake with genuine hatred in his eyes. Louise leaves without a word. Later that day, the Fenton sails, carrying off Blake and Captain Nichols (never, alas, to be met again in Maugham’s fiction. I would pay good money for another novel featuring the shifty rascal Nichols – a very enjoyable character).

Dr Saunders pays a final visit to the house of Frith, encountering mad old Swan and Louise, who he is surprised to find completely calm and self-possessed.

Coda

In the last chapter, a month later, Doctor Saunders is sitting on the terrace of the van Dyke Hotel in Singapore when Nichols approaches him, looking down at heel and seedy.

Know what happened? That kid Blake disappeared overboard, fell or jumped. The sea was dead calm. It was night time, they’d been drinking, Blake had been low, Nichols went to bed, Blake wasn’t there in the morning.

What’s worse the boy had won almost all the money Nichols was paid for doing the job of spiriting him away, the £200, off him at cribbage.

After he’d disappeared, Nichols broke into Blake’s strong box but there was no money in it. The kid must have put all the money in a belt and been wearing it when he jumped. The doctor is dismayed and just about to ask some questions when Nichols goes pale and – his wife comes up to him, the legendary wife who he is always trying to avoid. Without further ado she commands the rough old sea captain to get up and follow her immediately, which he does like a scolded child. Comedy.

Leaving the doctor never to know the complete story, leaving him remembering the slow, calm, self-possessed movements of beautiful young Louise, the still centre of this perfect emotional storm.

Conclusion

This bald summary of the rather complicated plot doesn’t convey the real experience of the book, which is one of civilised and leisurely observation of some wonderful characters.

the fat old philosopher is a corker, particularly the scene where he arrives in great deliberation at Dr Saunders’ hotel room to read to the good doctor an excerpt from his ongoing translation of The Lusiads and Saunders, despite his best efforts to the contrary, falls asleep.

It contains hundreds of moments of acute perception and insight. I particularly liked the character of the rather mad old Swan, owner of the plantation where Frith and the fragrant Louise live. In our own day, everyone is so earnest about mental health and social care and Alzheimer’s. In an old-world author like Maugham, old people are more free to be weird and strange, as I remember them from my own boyhood.

Swan talked in a high cracked voice with a strong Swedish accent, so that you had to listen intently to understand what he said. He spoke very quickly, almost as though he were reciting a lesson, and he finished with a little cackle of senile laughter. It seemed to say that he had been through everything and it was all stuff and nonsense. He surveyed human kind and its activities from a great distance, but from no Olympian height – from behind a tree, slyly, and hopping from one foot to another with amusement. (Chapter 20)

Later, Louise comments on her grandfather:

‘Old age is very strange. It has a kind of aloofness. It’s lost so much that you can hardly look upon the old as quite human any more. But sometimes you have a feeling that they’ve acquired a sort of new sense that tells them things that we can never know.’

Having lived through the old age, illness and dementia of both my parents, I know what she means. The really old are uncanny, no longer relating to our world of deadlines and urgency, living by their own pace, and party to incommunicable truths.

Three traits

Maugham’s books have three characteristics: every page displays examples of his odd, rather clumsy non-English way with the English language; there are repeated meditations on the pointlessness and absurdity of existence; almost all his characters seem to have blue eyes.

Maughamese

Just a few examples of his odd clunky way with the English language.

  • There were few Chinese, for they do not settle where no trade is.
  • The grand houses of the old perkeniers, in which dwelt now the riff-raff of the East.
  • There was a wide space in front of it, facing the sea, where grew huge old trees, planted it was said
    by the Portuguese.
  • Often it is the same with men, with Anglo-Saxons at all events, to whom words come difficultly.
  • He was surprised and a trifle touched by the emotion that with this shy clumsiness fought for expression.
  • She gave them both a cool survey in which was inquiry and then swift appraisement.

Blue eyes

Fred Blake was a tall young man, slight but wiry, with curly, dark brown hair and large blue eyes. He did not look more than twenty. In his dirty singlet and dungarees he looked loutish, an unlicked cub, thought the doctor, and there was a surliness in his expression that was somewhat disagreeable; but he had a straight nose and a well-formed mouth.

Captain Nichols looked at him with his little shifty blue eyes and his grinning face was quick with malice.

The little old man had very pale blue eyes with red-rimmed, hairless lids, but they were full of cunning, and his glance was darting and mischievous like a monkey’s.

She wore nothing but a sarong of Javanese batik, with a little white pattern on a brown ground; it was attached tightly just over her breasts and came down to her knees. She was barefoot… Dr Saunders noticed that her brown hands were long and slender. Her eyes were blue. Her features were fine and very regular. She was an extremely pretty young woman.

The meaning of life

Maugham was an atheist. There is no meaning of life. It is all a dream. On this Dr Saunders with his opium trances, and Frith with his lengthy expositions of Eastern philosophy, agree.

But Saunders expresses another recurrent Maugham trope, which is the sheer oddity, the surreality, of pondering the way that all organic life has crawled out of the protozoic slime, struggled into multi-cellular life, fought and died and triumphed for billions of years – and all to arrive at the peculiar and random moments of life and death which Saunders, as a doctor, has witnessed first hand again and again.

There’s no ‘why’ to any of this – just wonder that it should be, and a connoisseur’s savouring of the infinite absurdity of existence. Here is Saunders attending a Japanese pearl diver who is dying of dysentery.

But in the hold where the pearl shell was piled, on one of the wooden bunks along the side, lay the dying diver. The doctor attached small value to human life. Who, that had lived so long amid those teeming Chinese where it was held so cheap, could have much feeling about it? He was a Japanese, the diver, and probably a Buddhist. Transmigration? Look at the sea: wave follows wave, it is not the same wave, yet one causes another and transmits its form and movement. So the beings travelling through the world are not the same today and tomorrow, nor in one life the same as in another; and yet it is the urge and the form of the previous lives that determine the character of those that follow. A reasonable belief but an incredible. But was it any more incredible than that so much striving, such a variety of accidents, so many miraculous hazards should have combined, through the long aeons of time, to produce from the primeval slime at long last this man who, by means of Flexner’s bacillus, was aimlessly snuffed out? Dr Saunders thought it odd, but natural, senseless certainly, but he had long made himself at home in the futility of things. (Chapter 11)

‘At home in the futility of things’. Very comfortably at home. That is the Maugham mood.

He awoke in the morning with a clean tongue and in a happy frame of mind. He seldom stretched himself in bed, drinking his cup of fragrant China tea and smoking the first delicious cigarette, without looking forward with pleasure to the coming day… and Ah Kay brought him his breakfast out on the veranda. He enjoyed his papaya, he enjoyed his eggs, that moment out of the frying-pan, and he enjoyed his scented tea. He reflected that to live was a very enjoyable affair. He wanted nothing.
He envied no man. He had no regrets. The morning was still fresh and in the clean, pale light the outline of things was sharp-edged. (Chapter 19)

Maugham isn’t a great novelist, and often struggles with the English language, but he is just such damn fine company!


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The Gentleman in the Parlour by W. Somerset Maugham (1930)

Laughter is the only reality. (Chapter 9)

Maugham is very candid in his preface about his motives in writing this book. It was 1922 and he was an established and very successful author, of novels and also a series of smash-hit West End plays. He fancied a break from writing novels, had written one travel book (On a Chinese Screen) more or less by accident, worked up from notes on a journey and now, having seen how it was done, he fancied undertaking another journey but this time with the conscious aim of writing a carefully composed and crafted travel book.

The preface explains that, whereas the novel is necessarily a mongrel form, since dialogue, descriptions of scenery, moments of comedy or moments of tragedy, require the novelist to vary his style to be appropriate for each of these different moments, by contrast the travel book need contain no such varieties of tone.

Here prose may be cultivated for its own sake. You can manipulate your material so that the harmony you seek is plausible. Your style can flow like a broad, placid river and the reader is borne along on its bosom with security; he need fear no shoals, no adverse currents, rapids, or rock-strewn gorges.

The travel book can be an essay in style.

The journey

In Ceylon Maugham met a British government official who recommended he visit Keng Tung, in the remote Shan States in the north of Burma. So Maugham sailed to Rangoon, travelled on to Mandalay, where he set off by mule for the remote Keng Tung. After 26 days he arrived and recorded his impressions before carrying on to the Thai border, whence he travelled by car to Bangkok. Then by boat to Cambodia, a trek to the famous temple complex at Angkor Wat, another river trip to Saigon and then a coastal journey via Hue to Hanoi.

At this point the narrative ends, though Maugham went on to Hong Kong, crossed the Pacific, the United States, and the Atlantic, returning to London to resume his career as author and socialite.

Pause for reflection

The main thing about this book is that he waited until seven years after the trip to write it i.e. it wasn’t knocked out in the heat of the moment for money. Maugham gave himself seven years in which to shape and craft the narrative. Hence the way the preface emphasises style over impact and hence the book’s very leisurely, patrician prose. And also the fact, brought out in biographies and in Paul Theroux’s fascinating introduction, that the content of the book is highly manipulated. Not to put too fine a point on it, Maugham made stuff (particularly people) up, and by the same token, omitted a lot of important facts.

Most obviously, Maugham travelled with his long term partner, Frederick Haxton, and it was Haxton who made all the necessary arrangements, organised all travel and accommodation details, as well as approaching and befriending people of all classes throughout the journey, something Maugham was very bad at because of his stammer and his shyness. But in the book Haxton never appears, Maugham appears to have no white companion at all. On the contrary, the strong impression is given is that Maugham was an intrepid and solo traveller.

Meeting people

Throughout the book (and indeed throughout his short stories) the narrator describes the way he has a special skill at extracting confidences and anecdotes from the people he meets. Indeed there is a quotable paragraph which I’ve read quoted in other introductions and articles about Maugham, where he analyses the special skill he has in gaining people’s confidence and hearing their stories.

Often in some lonely post in the jungle or in a stiff, grand house, solitary in the midst of a teeming Chinese city, a man has told me stories about himself that I am sure he had never told to a living soul. I was a stray acquaintance whom he had never seen before and would never see again, a wanderer for a moment through this monotonous life, and some starved impulse led him to lay bare his soul. I have in this way learned more about men in a night (sitting over a siphon or two and a bottle of whiskey, the hostile, inexplicable world outside the radius of an acetylene lamp) than I could if I had known them for ten years. If you are interested in human nature it is one of the great pleasures of travel. (p.32)

Thus the narrative includes a number of stories confided in him by the people who he meets:

  • The story of Masterson, the decent white man who takes a native wife and has three pretty children but, when she asks him to formally marry her, can’t bring himself to; he wants to eventually retire in dignity to Cheltenham. And so she leaves him as Maugham finds him a few months later, desolate and abandoned.
  • The haunting episode with the Italian priest living in a hand-built mission in the remotest part of the Burmese jungle.
  • The Frenchman in the teak forest who bursts into tears over a couplet of Verlaine.
  • The florid cast of characters aboard the ship from Bangkok to Saigon, including a soulful Italian tenor, an ugly little French governor and his statuesque wife, and the Wilkins, the cheerful American owners of a travelling circus.
  • The lengthy encounter with a man named Grosely who approaches him at his hotel in Haiphong claiming to have known him at medical school in London back in the early 90s. Now he is raddled and gone to seed. He invites Maugham to his squalid rooms in the roughest part of the native quarter where he lives with a retired prostitute he’s married, and offers him a pipe of opium (which Maugham refuses) before telling him the strange and sad story of his life: to wit, he made a fortune working as a tide waiter in China, taking bribes from opium smugglers, all the time fantasising about returning to London. When, after 20 years, he finally returned to London with a fortune, he found it bigger, noisier, unfriendlier than he remembered, the women stand-offish, the men snobby. Eventually, he realised he preferred the East and headed back towards China but was overcome by fear that, now, his memories of China would prove equally as false. So he stopped off at Haiphong on a temporary basis, and said he’d complete the trip any day now. He’d been saying that for five years. Another of Maugham’s subtle grotesques.

It is a bit of a shock to learn that some of these stories appeared elsewhere, in magazines, as fictions. I also noticed several passages of ruminant meditation which appear in some of the short stories. For Maugham the borderline between fiction and fact was obviously pretty porous, as were the borders of his texts: if a passage worked, why not use it elsewhere? appears to have been his practice.

Also, once I had really soaked up his leisurely bookish approach to travelling, it began to dawn on me that Maugham is a collector of people. He relishes their peculiarities and absurdities, their sad love stories, their ridiculous passions.

Reading this book doesn’t shed much light on the factual background of the British Empire in the East (none, really); but it makes you realise that a lot of his short stories are like those glass display cases in which Victorian collectors kept stuffed specimens, of exotic birds and rare butterflies pinned to boards. Only Maugham’s stuffed exhibits are people.

Maugham himself describes how he has to sit through countless boring dinners and endless chat over whiskey and soda at the club, before the magic moment arrives and a person discloses themself, reveals the nugget, their essence, the one great story they have about their lost love or their great triumph or a ghoulish murder, which excites his imagination, which fuels him, which he can work up into one of his wonderful short stories.

Descriptions

I expected there to be lots of anecdotes about people but was surprised that there is quite so much description of landscape, not necessarily Maugham’s strongest point. Particularly on the first part of the trip, the 26 day mule trek through jungle, up into mountain, and across wide sluggish Burmese rivers, there are many passages of description worth stopping and savouring.

Then, the muleteers’ duties accomplished and the servants having unpacked my things, peace descended upon the scene, and the river, empty as though man had never adventured up its winding defiles, regained its dim remoteness. There was not a sound. The day waned and the peace of the water, the peace of the tree-clad hills, and the peace of the evening were three exquisite things. There is a moment just before sundown when the trees seem to detach themselves from the dark mass of the jungle and become individuals. Then you cannot see the wood for the trees. In the magic of the hour they seem to acquire a life of a new kind so that it is not hard to imagine that spirits inhabit them and with dusk they will have the power to change their places. You feel that at some uncertain moment some strange thing will happen to them and they will be wondrously transfigured. You hold your breath waiting for a marvel the thought of which stirs your heart with a kind of terrified eagerness. but the night falls; the moment has passed and once more the jungle takes them back. It takes them back as the world takes young people who, feeling in themselves the genius which is youth, hesitate for an instant on the brink of a great adventure of the spirit, and then engulfed by their surroundings sink back into the vast anonymity of mankind. The trees again become part of the wood; they are still and, if not lifeless, alive only with the sullen and stubborn life of the jungle. (Chapter 14)

Maughamese

Having pointed this out in reviews of his short stories I had vowed not to mention it in this review, but Maugham really does have a cranky way with the English language.

  • I took to the road once more. One day followed another with a monotony in which was nothing tedious. (Chapter 15)
  • I had with me a number of books that would have improved my mind and others, masterpieces of style, by the study of which I might have made progress in the learning of this difficult language in which we write. (Ch 15)
  • I had wandered so long through country almost uninhabited that I was dazzled by the variety and colour of the crowd. (Chapter 18) This is French word order, placing the adjective after the noun
  • There are perhaps a dozen monasteries in Keng Tung and their high roofs stand out when you look at the town from the little hill on which is the circuit-house. (Chapter 21) ‘on which is’ sounds like a German expression to me; it’s not natural English.

What’s so odd is that Maugham makes several explicit references to his struggle to write elegantly and yet so continually fails to do so. He was born and bred in France till the age of ten. French was his first language, and it was obviously a lifelong battle to shake off the influence of French word order, a battle he never won.

In fact the struggle to write clearly is so obviously a theme of the book and his seven-years’ labour on it that he devotes a paragraph to a typically candid and self-deprecatory account of his own style.

When I was young I took much trouble to acquire a style; I used to go to the British Museum and note down the names of rare jewels so that I might give my prose magnificence, and I used to go to the Zoo and observe the way an eagle looks or linger on a cab-rank to see how a horse champed so that I might on occasion use a nice metaphor; I made lists of unusual adjectives so that I might put them in unexpected places. But it was not a bit of good. I found I had no bent for anything of the kind; we do not write as we want but as we can, and though I have the greatest respect for those authors who are blessed with a happy gift of phrase I have long resigned myself to writing as plainly as I can. I have a very small vocabulary and I manage to make do with it, I am afraid, only because I see things with no great subtlety. I think perhaps I see them with a certain passion and it interests me to translate into words not the look of them, but the emotion they have given me. But I am content if I can put this down as briefly and baldly as if I were writing a telegram. (Chapter 37)

This is both true and not true. Maugham is obviously posing (to himself as well as to his readers) as a man of simple tastes and plain prose. And it is an accurate description of some of his prose. But not all of it. Throughout his texts the prose is continually troubled by efforts at fine writing, description and philosophical lucubrations. He may have believed this account when he wrote it – or he may be cannily offering it to the reader as an apology and a claim to our sympathy – but it is far from being the whole story of this man’s odd and lifelong struggle with the English language.

The most important thing about this paragraph is its positioning, in the middle of what turns out to be the longest descriptive passage in the book, a love letter to the wondrousness of the temple complex at Angkor Wat, which continues on to a lyrical paean to the sculpture and art of the ancient Khmers. Maugham’s claims to prosey simplicity are themselves just an element in his tricksiness. It’s part of his appeal.

A life of ease

The struggle Maugham so visibly has to write basic, clear English prose sheds ironic light on the claim in the preface that the book will be an ‘exercise in style’.

So much so that I think we do best to stop applying it to his style of language and apply it more accurately to his style of living. More than descriptions of jungle or temples, more than anecdotes about white men in remote imperial outposts, what the book radiates is Maugham’s love of ease and leisure. Travelling by river is calm and monotonous. Day follows day on the mule trek across the mountains, all merging into one. Arriving at the little government bungalows along the way, he immediately makes himself at home. Two pages are devoted to describing his cook (unsatisfactory, eventually fired). Every morning his loyal Gurkha servant brings freshly ground coffee. When he finally arrives at a town with modern facilities he is in clover.

It was pleasant to have nothing much to do. It was pleasant to get up when one felt inclined and to breakfast in pyjamas. It was pleasant to lounge through the morning with a book.

He makes a great point of not knowing anything. He doesn’t read any guidebooks or mug up on local history. He satirises that approach in the (fictional?) character of a Czech who, he claims, is up early and out to take notes on all the different Buddhist temples in pagan, and has made a life’s study of acquiring general knowledge. He is, by his own admission, ‘a mine of information’. Maugham mocks him. He prefers to skim across the surface of things, letting his imagination project stories, snatches of dialogue, really glorified whims and fancies, onto the surface of people, scenery, places and landscapes.

I travelled leisurely down Siam. (Chapter 26)

The key words are: leisurely, nonchalant, ease, peace, laze, loll, lie, lounge, bath, verandah, smoke. Wherever he finds himself, Maugham regularly takes out his pipe and has a calming, relaxing smoke. In the depths of the jungle after 26 days’ journey by mule, he fantasises of a hotel where he can toast his toes by a fireside and lounge in an easy chair with a comfortable book. Above all, Maugham conveys a sense of quite wonderful, bookish, rather frivolous ease and leisure.

To ride in a teak forest, so light, so graceful and airy, is to feel yourself a cavalier in an old romance. (Chapter 26)

I think it is this, this ability to be at home, relaxed, to find the lazy, lyrical sometimes whimsical aspect of any situation, which makes all of Maugham’s books such a pleasure to read. They are extremely relaxing.

Books and art

An indication of the extent to which the book is more an exercise in a certain nonchalant, unflappable style of travelling and a deliberate avoidance of facts and analyses in favour of charming impressions is the steady flow of references to Western art and books: Rembrandt, Titian, Michelangelo, El Greco and Velasquez, Monet and Manet, Veronese and Cimabue are just some of the painters knowledgeably referenced: and Wordsworth, Lamb and Hazlitt (the title of this book is a quote from Hazlitt’s essay about ‘going a journey’), Proust, Bradley the philosopher, Verlaine and La Fontaine, George Meredith, Walter Pater, John Ruskin, Euphues and Sir Thomas Browne are just some of the writers invoked and even quoted.

Thus he is able to write the splendidly contrived and humorous sentence:

The uneventful days followed one another like the rhymed couplet of a didactic poem. (Chapter 24)

A bit later, he writes:

The village street was bordered by tamarinds and they were like the sentences of Sir Thomas Browne, opulent, stately, and self-possessed. (Chapter 26)

Both of which expect of the reader a familiarity with a certain type of rather dusty old literature. This assumption of knowledge is part of the strategy of the prose: you could react badly to it, and dismiss Maugham as a pompous old bore; but I happen to have read my share of didactic rhyming poems and Sir Thomas Browne, so I not only smile in recognition of the reference, but also smile at the preposterousness of the way Maugham’s first thought, lazily sailing down a river in Burma or entering a dusty oriental town, is of very English literary references.

It is this – to us nowadays, maybe forced and pretentious – approach, which is part of what he means when he talks about ‘an exercise in style’.

The British Empire

Modern politically correct, post-colonial critics find tearing into Maugham’s dilettante attitude easy meat. Above all it’s easy to criticise him for not showing a flicker of interest in the government, economy, political situation or native peoples of the countries he passes through. Hopefully my review has made clear by now that that kind of thing is exactly what he was deliberately avoiding, not least because he knows he’s not very good at it. In his own day there was no shortage of left-wing critics (and an entire political party, the Labour Party) writing books and articles attacking the exploitative nature of the British Empire. Maugham knows he is not in the same business, he is in the entertainment business.

That said, right at the start of the book there is a very interesting page where he tackles the issue head-on. He imagines a future historian of the Decline and Fall of the British Empire reading his book and being appalled at the lack of interest it shows in the subject. But what’s interesting is what Maugham has this historian say about the British Empire between the wars, what – presumably – Maugham himself thought about the Empire — and this is that he found it to be ruled weakly and ineffectually.

It is the great paradox of the British Empire that it achieved its largest size between the wars and yet at the same moment was struck by paralysing doubt. Thus Maugham has his future historian lament that the British held their empire with ‘a nerveless hand’, that they held their office only through the force of guns yet tried to persuade the natives they were there on their own sufferance, they offered efficiency and benefits to people who didn’t want them; British power was tottering because the masters were ‘afraid to rule’, lacked confidence in themselves and so commanded no respect from the natives, the British tried to rule by persuasion rather than power, who were troubled by the feeling that they were ‘unfit to rule’.

Though only a page long, it is a fascinating and powerful indictment and goes a long way to explaining the sudden collapse of the Empire after the Second World War.

Soulful moments

In among the lazy descriptions of jungle and temple, tiffin and evening pipes, are some genuinely thoughtful moments. Not too thoughtful, mind – Maugham goes out of his way to explain that he is not a philosopher (although he likes reading a bit of philosophy every morning before breakfast is served). Nonetheless, a consistent attitude emerges, which is his admiration for simplicity and lack of pomposity.

He admires Buddhism. He admires its simplicity and takes some time to reimagine the circumstances of Prince Gautama’s life and decision to abandon everything. He comes across a tiny village in the remote Burman jungle and ponders that their way of life, handed down from generation to generation, is admirable, honest and pure. He greatly admires the Italian priest labouring in the jungle. He likes the good and the simple.

This rather basic philosophy is reinforced by lyrical descriptions of the peace and mystery of the jungle, and the equally beguiling atmosphere of some of the Buddhist temples. He encounters many of these and so there are many descriptions of the eerie, absorbent quality of the gold-leafed statues of Buddha, especially when the light of the setting sun sets them aglow. Here he is on a houseboat in Ayudha.

When I awoke in the night I felt a faint motion as the houseboat rocked a little and heard a little gurgle of water, like the ghost of an Eastern music travelling not through space but through time. It was worth while for that sensation of exquisite peace, for the richness of that stillness, to have endured all that sight-seeing.

The Gentleman in the Parlour illustration in Radio Times by C.W. Bacon (1950s)

The Gentleman in the Parlour illustration in the Radio Times by C.W. Bacon (1950s)


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The Scramble for China by Robert Bickers (2011)

Bickers obviously knows a hell of a lot about western intervention in nineteenth-century China – or the story of the Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire 1832-1914, as the book’s sub-title puts it. Unfortunately, he attempts to convey this wealth of information in such a long-winded, round-the-houses manner, choked by a prose style which manages to combine academic jargon and whimsical archaism, that a lot of the time it’s difficult to tease out what he’s on about.

For example, the early chapters open with an unnamed ‘he’ doing something melodramatic and striking, thus creating an arresting opening – but take a page or more getting round to explaining who ‘he’ is, what ‘he’ is doing, where and when and why, thus leaving us in the dark.

They shouldered their way in. At Mr Lindsay’s order, Mr Simpson and Midshipman Stephens put their shoulders against the barred entrance to the Daotai’s quarters and heaved, twice. (Opening of chapter two)

Who? Where? When? Why? Patience, grasshopper. All will be revealed… eventually.

Was it a dream? Were his eyes deceiving him? He pressed forward through the crowd, the report goes, to get a better sight of the strangers, and “immediately began rubbing his eyes”. (Opening of chapter three)

Who? Where etc. Wait. Wait and see. Wait quite a while, in fact, for Bickers to make himself clear.

These teasing anecdotes, once finally explained, themselves take a while to be placed in the wider historical moment, which Bickers tends to explain both repetitively and obscurely. Quite regularly I didn’t know who he was referring to or when because the narrative jumped unpredictably between one set of characters and another, and (very frequently) back and forward over time. The only really consistent thing about his approach is his use of colourless academic phraseology and his scorn for the no-good imperialising westerners.

At first sight there appears to be a good deal of ‘background colour’ – the third chapter prides itself on going into great detail about the role of theatre and opera in Chinese society, from the professional heights of Peking Opera to the most amateur of local productions. Unfortunately, a lot of these purple passages, when you really look at them, merely state the obvious.

To give an example, the ‘he’ described in the opening of chapter three turns out to be a Chinese bystander who’s heard about two Europeans who have arrived out of the blue at Shanghai in – well, the date is lost in the yards of verbiage, I genuinely couldn’t figure it out – and who have blundered into a public opera production. This is Bickers’ cue to write pages about the Chinese opera and theatre tradition. Sounds fascinating, right? Alas, these pages are written thus:

But what was being staged depended on the occasion, and who was paying – the temple, a guild or a private patron. We cannot know, but we do know that the temple and the gathering so rudely interrupted by these bumptious foreign travellers were part of the fabric of Shanghai life and culture, in which were tightly interwoven the sojourning communities of commercial China, men from afar, whose trading activities were a key component of its wealth and importance. (p.59)

This one long sentence informs us that this big temple in Shanghai was part of Shanghai life and culture. Golly. Communities of sojourners (sojourner = ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’) were – in case you hadn’t twigged – ‘men from afar’. OK. And that the trading activities of travelling merchants ‘were a key component of [Shanghai’s] wealth and importance’. ‘Tightly interwoven’ sounds impressive, doesn’t it? What does it mean, though?

I.e. when you take this grand-sounding sentence to pieces, it doesn’t tell you anything that wasn’t already fairly obvious. This is true for thousands of passages throughout the book: sound great, don’t tell you a thing.

Obscurity 

I’ve gone back and reread the opening pages of chapter three, twice, and I genuinely cannot actually work out when the action quoted above is taking place. You have to wait until three pages into the chapter before there is any reference to an actual date, and then it’s to two dates at once, one or both of which may refer back to a scene described in the previous chapter (I think), a reference which, in turn, required me to go back and double-check those dates.

In other words, this book requires quite a lot of double-checking and cross-referencing just to figure out when the thing is happening. Here’s the date reference I’m talking about:

Understanding what they were congregating for on this dreary October day in 1835 and had been watching on that wet June morning in 1832, and why at a temple, will help us develop a fuller picture of the China that first Lindsay and Gütlzaff, and then Medhurst and Stevens, were so intent on interrupting with their presence. (p.53)

This is what I mean by a round-the-houses manner. The opening of chapter three is deliberately obscure and teasing but… becomes no clearer as it goes on, in fact becomes in many ways more obscure and confusing as it goes on. All that really comes over is Bickers’s anti-British attitude (‘so intent on interrupting’) which is, indeed, the central thread of his account.

All this makes for a very frustrating read. Obviously Bickers knows masses about this subject – it is a tragedy for us readers that he can’t set it down in a straightforward, understandable manner.


The sound of his own voice

Complementing the obscure structuring of the book is the convoluted prose style.

1) Long paragraphs Bickers’ paragraphs routinely last an entire page and often longer, so on opening the book anywhere the reader is faced with a blank wall of words, with no way of breaking the text down into smaller, manageable units of meaning. I continually found myself losing the drift of a 2-page long paragraph, my eyes glazing over, suddenly snapping out of it and then having to go right back to the start to figure out what was happening.

2) Long sentences These mammoth paragraphs are indicative of the book’s general long-windedness. Bickers is reluctant to write a simple declarative sentence. He prefers long, swelling periods, dotted with commas to indicate the proliferation of subordinate clauses and – if possible – the insertion of one or two additional facts in parentheses, to make them as ornate and rhetorically over-wrought as possible.

You know those suitcases which are so over-stuffed you have to sit on them to try and get them closed? Bickers’ sentences are like that. And is this over-stuffing done in the name of presenting the facts clearly? Alas, no. Nine times out of ten it is to achieve an effect of style, a rhetorical repetition of phrases or artful alliteration, the deployment of irony or sarcasm – all techniques which are more suitable to a creative writer than to a historian.

And so, yet again, the Tianhou temple at Shanghai played host to parley, and the crude theatrics of private diplomacy, as Medhurst in particular stood, or rather aimed to sit, on his dignity as yet higher officials, the Customs superintendent (with a foreign cloak, he noted) and the district magistrate, came along in turn to sort things out, and found the foreign intruders rudely rebuffing the requirements of propriety when meeting officials of the great Qing. (p.52)

Note the attempts at humour – ‘or rather aimed to sit’. Note the insertion of a parenthesis, which itself contains two grammatical parts ‘(with a foreign cloak, he noted)’. Note the fondness for alliteration, for the sound of his own style – ‘rudely rebuffing the requirements’. Note that rather than describing or explaining the attitudes of the participants, Bickers prefers to convey them through irony verging on sarcasm – ‘the great Qing’.

Basically, this is a historian trying to write like a novelist.

3) Old fashioned Ironically for someone who is so determined to take a loftily modern, politically correct point of view of the old British Empire, Bickers’ prose, as well as being convoluted to the point of incomprehension, is also addicted to very old-fashioned locutions and vocabulary. Since I often couldn’t work out what he was on about, I found myself drawn to collecting his oddities and archaisms (= ‘a thing that is very old or old-fashioned, especially an archaic word or style of language’):

  • History was ever a public act, but it was also ever a private passion. (p.16)

Leaving aside the fact that this grand sounding period means less the more you think about it, there is the phrasing to savour – ‘ever’ to mean ‘always’? Really? In 1817 certainly. In 1917 maybe. But in 2017? Reading so many Victorian journals, tracts, articles has obviously infected Bickers’ style. But this is far from being a one-off oddity:

  • Lindsay was ever deadly serious, of course, and Medhurst too. (p.75)
  • There were private interactions, too, as there had ever been. (p.224)
  • Music was ever also a private pleasure, a private relief, a source of succour. (p.228)
  • Such confidence in the foreign ability to know China better than the Chinese themselves was to be oft rehearsed. (p.39). ‘Oft’?
  • All understood the law, he averred… (p.41) ‘Averred’?
  • All this fury and posture came to nought. (p.46)
  • The bells in Macao were quieted at the request of his physicians, but it all proved to no avail. (p.46)
  • Emigrants from Fujian, who had long sojourned in the city… (p.54)
  • The colonial consolidation and expansion of the emperor’s predecessors was largely foresworn… (p.66)
  • The Qing could but capitulate… (p.324)

Odd that Bickers is so loftily dismissive of the old imperialist bullies when he himself sounds so like a mutton-chopped lawyer out of Dickens:

  • The tension among the Company men in China persisted thereafter… (p.25)
  • … they aimed to get their complaints heard elsewhere along the coast and transmitted thereby to Peking… (p.26)
  • Scholars have begun in recent decades to look beyond the rhetoric of some schools of Chinese statecraft, particularly insofar as it articulated hostility to commerce.. (p.62)
  • Thereafter he held an intendant post in Zhejiang… (p.72)
  • Charles Elliott, by now the British superintendent of trade, rushed to Canton from Macao in cocked-hatted full dress uniform, evading the blockade and thereby deliberately adding himself to the hostaged fray. (p.78) ‘The hostaged fray’?
  • There were ‘mixed feelings’ from The Times, at the conclusion of a ‘miserable war’, and the ‘ill-gotten gains’ therefrom. (p.84)
  • Jardines had fourteen receiving ships by 1845, and usually ten thereafter… (p.92)
  • Like most of the early missionary community in China, he secured a post with the official British establishment during the war, and turned it into a secure position thereafter… (p.94)
  • In this way they rationalised their operations somewhat. (p.106)
  • Telegraph lines snaked their way thereafter to China. (p.164)
  • [The convicted murderer John Buckley] went quietly to his death, the site guarded by twenty-four policemen in case an attempt was made to rescue him, and he was not thereafter missed. (p.180)
  • For almost a quarter of a century thereafter the firm grew and diversified… (p.185)
  • Thomas Hanbury and his ilk were wedded to their interests in the Settlement at Shanghai… (p.189)
  • At least in Britain there was a Public Records Office, and in principle archives were transferred to public access, but nothing of that like existed in China. (p.376) — I don’t think I’ve ever read ‘like’ being used in this way before. ‘…nothing of that like…’ Surely you or I would write ‘but nothing like that existed in China’, but where would be the fun in that?

Alliteration Alliteration self evidently promotes sound and rhetoric over factual content and meaning.

  • Lindsay instantly resumed a pointed game of protocol and precedence. (p.21)
  • Their later frantic, frequent queries… (p.27)
  • It complained that the authorities in Canton were corrupt, capricious and cruel (p.28).
  • All wanted friendly and fruitful relations… (p.41)
  • They left that afternoon with a promise that a polite and properly formal response to their petition would follow. (p.41)
  • Instead they indulged in recondite debates about terms and texts. (p.73)
  • [Nathan Dunn’s exhibition of chonoiserie in London in December 1841] inspired catcalls and copycats… (p.88)
  • Such consular conveniences, compounded by confusions… (p.107)
  • [The Taiping rebels] fought fanatically and fiercely. (p.120)
  • … fifteen years’ worth of precedent and practice. (p.155)

Maybe Bickers is modelling himself on the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In at least one place he does in fact directly quote Gilbert & Sullivan – on page 78 referring to the ‘little list’ being used in negotiations with the Chinese, a phrase which is the focus of a well-known song from their operetta about Japan, The Mikado (1885) (in fact, Bickers likes the jokey reference so much, he makes it again on page 194).

Hendiadys and pairing Why use one word when you can use two – ideally alliterating or rhyming – to deliver that knockout rhetorical punch?

  • Confident, nonetheless, they memorialised now more readily and steadily. (p.370)
  • … ongoing debates and disagreements… (p.374)

Fancy-ancy just for the fun of playing with words:

  • These shows… brought curious orientals to accompany the oriental curiosities on display in London. (p.89)
  • As successive reports made their way back to Britain, and as the lobbyists worked their words… (p.80)
  • But abate it they could not, or abate it they would not… (p.113)
  • Nearly all foreigners could or would still only talk a pidgin English… (p.114)
  • The act of uprising – daring to stand and daring to fight… (p.120)
  • But he could not, or would not, pay them. (p.126)
  • Parkes had grown up as British China grew up. He had grown with conflict and he had grown accustomed to conflict. China was his adult life, his only life… (p.138)
  • The men were there to fight and fought there well. (p.162)
  • So Robert Hart had had his fill of life in the foothills of the China apocalypse, had seen how vacuum would follow and violence ensure if the Qing could not hold… (p.196)
  • This new Peking, the object of romantic contemplation, suggested a China that might be appreciated rather than caricatured, and savoured rather than savaged. (p.221)

Singular nouns or nouns without an article This a real addiction of Bickers’ style, it occurs throughout on every page and gives the prose a stilted, hieratic feel:

  • [Lindsay] was ready to perceive slight and note omission… (p.22)
  • Now Lindsay was sailing north without invitation… (p.24)
  • … he and his retinue had been denied audience… (p.24)

Shouldn’t that be, ‘denied an audience’? It’s not wrong, it’s just that denying many of these nouns an article turns them from specific instances or events into lofty-sounding abstractions – makes them and the sentences they appear in just that wafer-thin bit more stilted and precious than they need be. More portentous and pretentious, to adopt Bickers’ own manner.

  • The predictable regularity of the internationalised trading world was periodically upset, as in any port city, by human failing and misadventure… (36)
  • They knew so well many of the possibilities that lay beyond their reach by imperial order, and engaged in shrewd estimate and wild conjecture… (p.65)
  • Nor was [the emperor Daoguang] the despised feudal archaism of the Marxist history of communist-era China, which castigated the failures of the late-Qing monarchs to combat imperialism’s assault. (p.67)
  • Those Napier-ordered bombardments of the Canton forts were simply ‘minnows’ compared with the just desserts of Chinese obstruction and insult that were to be meted out by British warships. (p.77)
  • The British helped inform this comedy of error. (p.86)

As with the other elements of Bickers’ style it gives the impression of acuity and insight without providing any actual information. The proliferation of these rhetorical tricks explains why you can read whole page-long paragraphs, arrive exhausted at the end, and then wonder why you don’t appear to have learned or remembered anything.

  • The Canton RegisterCanton Courier, and the more ambitious and scholarly Chinese Repository, edited by Elijah Bridgman, the first American missionary to China, all conveyed up-to-date news, description and opinion across the seas. (p.36) Why not descriptions?
  • Every contact with Chinese officials was an occasion for slight. (p.44)
  • It administered each in the way which seemed best, or most pragmatic at the time, and given considerations of resource and capacity. (p.69) Why not ‘resources‘?
  • Bouts of fighting were interspersed with parleys and negotiations, and with defence of insecure occupations of Chinese islands… (p.81) Why not ‘the defence’?
  • Stronger still would be the accumulated body of printed and private report… (p.89)
  • … the consequent legal haziness of their operations generated much correspondence and dispute. (p.93)
  • But domestic crisis was no small matter when rumour swept around… (p.114)
  • If stray shots passed over there would be formal complaint and stern rebuke. (p.127)
  • European initiative needed Chinese resource. (p.156)
  • The Customs delivered increasing resource as foreign trade grew… (p.198)
  • The development of official banks of information and report by consul and commissioner… (p.218)

So Used as an emphasiser, and in an unusual position in the word order, in a very old-fashioned way:

  • Indeed it will help if we understand more about the temple itself, which so stood out on the Shanghai waterfront close by the Customs House and under the highest point on the city wall, and which so stands out in these two landmark accounts of foreign visits to the city…This way we can better understand the China of the early 1830s outside the narrow confines of the factories, the roads, Macao, that narrow semi-foreignised sliver of the Canton delta that so overfills accounts of the early Sino-foreign encounters. (p.53)

Indeed, it would have been better for the gentle reader of these rhetorical tricks which so embellish and so adorn the purple prose of this grandiloquent historianographer, if his exuberant verbosity had been somewhat reined in and replaced with useful and understandable factual content.

Presage Bickers likes this word.

  • The foreign traders, all of them, were to be held hostage for the drug, without fresh food, without their servants, worried that the commissioner’s little list… presaged individual arrests and possibly torture. (p.78)
  • The sight of the burning buildings… presaged some more years of violent Canton problems. (p.101)
  • All such minor disturbances of men and women could presage consular grief. (p.114)
  • An estimated 7 million people were affected by the floods and dyke-failures that presaged the great change [of the course of the Yellow River in 1851] (p.136)
  • This turn to antique China also presaged the opening of another front in the foreign campaign. (p.221)
  • Margary’s slaughter presaged another round in China’s despoliation… (p.260)
  • The new blockade was to presage a new phase in the campaign… (p.296)

The use of ‘presage’ is typical of Bickers’s preference for the orotund and bombastic as opposed to the plain and simple.

Inversions of normal sentence order which makes sentences sometimes difficult to understand.

  • Quickly to the Company’s aid came instead other parties and volunteers… (p.26)
  • What commercial bliss it was that hot Canton spring… (p.78)
  • Rare it was that ‘the preacher commences and ends his discourse without a single intervention’. (p.111)
  • Always in Peking, I think, someone will in fact have heard him. Always someone will have heard the young foreigner belting out song in the capital’s dry air. (p.229)
  • Always there were exceptions… (p.249)
  • Fearful too were Chinese residents and local authorities. (p.349)

Incomprehensible In fact the combination of all the above tricks and jackanapary makes some sentences simply incomprehensible.

  • And what was eventually left over, why, when the hullaballoo was over, and when Lin’s officers had spent three weeks in April and May overseeing the smashing of the balls of opium and their flushing out to sea at Humen, close by the Linten anchorage, then what a market there was for it, and what prices it could now fetch discreetly, much more discreetly, sold along the coast to friends disappointed by the diversion of the spring stock. (p.79)
  • Along the coast with the British Cantonese went nonetheless, or followed soon after. (p.101)
  • Gods of ignorance and bafflement reigned over the China theatre. (p.397)

Sojourners sojourning As mentioned above, a sojourner is ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’. Lots of westerners came out to newly-opened-up China to make a quick fortune then go home; they are pretty obviously ‘sojourners’, if you choose to use this antique term. But lots of Chinese, both native and immigrants from the south-east Asian diaspora, also came to ‘sojourn’ in the new Crown colonies Britain had wrested from China. Hence there was a whole lot of sojourning going on, and the text doesn’t let us forget it:

  • Sojourners and settlers prefer familiarity to adaptation… (p.62)
  • [The Qing empire] was well used to dealing with sojourners from outside its formal domain… (p.69)
  • Cantonese migrants and sojourners were quick to see additional value in association with the British… (p.102)
  • Robert Fortune’s second sojourn in China… (p.105)
  • They [westerners] were sojourners, mostly… Their sojourns were not short. (p.117)
  • Shanghai itself fell on 7 September 1853 to a sojourner coup. (p.125)
  • The sojourner was mentally relocating, settling in, his sense of where he formally belonged shifting. (p.168)

Personification

  • Arrogant opium swaggered its way along to the newly opened ports. (p.92)

Not traditional history writing, is it?

Tired and jaded

It is an oddity of this book that Bickers’ tone is tired and jaded with the whole western adventure in China before it has even started. Very early on he starts using phrases like ‘once again’ and ‘yet again’, when in fact what he’s describing is happening for the first time. This quickly conveys to the reader that Bickers is frightfully bored with the oh-so-predictable cultural misunderstandings or western bullying or the absurd scenes of everyone standing on their dignity which he depicts.

  • At Shanghai as at Hong Kong, and in every foreign community, such sentiments… were to be expressed again and again… (p.134)
  • Again it all began in Canton… (p.136)
  • And here we are again at the closed gates of the city and at the closed door of the yamen… (p.146)
  • It was the old story, of China coast savviness about Chinese duplicity… (p.213)

This tone conveys the regrettable sense that Bickers feels blasé and superior to the events he’s describing and the poor saps enacting them. If only the human race had given Bickers something a bit more interesting and novel to write about! There’s a striking passage which introduces the First Opium War where he tells us how awfully over-familiar the whole thing is:

The course of events that followed are well known. How Lin Zexu was sent as a special commissioner to investigate the problem in Canton and to put a stop to the trade, how he made his way overland to the city and set about making his mark: all of this has been much narrated. (p.77)

Is it well known, though? Has it been much narrated? Do you know all about Lin Zhu and his overland trek and what happened next? I certainly didn’t. In fact, that’s why I’m reading a book about the scramble for China, precisely to learn about this history, not to be patronisingly told that I ought to know all about it all already.

This passage (there are plenty more in the same vein) crystallised my feeling that Bickers is far too close to his subject matter and makes a kind of rookie error in assuming that his readers share his specialised knowledge and are all as blasé and bored by it as he is.

But many of us have barely heard any of this story before and it is his responsibility to tell it to us. Alas, Bickers is so over-familiar with events that he has to resort to fancy prose and attitudinising to keep his own interest up. I, on the other hand, was hoping for a simple, reliable and clearly written account of the events of these hundred years in China.

Alas, I didn’t get it here. Bickers’ account of the First Opium War is confusing, but not as confusing and partial as his account of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) on pages 118 to…. well… his account just fizzles out somewhere ten pages later – which I was particularly looking forward to. As if determined to confuse, he begins his account of the Taiping Rebellion, one of the most epic events in world history, in mid-chapter, after some pages which give the impression they are going to be a description of the cosy lives of the China British. He introduces this vast historical subject with these words:

But then enter the younger brother of Jesus Christ who came to discomfort all their lives… (p.118)

If you didn’t know that the leader of the Taiping Rebellion was a religious visionary who really did think he was the brother of Christ, this opening would be incomprehensible. In fact, Bickers doesn’t give an account of the overall Taiping Rebellion at all – he is only interested in it insofar as a) it demonstrates and was arguably caused by, the destabilising presence of Europeans on China’s coasts and b) it impacted the British settlements at Canton and at newly colonised Shanghai (where, for example, in 1853, the British – from the protection of their walled settlement – could watch pitched battles between the Taiping army and the imperial Qing forces).

The accounts of the Taiping Rebellion in the books by John Keay and Jonathan Fenby are both much clearer and much more penetrating than in Bickers. These two historians clearly explain the causes and consequences of this truly epic conflict, possibly the largest civil war in all human history, anywhere, a titanic devastation which led to the loss of as many as 20 million Chinese lives, maybe more.

The same frivolous and off-hand approach characterises Bickers’s treatment of the contemporaneous but distinct Nian Rebellion (1851-68), given only a brief page here (p.135), fleetingly explained but not analysed in any depth.

The brief mention of the Crimean War (on pages 134 and 135) neither explains that conflict nor its geopolitical ramifications for the European powers in China. Bickers briefly points out that the war had a distinct Pacific element – a fascinating idea I’d never come across before – but then frustratingly drops the subject completely. This feels like a massive and fascinating topic completely ignored. So disappointing. I bought this book precisely to understand the geo-political implications and context and motives for the sequence of China-oriented wars of the nineteenth century, and that turns out to be the very last thing on Bickers’ mind.

This confusing melange of super-brief references to these huge and super-important wars then segues abruptly and, as usual, in a very offhand way, into a typically arse-over-tit account of the Second Opium War (1856-60).

So the foreigners placed their faith in the Qing, once they had warred with them, beaten them, and humiliated them. Again, it all began in Canton. (p.136)

Note the tired and jaded tone as he casually begins a confusing account which spools onto page 150, with a vivid but hard-to-follow explanation for the (scandalous) British burning of the Emperor’ Summer House. OK. But in the 14 or so pages which cover it, Bickers nowhere mentions that he is describing the Second Opium War – you have to know that already. He is so close to, and over-familiar with, his subject, he just assumes that we all know about this stuff already. But we don’t. That’s why we bought your bloody book in the first place.

Towards the end I was genuinely appalled when the only mention he makes of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the first war in modern times in which a non-European nation (Japan) thrashed a European one (Russia) is the following. (He’s explaining how, after the Boxer Rebellion was finally quelled, the European nations demanded reparations but, for the most part, didn’t seek to acquire new territory. Apart from Russia):

Russia failed to conform, though, and hung on in Manchuria with 200,000 troops. So the British and the Japanese opened up a new world of international politics by entering into a formal alliance in 1902, breaking with decades of British practice, and in 1904-5 the Japanese smashed Russian forces in Manchuria and Siberia, shocking the European world, and offering new hope for the colonised and threatened. (p.349)

The Russo-Japanese War doesn’t even get a sentence of its own, but is shoehorned into the second half of a sentence which starts in 1902 and ends in 1905. Wow.

The republican revolution which finally overthrew the Qing Dynasty – and ended 3,000 years of rule by emperors – in October 1911, is dealt with – including the accident which sparked it, the spread of revolt, the seizure of power by Sun Yat-Sen, the abdication of the emperor, and the handing over of power to general Yuan Shikai – this seismic event is dealt with in 10 sentences – half a page – and not returned to.

Thus does Bickers leap over hugely important geopolitical, strategic and military events in order to get back to lambasting western businessmen living in sin with their Chinese mistresses, making fortunes from the opium trade and lobbying for more access to Chinese markets.

This is a sociological essay about the British in China, not a history.

Academic jargon

By this stage the reader has realised that Bickers isn’t interested in giving a chronological account of what happened during China’s century of humiliation; he isn’t interested in analysing or explaining the complex geopolitics of a weakened China caught between coastal invaders like the British and, towards the end of the period, the Japanese – all overshadowed by the ever-present threat from the land-grabbing Russian empire in the west and north.

He isn’t even very interested in any of the other European nations – the French and Americans get only a few walk-on parts, while the Portuguese, Dutch or Germans are hardly mentioned at all.

Instead, what becomes clearer and clearer is that Bickers thinks he is giving a kind of cultural history of the British in China.

That’s a fine ambition but he doesn’t live up to it. There is nothing at all in the book about, say, Chinese art or poetry, nothing. What there is, is repeated references to the way the Chinese or British performed as if on a stage with each other, or the way Chinese artefacts (and people) were shipped off to London to be put on display in various public shows and the big European expositions of the later Victorian era, or the way the colonisers engaged in practices and policed sites and shaped public space, and so on. Instead of interesting stuff about Chinese culture, what Bickers gives us is a lot of Eurocentric academic jargon.

Over the past forty years or so, the mind-set and terminology of (mostly French) modern literary theory/history/sociology pioneered in the 1960s and 70s by, say, Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault, has congealed to form a higher entity called just Theory – an attitude and set of jargon which has spread out to infect study of all the humanities subjects at university.

I’m extremely familiar with this all-purpose semi-sociological terminology from the many art exhibitions I go to, where contemporary artists no longer make ‘art works’ – they engage with issues of gender and sexuality, or money and class or whatever, carrying forward projects which use strategies of this, that and the other, which taken together amount to their practice. What used to be called ‘works of art’ are now more often than not the sites of their engagement with some issue or other, where the artists subvert conventional narratives of whatever or challenge this, that or the other norm or convention.

This all-purpose academic jargon has a number of purposes. Firstly, like academic jargon down the ages, from the ancient world through the Middle Ages – it makes the author sound clever. Secondly, it makes it all sound very serious: no longer painting a picture or developing a photo, an artist is now engaged in their practice – like a serious professional, like an architect or a GP. Thirdly, it is all very active – none of that old bourgeois standing around in front of an easel, an artist now engages with, subverts, challenges and questions and interrogates and a whole load of other action words. All very exciting and edgy.

At the same time many of the words have a very clinical and scientific feel: not only the artist, but especially the art critic, is no longer subject to the wishy-washy whims of their bourgeois imagination, but gives the impression of applying rigorous scientific procedures: artists have ‘projects’ and ‘practices’ which are enacted in ‘sites’ and ‘spaces’. Anything like a sculpture or installation reorientates the ‘space’ around it, maybe reorders ‘spatial hierarchies’, probably ‘challenges’ accepted ‘narratives’ or what a work of art can be, and so on.

Another feature of Theory Language is that a little of it goes a long way: these terms have become remarkably all-purpose: you can apply them to almost any human activity and come out sounding serious, weighty and profound.

The only snag is that – although this kind of language, used sparingly, conveys a sense of power and thrust and importance and intellectual force,

a) it doesn’t, on closer examination, really tell you anything at all
b) used too much, it quickly turns into a vacuous jargon of empty slogans – just as the public very quickly got sick of Theresa May telling us she represented ‘strong and stable leadership’ (and turned out to represent the opposite) so an artist, or curator, or critic, or historian who goes on and on about ‘practice’ and ‘projects’ and ‘sites’ and ‘narratives’ in an effort to sound meaningful and scientific and precise – runs the risk of ending up like a cracked record playing the same meaningless jargon over and over again; far from subverting anything, this kind of jargon ends up reinforcing existing conventions about art writing. In fact, it is the new set of conventions.

Examples of academic jargon

Display is an important idea for Bickers. European merchants built big houses – he takes it as an example of ‘display’. They hosted lavishes dinner – more ‘display’. Chinese objects were sent back to London – where they were put on ‘display’. As if grouping these pretty everyday activities under a semi-scientific singular noun gives us all a special insight into human activity, grouping them all together somehow explains… something.

  • China was in this way [exhibitions of China bric-a-brac in London in the 1840s] being normalised as an object for such display and ethnographic and other curiosity. (p.89)
  • Such displaydisplay at table, architectural display – announced probity and confidence (to each other, to Chinese merchants), but it also spoke of vulgarity and extravagance. (p.99)
  • Admiration for the appearance of the Sikhs, the ‘colour’ they were felt and said to have brought to China, and to British display in China… (p.163)
  • What became the routine display of China at such forums was a key strand in the project that Hart was leading. (p.204)

Engage and engagement At a recent internet conference I attended there was a list of banned words; if you mentioned one you had to contribute to the swear box (all money coughed up was sent to a charity for refugees). ‘Engage’ and ‘engagement’ were top of the list. Why? Because they means everything and nothing; because they are empty buzzwords.

  • Farmers engaged in handicraft production. (p.64)
  • The ordered business of its routine engagement with the world at the treaty ports elsewhere was able to continue… (p.352)

Enterprises and projects

the British Empire didn’t carry out strategies or policies, apparently. It engaged in projects and enterprises.

  • At the heart of the official British China enterprise… (p.206)
  • The foreign China enterprise at Shanghai was actually truly a real-estate imperialism… (p.222)
  • They were men of commerce and outside what was formally recognised as British empire, and their enterprise was multi-national and often makeshift. They had no imperial project. (p.382)

Sites and spaces Both make pretty run-of-the-mill places sound important and exciting, and make it sound as if you’re saying something especially perceptive and insightful about them.

  • This book explores the world which created that final photograph and its many sites and fields of action. (p.14)
  • A popular temple was also a commercial and economic site… They were embedded in the daily public space of the city. (p.16)
  • The rural landscape was pocked with market sites. (p.65) — It is so much more emphatic and intellectually demanding than simply writing ‘markets’ or ‘market places’.
  • [Just outside harbour boundaries, opium] was stored, and there were established new sites for conflict and the low-level disorderliness that filled the consulate letter books. (p.93)
  • The new ports were like many of the other sites of power around the Indian Ocean. (p.105)
  • As the new roads and buildings grew up in the treaty ports they were to acquire new memorials, and new sites for commemoration and celebration. (p.112)
  • It might seem odd that we can find so much insistent quiet emphasis on the symbolic ordering of foreign space [the British insisted on having a grand ex-palace to be their legation in Beijing]. Partly this was a response to understandings of Chinese conceptions, a breaking out of spaces and sites allotted them for reasons they interpreted (rightly sometimes) as intentionally demeaning. But they had their own such practices already… (p.206)
  • Foreign observers chuckled at Chinese geomancy, at fengshui, even as they fashioned symbolic landscapes themselves, sacralising space, creating sites for pilgrimage, reflection and remembrance. (p.207)

In this last example Bickers is describing how the British built graveyards wherever they settled. Note how he goes out of his way to ridicule the British who, he claims, chuckled at Chinese geomancy but – at least according to Bickers’ confidently post-imperialist view – were themselves every bit as superstitious and irrational in their treatment of ‘space’ – i.e. building cemeteries. Ha ha ha, silly old British.

But as with almost everything Bickers writes, a moment’s reflection makes you question this casual criticism and superiority: geomancy or fengshui are to some extent optional practices; organising the hygienic and orderly burial of the dead are rather more of a necessity. But – and here’s my point – Bickers has conceived and written this sentence not to make a factual statement – but to score politically correct points over ‘the foreigners’.

  • Peking, resolutely, was different to all the other sites of the foreign presence, different in scale, meanings, history, experience and climate. (p.215)
  • the Inspectorate General was the site in time of an entirely novel private experiment of Hart’s. (p.227)
  • There were of course other sites of jubilee. (p.309)
  • China long remained a site of foreign male opportunity. (p.311)
  • Homes, memoirs show, now became sites for the assertion of the supremacy of the European woman over her servants… (p.313)
  • Real Chinatowns became fictionalised nests of opium dens and sites of the despoliation of white girls by Chinese men. (p.364)

Space

  • [Western music] served to mark space in new ways. (p.228)
  • So at Shanghai they ordered space, responding as quickly as they were able to the breathtaking speed with which opportunities were seized, innovations latched onto, loopholes explored. They also ordered Chinese use of public space, imposing new norms of behaviour, turning urination into a minor criminal category. They also attempted to order aspects of private space: the gambling house, the brothel, the household. (p.224)

On reflection, where Bickers writes ‘space’ he really means ‘behaviour – but ‘space’ sounds more abstract, intellectual and scientific. And, in his usual hurry to denigrate Europeans and the British at every turn, he turns the imposition of regulations like banning people pissing in the street into a bad thing. Maybe we should return to the days of men randomly urinating in the street? Similarly, maybe gambling houses and brothels shouldn’t have been regulated. Naughty, naughty Europeans with their silly imperialising laws.

Practice A super-useful word which can be applied to almost any human activity to make yourself sound impressively intellectual. For example, my postman for the most part engages in letter-delivery activities but has recently expanded his practice to encompass the manual transmission of parcels in the course of which he transitions from the public space of the pavement, governed by one code of conduct, to the private space of my porch, which has become a site for intrapersonal exchange and dialogue i.e. we have a bit of a chat whenever he knocks on the door to deliver a parcel.

Used in this pretentious way ‘practice’ has become a buzzword which lends your text the authority and the spurious pseudo-scientific precision of an anthropologist or ethnographer or sociologist. But like so many of these terms, it mostly just dresses up banality and the bleeding obvious.

  • Officials often had little time intellectually for popular religious practice. (p.61)
  • Buddhist in origin, but adopted far beyond Buddhist practices, [the festival] involved opera performances, processions and bonfires… (p.61)
  • But that containment [of foreign traders by the Chinese] was too restrictive, too contrary to emerging European interests and practices… (p.157)
  • As the concessions and settlements merged spatially with the rest of the developing cities, their autonomous judicial systems and practice routinely returned to deportation as a legal punishment. (p.160)
  • It was a queer affair, the extension of Tongzhi restoration practice to overseas diplomacy… Burlingame was carefully and explicitly instructed not to follow practices which might prompt reciprocal demands on Peking.. (p.212)
  • There were descriptions and assessments too of Chinese practice. (p.281)
  • North China farmers knew that into their brittle world had come new forces, with alien ideas and practices… (p.341)
  • And the practices of the new combined forces of Boxers, the Yihequan, ‘Boxers united in righteousness’, gave them mastery over foreign things… (p.342)
  • Foreign office archives practice was in theory quite clear. (p.375)

Lovely sentence this last one, don’t you think?

Network Not found so much in other Theory-mongers, this word makes you sound like you’re all across modern technology and the internet and the groovy, cool, multi-connected world.

  • [The Taiping Rebellion] was a revolt informed by the new intellectual currents from over the oceans which were at work in Chinese cities and in the networks of people, goods and ideas that flowed through them… (p.120)
  • The swiftness of the incorporation after 1860 of the new sites of treaty port China into these far wider networks shows just how interconnected it already was. (p.156)
  • Globalisation, international migration, the growth of British and other European empires and the networks that cut across and through them, all had a bearing on developments in China. (p.156)
  • China was already deeply embedded in new-fashioned networks… (p.157)
  • So the Inspectorate general became the centre of its own network of stations, as well as a node in wider networks – regional meteorology, the international round of display and representation… (p.204)
  • The growing presence, and relative ease of transmission of goods and people, locked China more and more closely into knowledge networks, not least geographical and scientific ones. (p.165)
  • By 24 October 1860, when allied troops paraded into the heart of the imperial capital escorting Elgin and Gros, two bands in the vanguard heralding their intrusion and the imminent treaty ceremony, China was already being fashioned steadily into new networks – of communications, of people, of ideas. (p.157)

‘New networks of communications, of people, of ideas’ – this is vacuous modern corporate jargon: it could be an excerpt from the press release for any big company, bank or government department – it has that hollow corporate ring, impressive, vibrant-sounding and absolutely empty of meaning.

Scripts and performance This is another classic piece of sociological jargon in which people are depicted as hollow puppets helplessly ‘performing’ ‘scripts’, putting on performances – which they called living and making decisions but which we – everso wise Posterity – can now see as ritualised and formulaic ‘performances’:

  • The China script for the performance of British power and identity in the treaty ports was borrowed from the Subcontinent. (p.162)
  • Many missionaries played at the local level the China game of compensation for injury and damage, property restitution and repair, and symbolic gesture – judgement and proclamation set in stone, or transfer of communally important sites as punishment… Some did so to show how powerful Church and mission were, how actively they could help; to reassure and protect existing converts, and to tempt others. Such action could also provide a stage for the rehearsal of the national honour script, the dignity of the nation residing in the person of the missionary and his flock. (p.249)
  • But as 3,000 troops and labourers disembarked at Langqiao Bay in May 1874, a more routine script was being rehearsed… (p.254)
  • His death was incorporated into the same empire script that he rehearsed as he travelled… (p.260)
  • The limits of this private enterprise imperialism, of the sweaty plans of Bland and his ilk were reached on the early Sunday of of 28 July 1913, when Bruce and his band blundered noisily into sleepy Zhabei, and nobody met them to play their scripted part in the local drama of Settlement expansion. (p.369)

Transgressions and subverting and challenging and interrogating etc. Sounds so exciting and edgy and revolutionary. But is all too often applied to really boring and obvious descriptions in an effort to jazz them up.

  • As guardians of order and peace they saw such large gatherings… as sites of transgressions of moral order. (p.61)

What he means is that prostitutes often plied their trade at big Chinese festivals. Who’d have thought? Pretty transgressive, eh?

Actually, there isn’t as much transgression here as I find in the commentary of art galleries; and only one or two mentions of another favourite of Literary Theory, ‘desire’, used as a kind of bland, all-purpose, catch-all term for sex in the widest sense. Although there are quite a few references to brothels and prostitutes – mainly, of course, pointing out how brothels and prostitutes followed western land grabs and settlements, thus proving what racist hypocrites Europeans were. Oh, and many of them took Chinese mistresses, as well. How vile and disgusting, only white men have ever taken mistresses, and only in China.

Prose like concrete

The direction of Bickers thought is always upwards towards sweeping generalisations. Converting a specific argument between a specific Chinese and English into the generic term ‘dispute’, or particular local laws and customs into the generic word ‘practice’, is always to leave the specific and colourful behind in the name of scientific-sounding but in reality vague and generalised concepts. Move in this direction enough and you are left with sentences which are so generalised they could be about anything, anywhere. It just makes long stretches of this book really, really boring.

Always there were exceptions, men and women horrified by this new world of local conflict and dispute that could unfold as people converted. But the mission enterprise was nonetheless mired from the start in such local dispute, at the same time as it was enmeshed with the wider foreign world in China through nationality, affinity, language, marriage, and wider kin networks. (p.249)

It’s like reading concrete. It’s like being stuck in a supermarket car park looking at thousands of shopping trolleys, all the same. Dispute, insult, practice, site, spatial integration, networks of communication, sites of display, imperial spaces, networks of engagement, circuits of empire, colonial display, imperial sites, the China project, the China enterprise, blah blah blah.

I should have been warned off by the reviewer on Amazon who said reading this book was like walking through thickening mud.

Some, such and many Bickers also has a peculiar way with the words ‘there’, ‘some’, ‘such’ and ‘many’: by peculiar I mean that I’ve read thousands of books, paying close attention to their style, and never come across anyone use those words so eccentrically and idiosyncratically. He is fond of ‘fray’ which recurs many times; and ‘odd’.  It is tempting to embark on an analysis of these short, common words for what they reveal about Bickers’ eccentric uses of them – but this review is long enough already.

  • Such permission was certainly given to some… (p.374)
  • Such fear held good there. (p.374)
  • Such memory is the product of hard state work. (p.392)

A simpler soul might write ‘this kind of’ permission or fear or memory – but Bickers is a sucker for rhetorical effects.

Bullying sanctimoniousness

It goes without saying that a modern white, middle-aged English academic will have completely absorbed the political correctness of their university context and so be extremely, comprehensively, sarcastically critical of the white, middle-aged Englishmen of the past. A modern politically correct academic could take no other attitude.

They are all racist imperialist saps; we, dear reader, are by contrast morally unimpeachable and live in an age of complete enlightenment. Thank goodness the modern West which Bickers is a part of doesn’t go around invading other countries and plunging them into decades of chaos and civil war; thank goodness the modern West doesn’t build encampments in foreign countries – Iraq, say, or Afghanistan – protected from angry natives by huge walls inside which the soldiers and civil servants of the occupying forces, blissfully uninterested in the local culture, are provided with all the pleasures of home.

Yes, the modern historian, embedded in this wonderful Western culture, is sooo superior to his great-great-great-great grandparents who did just the same in China or India. In an account of a speech the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury gave in 1898, Bickers makes sure to point out that it was infused with the outdated ideology of social Darwinism, that he spoke ‘complacently’ and that his imperialist audience ‘chortled’.

What’s ironic is that Bickers’ own account is drenched with the cultural ideology of our times – sanctimonious political correctness – and that he himself never loses an opportunity to ‘chortle’ at the inferiority of other people – in this case, our ancestors. Bickers displays exactly the same patronising tone towards people who can’t defend themselves, as he lambasts haughty imperialists for displaying towards their victims.

Bickers laughs at the British merchants and soldiers, the consuls and captains he depicts, for importing the comforts of home, for bringing in English plants and trees, for building Anglican churches, for ordering prints and paintings of reassuringly patriotic subjects to hang on their walls, and even sending for familiar foods, rather than the bewildering local cuisine.

They wanted and recreated the familiar. They wanted their cigar brought, and then their newspaper. So they made themselves at home on the Huangpu, the Min, Gulangyu island, the slopes of Hong Kong, as snug as they could manage, and read weeks-old news about the real world over the ocean in a fug of finest Havana. (p.117)

Silly selfish saps!

And in their insatiably imperialist lust for profit, Bickers points out that some British firms even sold guns and ammunition to the warring sides in the Taiping Rebellion! The horror of those racist imperialist profiteers! Luckily, we now live in a blessed and enlightened age, when the British government would never dream of selling arms and airplanes, guns and implements of torture to Third World regimes, to countries like Saudi Arabia, who use the planes we sell them to bomb civilians in Yemen. Never ever.

— To be perfectly clear: I find a lot of the historiography of the British Empire, generally written by guilty white liberal men who bend over backwards to be politically correct in every way, to be revoltingly smug, superior and sanctimonious. To assume that their responses to the problems those people living in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s and so on faced – their motivations to travel where the opportunity was, to set up companies, to trade and make money, to seek a living and a career – were all somehow uniquely wicked, and only the British ever did this or displayed imperialistic behaviour – never displayed before or since by any other nation (including the countless Chinese merchants they traded and set up companies with, or the genuinely bestial Japanese Empire) – and to assume that these are all behaviours which we moderns, in our infinite wisdom, have completely outgrown.

In my opinion, every human being is born into struggle – against their biological destiny, their physical flaws, the illnesses and accidents we are all prone to, against the psychological damage of childhood and education, against the cultural and technological limits of their time and position and, above all, the crushing necessity to make a living, to earn a crust, to eat and drink and stay alive.

My opinion is the same as John Locke’s, that we do better to commiserate our common frailty and sinfulness with our fellow humans – to sympathise with other people, to understand their suffering and pain, to help and aid those who are alive, now, today – and to empathise with the tribulations of those who came before us, who struggled through their own challenges.

But people like historians of empire, who appoint themselves judge and jury over the past, who lump the entire population of Britain into one undifferentiated pile labelled IMPERIALISTS so they can sneer and ridicule and belittle our benighted ancestors, well they run the risk of themselves being lumped in with the Britain of our times, being judged by the same strict broad-brush approach which they apply to the past – and found wanting. Was Bickers not alive during the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, the financial crash of 2008, the Brexit vote or, at its widest, the election of President Trump? In a hundred and fifty years time won’t he be lumped in with this violent, war-starting, financially ruinous era?

And – the most obvious crime of our age – he is living through the destruction of the planet’s life forms and the tipping point of global warming. In a hundred and fifty years time Bickers too – with his flying round the world and globetrotting, a privileged western academic who ‘travelled extensively, visiting many of the haunting sites scattered across China that feature in the book’ (as the blurb puts it) – will be lumped in with the stupid, blinkered generation who arrogantly took it as their prerogative, as their right, as their entitlement, to burn up fossil fuel, to heat up the atmosphere, and to permanently damage the planet – and all in order to write his sarcastic quips about his obscure forebears.

And, if anybody reads books a hundred and fifty years hence, this type of morally superior historian will be judged all the more harshly because they have forfeited the possibility of themselves being forgiven by the unremitting harshness, judgmentalism, superior and supercilious attitude which they apply so flippantly and casually to people who died 150 years ago, and who cannot speak in their own defence. ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ as a dead white man said long ago.

Seen from this perspective – of condemning the helpless dead – judgmental histories like Bickers’ are a form of bullying. And when I see any form of bullying happening right in front of me, although I may not like the victim very much, my instinct is to side with the underdog, with the person being subjected to relentless vilification by someone in power over them.

But the relentless patronising of the past is not only morally offensive, it’s also plain dumb. Repeatedly Bickers comes up with the revelation that these businessmen and traders and merchants and bankers were out to make a profit! That merchants and bankers came out from Britain to set up businesses, to trade, and to make money! God, the implication is – how grubby and tacky and awful, all this fussing about money and profits!

The implied contrast is with morally pure academics, swanning around the world paid for by government grants, unfurling their deathless prose for the benefit of lesser mortals who have to scheme and plan and graft, to set up businesses, borrow capital, employ staff, hire premises and equipment, do deals and live with the permanent risk of going bankrupt or having your offices, staff or family attacked by anti-western zealots. What losers they must be, eh!

Bickers describes how a lot of the China traders got very rich very quick which, it is implied, was a contemptible thing. What depraved wretches! Lucky for us that we live in an era of perfect equality, with no disparities of income and wealth, either here in perfectly governed Britain, or in contemporary not-at-all-capitalist China. Aren’t we so right to feel superior to the past and their despicable get-rich-quick mentality 🙂

Eurocentric

The final irony is that, despite all his fashionably anti-imperial attitudinising, this book is in fact written overwhelmingly from the white western point of view. To be precise, from the British and, by and large, English point of view. Chaps’ diaries are used to put chaps down. Chaps’ accounts of their adventures are used to criticise chaps’ racist attitudes. Chaps’ reports back to the East India Company or Parliament are used to chastise chaps’ crudely mercantile way of thinking.

Oh silly, silly Victorians who knew nothing about multicultural studies or LGBT rights, who thought only in terms of their own age, cultural and social norms. How blinkered some people can be! Could they not guess how they would be judged in 150 years time and reorient all their actions accordingly?

Also, a thorough account of ‘the scramble for China’ really ought to include not just the British but the French, Portuguese and Dutch, with large roles for the Russians and Germans, all of whom got in on the act, scrambling for their own treaty ports and concessions. But in this book there are hardly any accounts of other countries’ activities.

All in all, this book is emphatically not a historical account of the multi-national scramble for China – it is a cultural and sociological study of ‘the British in China 1832-1915′ and its title really should have conveyed that more accurately.

And above all – irony of irony – for such a politically correct writer, there are hardly any Chinese voices in the text. This may be for all kinds of structural reasons, such as that many of these encounters weren’t recorded on the Chinese side, or that the archives were lost in the various revolutions and rebellions. But the fact remains that this is yet another book about the white British empire, by a white British historian, which relies overwhelmingly on the efficient and detailed record-keeping of white Victorian imperialists – in order to twist and quote them out of context with the sole intention of proving what awful racist money-grubbing insensitive imperialists they were.

In other words, through the academic jargon and preening rhetoric, there is little in the facts and nothing in the attitude which are either new or interesting. The Scramble for China conforms entirely and dully to the politically correct dogmas of our time.

Extended example

The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) was just one of several native Chinese uprisings which overlapped with, or promoted reprisals from, the European powers to create a terrifying vortex of violence right at the end of the nineteenth century. What you’d hope for from a long (400-page) historical account of the period might be an attempt to disentangle these events, to patiently explain and analyse them. Bickers does the opposite.

War was fought across Manchuria, as Russian forces razed Amur river cities, and smashed their way south into Manchuria and north out of Port Arthur. It was fought in Tianjin, the foreign concessions besieged by Boxer bands and the Qing army. It was fought all the hot dusty way to Peking, as a multinational force of foreign troops slogged their way to the capital and relieved the besieged legations and Christian cathedrals. War was fought in Shanxi province, as German and British columns tramped to Taiyun, slaughtering opposition on the way… War was fought between Boxers and Christians, between Qing armies with Boxer allies, and the ‘Eight Power’ allied expeditionary force. It was fought by British marines and Japanese infantry, as well as by Sikhs, Bengalis, Black Americans, Annamese, Algerians and a British regiment of Chinese from Weihaiwei… It was a cruel war: a war between states, a civil war, a fight for personal survival… (p.346)

My critique is simple: every one of these incidents (the battles and campaigns) and ideas (for example, the very mixed nature of the armies) ought to receive extended treatment so that the reader can understand these key events and these important issue better; can learn something.

Instead, this vast tangle of events and ideas is made subordinate to Bickers’ addiction to fancy rhetoric, to the single flashy rhetorical trick of starting a lot of sentences with ‘war was fought’ or ‘it was fought’. Sure, the repetition rams home the idea that there was a whole lot of fighting going on; but the most basic elementary entry-level journalistic questions – who, what, where, when, why and how? are ignored – not in the name of some compelling insight or new thesis – but in the name of grand-standing rhetoric.

Bickers is more interested in describing the way news of these events back home was chaotic and often fabricated, how reports were made up by European journalists or editors, along with staged photographs and how some of the very first newsreel footage in the new technology of moving pictures was also generally faked and rigged.

Golly! News is fabricated and created by fallible and/or profit-seeking papers, magazines and media outlets! Wow! Yes indeedy, Bickers is here to tell us that coverage of far-away wars is often sensationalist and inaccurate.

There was a dearth of authenticity in this much-faked war, characterised and impelled as it was by forgery and wild rumour (p.355)

To read Bickers you’d think this must be the only war in history characterised by ‘forgery and wild rumour’ – as opposed to the obvious fact that, as the saying coined a century ago puts it, the very first casualty of war is truth.– This is a truism. A cliché. A threadbare, bleedingobvious commonplace taught to every GCSE schoolchild. Why am I reading it in a book written by a professor of history as if it is a dazzling new discovery?

My contention is that Bickers knows an awesome amount about this period, but fails to report it clearly or accurately, preferring to corral it all into either a) huge paragraphs designed to show off his rhetorical prowess, or b) long sections filled with tedious academic jargon which, upon a closer reading, always turn out to be obvious and banal.

To adopt Bickers’ own sociological terminology, this book is history ‘recruited’ and ‘refashioned’ for personal ‘display’ and ‘aggrandisement’.

This example is far from unique. A few pages later he does the same thing again. In among the chaos of the turn-of-the-century conflicts there was a lot of looting and pillaging (as, I believe, has occasionally happened in other wars) – but do we gets details, context, causes or consequences, useful facts and analysis to help us understand and remember each of the distinct outbreaks and incidents? Nope. We get another set-piece of booming rhetoric:

They looted at Tianjin; they looted at Peking; they looted everywhere in between, and far out into the northern provinces. They looted for days, for weeks, for months. They looted arsenals, granaries, mints and palaces. They looted the instruments from the old Jesuit Observatory. They looted salt stocks and Tianjin, and treasure from pawnshops. They looted houses and hovels. They looted tombs. They took furs, silks, paintings, jades and porcelains. They looted gold-plate from the roofs of temples. They took books and statues. What they did not like or could not take they trampled underfoot, tore, burned or wrecked. (p.350)

OK, I get it – there was a lot of looting. But who, what, where, when, why and how? Not in this book, you won’t find these basic questions answered.


Conclusion

This long book is a struggle to read. The average person-in-a-hurry could pick up pretty much all they need to know in half an hour by reading these Wikipedia articles.

What this 400-page book gives you which Wikipedia doesn’t, is vast amounts of anthropological-ethnographic-sociological jargon, almost entirely about the Western, and specifically British, individuals involved in the opening up and colonising of China.

There are brief descriptions of festivals or temples, a bit about Peking architecture, many scattered details about relevant places and events though generally delivered in a confusing way – but little or nothing about Chinese art or poetry, history or attitudes, culture or politics – and nothing you can really grasp or learn from about the big wars in Victorian China and their geopolitical implications. And that was the main reason why I bought this book.

Instead, there are lengthy sociological disquisitions about the spread of Christianity through missionary activity (chapter 8), the rise of the Chinese Customs Authority under the legendary Ulsterman Robert Hart (chapter 7), a lengthy account of how Hart’s Customs helped organise a comprehensive network of lighthouses along China’s coast in the 1870s and 80s, which leads on to the western gathering of data generally, about the meteorology of the coast or of Chinese diseases (chapter 9).

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? But because it is all couched in the limited and stereotyped jargon of ‘practices’ and ‘networks’ and ‘sites of insult’ and ‘imperial enterprise’ etc, and because Bickers never drops his anti-British sentiment (lighthouses were – shockingly -built to make imperial trade safe and guarantee profits! meteorological data designed to help imperialist shipping! medical reports to help the racist westerners better able to exploit etc) it isn’t. It ends up all sounding the same. He manages to make a riveting period of history sound really boring.

Last thoughts

For my £15 I had to wade through hundreds of pages of preening prose and abuse being thrown at long-dead profit-hungry, racist imperialists – but did ultimately emerge with two newish (to me) thoughts:

  1. The China British were always a sort of spin-off of British India, using the same slang, building the same sort of houses, treating the locals, especially their servants and mistresses, with the same appalling and often violent condescension. And the Forward Party of China colonists really thought they could hoodwink and bully the British government back home into supporting an incremental takeover of China through piecemeal wars and ‘punitive actions’ – raucously calling for more and more belligerent intervention. This, after all, was all how we slowly acquired India. Hmmm. Interesting.
  2. Right at the end of the book Bickers describes how he has himself been subjected to harangues and lectures by modern young Chinese criticising him personally for being British and therefore to blame for the ‘century of humiliation’. What is interesting is that these young people have absolutely no experience of any of the events they cite (the violence of 1842, 1860 or 1901). But this story – how their country was subjected to a hundred years of imperialist conquest, a hundred years of victimhood – has been drummed into them by the Chinese state. Why? Bickers explains that, after the Chinese government violently repressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and arrested and imprisoned the reform-minded leaders who let it all get out of hand, they then undertook a sweeping review of Chinese education designed to emphasise the uniquely nation-saving achievements of the Chinese communist party and why all Chinese should be forever grateful to it. In order to boost its role as the goody in the story, the communists emphasised the irredeemable baddyness of all foreigners, of Western Imperialism, be it British, French or Russian, and also to lump in the decades of abuse from Japan as somehow permitted and encouraged by those imperialist farangs.

It is fascinating to learn that the anti-western feeling of many of China’s young educated people is more powerful and passionate today than it has ever been – and that it is encouraged by state-sponsored history books, courses and teachers.

The final chapter of Bickers’ book is thirty pages devoted to a rather boring description of how archives and records were rescued from China during the 20th century, and how a patchwork of researchers has set about writing more accurate and unjingoistic accounts of western, and especially British, imperialism in China. Fair enough.

The irony is that they are doing so at the same time as China’s authorities are also sponsoring a highly tendentious anti-western narrative. Bickers worries that this could lead to quite dangerous results:

A globalised China is not new; but a powerful global China is unprecedented. That provides new food for thought, especially as Chinese youth come out into the world equipped for instinctive indignation at China’s past humiliations and what they feel to be contemporary echoes of those. The awkward confidence that such sensitivity engenders in them might make for all of us a very awkward world. (Final words of the text – p.399)

Worrying, eh?

And this leads onto a final thought of mine, which isn’t in the book at all – that we live in an age of Victimhood, of ever-multiplying victim narratives competing to be heard. The Jews have a well-established Holocaust narrative which is now enshrined in Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). Black History Month has been going since 1970 in the States, 1987 in the UK. Since as far back as 1909 there’s been an International Women’s Day, now held on 8 March. These are state-sanctioned days or periods solemnly commemorating what are, at heart, victim narratives.

But away from these official victim narratives, the sense of being victimised and humiliated proliferates in the modern world – the entire Arab world, for example, blames Europeans and especially the British for allowing Israel to be founded, for giving their countries stupid arbitrary borders, for interfering and undermining their nations in any number of 20th century coups and invasions, and for continuing to kill Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria – victim narratives which can be compiled into recruiting literature for al-Qaeda or ISIS.

I’m not passing judgement on any of these or the numerous other narratives of victimhood of our time – just pointing out the fact that the last pages of Bickers’ book make a riveting contrast to the previous 400. For the first 400 he gives hundreds of quotations from bombastic, jingoistic, imperialistic, often overtly racist, patronising and violently confident China pioneers, settlers and apologists all boasting about their power and might and supremacy. Right at the end of the book there is a loud screeching of brakes as you are suddenly dumped into the 21st century and find yourself surrounded by voices all clamouring to show off their weakness, to show you their wounds and their suffering, all competing to show you how vulnerable and abused and humiliated they have been.

Read newspapers and magazines from 1911 and they’re all about power, might and conquest; read newspapers and magazines from 2011 (when this book was published) and it’s a wall of helplessness, victimhood and suffering.


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