This novel is set in China in the late 1920s and has a plot similar to that of Ann Bridge’s first novel, Peking Picnic. A small group from the European colony in Peking take a trip into the interior. They face various adversities: someone falls ill; gangs of soldier-bandits terrorize the countryside; allegiances within the group shift; people fall in and out of love.
The group comprises a brother and sister, Anthony and Asta Lydiard, their cousin, Rose, a friend, Henry Hargreaves and Roy Hillier, who is researching a book. Two other characters are important. First Charles Pelham, Rose’s husband and an old friend of the Lydiards. Their marriage turned sour after their baby died and Charles had an affair. He remains in Cairo while Rose visits her cousins and tries to decide what to do. Asta had been in love with Charles before he met Rose. The other is Lady Harriet Downham, a widow who had an unhappy marriage and a son who died. She becomes friendly with Rose and to some extent serves as a role model for her.
The novel opens with Captain Hargreaves, a practised seducer, sitting on a bench with Rose. He is working out his next move – how to slide his arm around her waist and kiss her. This scene is acutely observed and enjoyably satirical in a mild way. I wish I could say the same of the rest of the novel but sadly any satire is confined to occasional social situations, everything else being treated very seriously and at length.
Ann Bridge clearly loved the Chinese countryside and there are detailed descriptions of the landscape. Unfortunately they are often of a length which threatens to slow the story down. The same applies to the long descriptions of people’s emotional states. For these to engage the reader, the characters and their moral dilemmas need to be much more interesting and involving than they are.
There is plenty of casual racism. Anthony speaks of ‘wretched little insects of Chinese girls’, while Hargreaves uses the word Chink and refuses to learn the names of the donkey-boys, addressing them all as Daniels (explained as naval slang for the indigenous inhabitants of the East). Asta challenges him, but only on the grounds that it reminds her of the navy; he responds by calling them Rudolf instead.
There is some snobbishness about how one mixes with other British people in Peking whom one wouldn’t know at home. Asta describes the colony wives who don’t have enough to do, ‘…Bridge and gossip, and drinks at the Club; and these endless dreary, dreary parties, and the drab little flirtations.’
The Lydiards have their own snobbishness which is very hard to take. They regard themselves and are regarded by others as being highly intelligent and existing on a rather rarefied plane. This leads to an off-putting ‘people like us’ attitude which is quite explicit.
‘They had been one of those curiously self-sufficing and closely knit families; it was very hard for any Lydiard to feel that anyone else in the world was as interesting or valuable or enjoyable as any other Lydiard.”
One way to be accepted is to change and conform to Lydiard values as Roy does. Asta says to Anthony of a piece Roy has written, ‘Yes, it’s quite acute, but a little cheap, don’t you think?’ But, thinking him redeemable, she tells him to adapt and talk less brilliantly. He does this successfully, thereby becoming a suitable mate for her.
The other way is for them to develop an inexplicable affection for you and choose to descend to your level, as with Henry. Rose observes,
‘They were fond of him, and so, with him, they lived on his lines, and above all talked on his lines, using those forms of speech which were best worn, and the most economical of intellectual content.’
At one point the others gang up on Roy. Realizing that he expects them to be intellectual, they delight in using as many commonplace words and phrases as possible. I’m not sure how the author expected this to be taken but it comes over as unpleasantly childish.
There is no question of selfish, unfaithful Charles having to change, being an old friend and practically a Lydiard. The Charles-Rose story shows the depressing gender relations of the time. Yes, Charles has behaved badly and no one condemns Rose for her fling with Henry (apparently different to other women’s ‘drab flirtations’) but, having had her fun, she is under pressure to return to him.
But she and Anthony fall in love, Henry withdraws and Rose considers divorce. Anthony wants to marry her but Asta is horrified, partly on religious grounds but mainly for social reasons. Charles is in the Guards and if involved in a divorce would have to resign: ‘One might just as well kill him outright.’ Even Anthony thinks it would be different if Rose’s husband were in an ‘ordinary career’. Asta now loves Roy but her sympathies are with Charles not Rose; in fact she comes close to blaming Rose,
‘He wasn’t like other people; she ought not to have married him, unless she could accept him as he was, and what flowed from that, for her. There must have been compensations. If she had not found them, it was her fault.’
To Charles, Rose is making a ridiculous fuss; he never loved the woman. Rose doesn’t care about that but asks if that woman has been replaced. Charles responds angrily, not answering the question,
‘ “What do you mean?….The point is that you yourself have never been replaced. I have not the smallest wish to change wives.” ‘
Wives and mistresses – quite different, of course.
Rose returns to Britain with Lady Harriet. She has almost decided on divorce but changes her mind after a strange spiritual experience. She looks for a way to justify her decision to herself and finds this in Lady Harriet’s behaviour, deciding that she will cope by becoming gay, interested and interesting. Oddly she comes to this conclusion without having had any conversation with the older woman about how she coped with unhappiness; for all Rose knows, Lady Harriet might advise someone from a younger generation to make quite different choices.
The characterization isn’t totally convincing. Initially Roy is vehemently disliked by everyone, being described as ‘tiresome’ and ‘pestilential’; no one wants him on the trip. But he seems little more than mildly annoying and their reactions excessive. Likewise Rose is an attractive young woman but her portrayal earlier in the novel doesn’t fit with Roy’s later, objective description of her as a femme fatale, albeit an unconscious one.
The writer knew China well and there is interesting information about local customs, both Chinese and European. But in the end I was repelled by the preciousness of the Lydiards and their circle.