Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Review: My Splendid Concubine

Book: My Splendid Concubine
Author: Lloyd Lofthouse
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: iUniverse Publisher’s Choice
Pages: 365
My Rating: 3/5

Sir Robert Hart was a British Consular Official in China. He is referred to as the Father of China’s modernization. He was the architect behind China’s railroads, postal network, telegraph systems and schools. No westerner ever achieved Hart’s status and level of power in China. Hart was born and raised in Ireland. He moved to China in 1854 to become an interpreter for the British Consulate in China.

The book “My Splendid Concubine” is a historical fiction written by Lloyd Lofthouse. It is based on Sir Robert Hart’s life in China and concentrates on one side –his dark side(if we can call it that) which was kept a secret and not known to many. The Hart in this book is not the “Father of China’s Modernization” but rather an ordinary man who sleeps with his boss’s concubine, who has underhand dealings with a notorious opium dealer, etc. The first chapter of the book happens in 1908 when Hart is old and sick. He meets with the Empress of China before leaving China for good and returning to his home country – Ireland. During that brief meeting with her, he confides in her. He tells her a secret that he’s been living with in China – his concubine, Ayaou.

The rest of the book is about Hart’s and Ayaou’s passionate love affair. Hart first meets Ayaou when he rescues her family during a violent revolt. Later at a friend’s palce, he is surprised to see her again and realizes that her dad is trying to sell her and her sisters as concubines to the highest bidder. Hart is willing to pay any amount to get her but by a cruel twist of events she is sold to a heartless man – Ward. Hart eventually lands up buying her sister Shao-Mei to protect her. But since he is in love with Ayaou, he is unable to take Shao-Mei as a concubine in the truest sense. By a twist of events, Hart manages to get hold of Ayaou again. Though he intends to pay Ward for her, he never gets around to doing it. Hart moves into a house with Ayaou and Shao-Mei and spends some of the happiest moments of his life with his two girls.

“My Splendid Concubine” is a well researched book and gives us an peek into the life of the Chinese in the early 20th century. We learn a lot about their customs and traditions. I loved that part of the book.

The only thing that I could have done without was the excessive sexual content. It is true that many women in the China that we are reading about in the book are merely treated as sex slaves. They do very little in their lives apart from entertaining the men and “warming their beds”. It is for this fact alone that I give this book only 2.5 stars.

Apart from that, I enjoyed reading the book. Thanks to Dorothy from Pump Up Your Book Promotion for sending me a review copy of this book.


bermudaonion said...

I'm on the fence with this one. Thanks for the review.

Jo-Jo said...

Thanks for the honest review Ramya...it's good to know what to expect.

S. Krishna said...

Hmm...I think I'll pass on this one. Thanks for the review!

Dar said...

Hmmmmm, I haven't reached the excessive sexual content yet. So far I'm really enjoying the book. I guess we'll see in the next while. I notice that you did enjoy the rest of the book. I'm enjoying the look inside Chinese culture. I'll read your review more completely after I've finished the book.

Anna said...

Sounds like an interesting book. There must've been a lot of sex in it for you to give it a lower rating on that alone. I appreciate your honest review.

Diary of an Eccentric

The Teacher said...

I want to thank Ramya for the honest review she wrote for my historical fiction novel, My Splendid Concubine. Ramya was right when she pointed out that there are explicit sex scenes in the novel. Anyone that might be offended reading such scenes, should avoid buying My Splendid Concubine.
I had my reasons for writing such scenes since they helped show the young man Robert Hart was at that time he arrived in China. Scholars, members of the Council on East Asian Studies at Harvard, point out that Robert Hart was wild in college, drank too much, was known for seducing numerous women and caught a case of syphilis before he fled to China to avoid the embarrassment he would have faced after his family found out what he had been doing (This college episode in Hart’s life is only mentioned briefly in the novel and not explicitly—the explicit scenes take place in China.)
To understand the turmoil that Hart must have felt, I want to point out that Hart came from a religious family and his father was a Christian pastor. Hart was the oldest of twelve. Before supper each day, Hart’s father asked his children to say what they had done for God that day. Imagine What Robert Hart must have felt when his family found out what he had been doing while attending the Queen’s University. Since Hart was planning to stay in college to earn a master’s degree, there is no other explanation why he suddenly changed his plans and went to China where he would live for the next fifty-four years.
During the years of research that went into writing My Splendid Concubine, it became obvious from Hart’s journals (he wrote journals for the entire time he was in China) and thousands of letters (many of Hart’s journals and letters have been published in four volumes by Harvard University Press) that he had a difficult time struggling with his libido during his early years in China.
His journals reveal that he did have an illicit relationship with a superior’s concubine while in Ningpo, his first duty station in China. This takes place before he meets Ayaou, his concubine. The surviving entries, after that night, show that Hart went to church twice the following Sunday in an attempt to deal with his guilt. He was a young man torn between his duty to God and his adolescent libido.
Hart burned the journals that covered the time period right after he acquired Ayaou. The surviving journals that pick up three years later, after the time period the novel covers, shows a completely different man who is not struggling with his libido any longer. That changed man is dealt with in detail in the sequel, Our Hart. The Harvard scholars think the love he had with Ayaou tamed Hart.
The man that emerges after My Splendid Concubine eventually is knighted by Queen Victoria, honored by the Vatican and a dozen other countries and named the guardian of the heir to the Dragon Throne in China. The Imperial princes in Peking called Robert, “Our Hart” since they trusted him more than they trusted each other. My Splendid Concubine is a passionate, explicit story about those early years Robert Hart attempted to erase when he burned those journals. He even left instructions to his family and friends to burn the rest of his journals and letters after his death. His family and friends did not honor that request and gave the journals and letters to the University of Belfast.
My Splendid Concubine is also about Hart’s journey of discovery that made him into the man who would eventually be called “the godfather of China’s modernization” since he was behind the building of China’s railroads, postal system, customs and reorganization of the country’s schools. Although the Communists that rule China won’t admit it, everything that Hart built is still being used today.
I’ve read that behind every great man, there is a woman. Ayaou was that woman. Sterling Seagrave in Dragon Lady wrote that Ayaou was Hart’s live in dictionary.
Years after Ayaou was gone, Robert wrote in a letter to his agent in London that Ayaou was the most sensible person he’d ever known, and he was a black fool. I wonder what he meant when he called himself a fool. My Splendid Concubine was an attempt to bring Ayaou to life and show how she helped one man step onto the world stage into greatness. I don’t think he could have done it without having loved Ayaou. Again, thank you.

Wendi B. - Wendi's Book Corner ~ Rainy Day Reads in Seattle said...

I was really curious about this one. It does sound like a very interesting book!

I've left you an award! Stop by when you get a chance and pick it up! ~ Wendi