My Splendid Concubine by Lloyd Lofthouse is a novel that encompasses true events but is told as a fictional story. It is about Robert Hart, who is often referred to as the ‘Godfather of China’s modernism’. He came from Ireland as a commoner to work in China at the British Consulate as an interpreter in 1854. By the end of his career he was Inspector General of Chinese Mandarin Customs, chief adviser for the Emperor, and the Senior Guardian of the Heir Apparant of the Ch’ing dynasty. Robert Hale had made a place for himself in China, he had immersed himself in their culture and had lived as a Chinese man would. No other Westerner had ever achieved the level of power and success that Robert Hart had.
You might ask why. Well I feel a good part of that success was his sheer determination and the other part was the intense love he felt for his concubine Ayaou. The novel is centered around his first years in China where he met Ayaou and her sister and where he began his education that brought him to be the man he grew to be.
For me, really, this novel is a love story that is rich with Chinese culture. Robert originally comes to China to escape his life in Ireland where he wishes to avoid embarrassing his family by his actions with women in college. In China he finds that his behaviour would not have been considered such a bad thing and his mind is in turmoil. Robert struggles throughout the novel with his Christian upbringing (his father is a pastor) and the way that in China it’s perfectly normal for a man to have concubines. While Robert is fascinated with the idea of the concubines he doesn’t like how they are treated. Where he comes from women are treated as equals and with respect.
The story takes off when Robert meets Ayaou. It is love at first site for him and he has to have her. Ayaou too, has a fiery personality. However in the wings is an evil man, Ward, who has his sites set on her also. Eventually through a fight with the Taipings, Robert has Ayaou with him but also her sister Shao-mei. Shao-mei he owns, Ayaou he doesn’t. Again Robert is torn with his desire for Shao-mei who he feels is just a child but doesn’t act like one and his love for Ayaou. He builds a home with these women and this is where his real education begins. A lot of this education is due to Ayaou asking his teacher if he shouldn’t be learning this or that. She also taught him meanings of symbols and foods-everything in daily life became a lesson in Chinese culture and Robert soaked it up. He never knew what he would come home to but he knew that Ayaou had a reason for everything whether it to teach him something, to improve their lives or to offer protection for their home.
I found the novel fascinating and it should be as it took almost nine years of Llyod Lofthouse’s life to write. It is beautifully written and so rich in details of the Chinese culture. It was interesting to read how fathers sold their daughters in order to care for the rest of the family or young boys were castrated in order to get better jobs and in turn care for their family. In China it is all about family and taking care of them no matter what the cost. It was funny to read that when you are praising your concubines to others you should say that they are ugly. If you praise them in front of others, then they have reason to worry. I felt I learned so much from this novel and I enjoyed every bit.
There is *sexual content in this novel so if that isn’t for you then you may want to skip this book. However, I think it is a part of this story in that it is a part of the culture of China. We also have to keep in mind the age that Robert Hart was. He was a young man in his 20’s with a strong libido who was also deeply in love and he had two young, beautiful women were throwing themselves at him daily. I didn’t personally find the scenes overwhelming.
Before this novel I did not know who Robert Hart was. I must thank Lloyd Lofthouse for this novel as now I feel I’ve been acquainted with a great man from history. One who respected and loved women and fought to make things better. I’ve also been introduced to many aspects of the Chinese culture that I didn’t know and I really enjoyed that. This was a really good novel for me and I was sorry to see it end. Truthfully I would have liked to learn more about how Robert’s and Ayaou’s lives evolved after the emotional ending of this story.
Many thanks to Lloyd Lofthouse for this great novel and also thanks to Dorothy Thompson from Pump Up Your Book Promotion for sending me this book. Make sure to visit Lloyd’s website here and please join me here at Peeking Between the Pages tomorrow for a guest post from Lloyd Lofthouse.