My Splendid Concubine by Lloyd Lofthouse
Three Clover Press
My Splendid Concubine by Lloyd Lofthouse is about Robert Hart. The bare facts are that in 1854, Hart left Ireland under a cloud for China to fill the role of interpreter for the British consulate. He immersed himself into the Chinese culture and learned the language and Chinese thinking so well that he was the first foreigner to become the Inspector General of China’s Customs Service. He lived in China for 54 years. Prior to the Cultural Revolution he became known as the “Godfather of China’s modernism.”
But those are merely the facts. Thankfully, Hart kept journals, many of which survive to this day. While researching Hart’s life, Lofthouse discovered that Hart kept a concubine with whom he had three children. To protect her and his children, he burned most of the journal entries concerning the love of his life. Fortunately for us, Lofthouse was able to piece together a lusty and poignant portrait of a conflicted and principled man who would not abandon his Chinese family no matter what the cost.
Rather than focus on what was already known about Hart, from his journals and official records, Lofthouse focused on Hart’s long-term affair with Ayaou, a boat-girl. Even most Chinese looked down upon the boat-people. He meets Ayaou and her sister, Shao-mei while escaping the oppressive summer heat of Ningpo to join his fellow country man, Patridge at his summerhouse on the western end of Zhoushan Island. Patridge had arranged to bring in eligible girls for concubines for his friends staying with him. Hart is immediately attracted to Ayaou and decides to buy her, but before he can do so, another of Patridge’s guests beats him to her. As you already know from my previous paragraph, Hart does eventually secure Ayaou, but you, dear reader, will have to read this book to find out how he does it and what happens to Ayaou and Shao-mei.
Lofthouse does a masterful job of not only presenting Hart and those he encountered as fully fleshed people, but also gives us a taste of how the Chinese think and what that culture is all about—an understanding that one can’t get from the news. And even though this story takes place in the nineteenth-century, I think much of the insight into the Chinese culture is relevant today.
The one fault that I have with this book is the denouement was far too abrupt. I kept flipping the last page, hoping that I really wasn’t at the end. The resolution was incomplete for me. Thankfully, the sequel, My Hart, promises to continue where this book left off. I will be reading it soon.
My Splendid Concubine received Honorable Mention in Fiction at the 2008 London Book Festival.