The 55-day siege of the international legations in Peking during the summer of 1900 is a terrific setting for a novel: here we have, during the twilight days of the imperial capital, the mayhem and violence of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion, the political machinations of the Qing court, and finally the race to – and occupation of – the city by an eight-nation relief force. And above all, there is the captive aspect of the siege, with Peking’s strong-willed and privileged foreign community thrown together under terrible psychological and physical stress.
Two of the people forced together in unlikely proximity are nineteen-year-old Nina Ward and married British diplomat Oscar Fairchild. As the siege tightens, Nina and Oscar’s mutual attraction blossoms into a dangerous clandestine affair, though in such claustrophobic and vigilant circumstances, it doesn’t remain secret for long. Tongues begin to wag. If the couple survive the siege, they’ll do so with reputations – and perhaps their lives – irrevocably damaged. Determined to stop this is the narrator, Alistair Scott, who is a journalist and family friend of the Wards.
I wished I might take Nina with me, return her to her rightful home, place her in the shade of the magnolia tree, allow her to hear once more the chirping of the swallows in the eaves, let her mind range and wonder with her father and Pei, permit her to spend hazy afternoons at the lake with Chang. I wished only to take her from that magnificent residence in which she had been placed, to remove her from the imperious gaze of the serious portraits upon the walls, to save her from the cruel murmurings of its inhabitants, to rescue her from gracious seduction by the cordial diplomat who stood once again before us. And yet any such rescue was impossible; even if the Boxers posed no threat and the city were secure, Nina was not a young woman to be saved.
Young Nina is a China-born Englishwoman of independent temperament who feels more at ease among the Chinese citizens of Peking than among the European elite. She is a fish out of water. One of the women in Oscar’s house, where Nina and some other guests are staying for safety’s sake, says of her: “She understands nothing. It is as though she is neither English or Chinese but rather something feral.”
Nina never knows quite what to say and quite what to do in polite society. Not that such uncertainty holds her back; she’s not afraid to express a contrary opinion to her betters, male or female.
Another modern woman in the story is the memorable Italian bombshell La Contessa. The smitten narrator admires La Contessa force of personality and “exquisite pulchritude.” She is “open-minded yet opinionated, questioning but certain,” and indifferent to societal disapproval of her drinking.
I guess we modern readers want heroines with anachronistic qualities to match modern sensibilities rather than those of the period, or at least some midway melding of the two. The author gets away with progressive female characters by providing them with believable reasons for being so; Nina has had an unusual upbringing and La Contessa enjoys the liberty that comes with her high rank.
One element of Dragons in Shallow Water which is deliciously old-fashioned is the prose. The novel is both beautifully written and well plotted. It is sad in parts – someone will need to pay a blood price – but it has a satisfying story arc, and overall is colored with more light than shade.
As an example of the writing, here’s a lovely passage in which the narrator describes his journalist’s attraction to big news stories such as the siege:
Some men cannot pass a public house without yielding to the tart whisper of its spumous barrels, others abandon restraint at the first glimpse of a generous décolletage, unbridle themselves for any painted lip or curled hair. And while I too have been partial to such common pleasures, I am equally able to resist them in pursuit of some higher objective. There is only one temptation to render me rudderless and that is the siren call of chaos, the ominous allure of disorder. We newsmen are strange creatures: masters of words and slaves to events. How it invigorated and exhilarated me to step amongst the ragged throngs that surged through the Legation Quarter in those infant hours of the siege. A thrill, foreboding but heady, gripped me as I took my place amongst the soldiers of every flag who marched the streets, barking orders at the disorientated and displaced, corralling them towards the Su palace.
Author Clare Kane studied Chinese at Oxford and has lived and worked in Shanghai and Beijing, so she brings a level of China knowledge to her work. However, the history in this historical romance is sometimes rather light for my tastes. A little more detail would have been nice. Take, for example, a major character called Phoebe Franklin. She’s a missionary yet we never learn what denomination she is or what organization she is with. Enough to be a generic missionary it seems, and all we need to know is she’s a prudish Christian. When I first came upon Phoebe I grimaced at the predictably strident portrayal. Here in an early passage she is calling for action against the Boxers: “Phoebe spoke now with assured righteousness, demonstrating the flame-blooded passion of the proselytizer as she detailed the horrors to which she and her heavenly colleagues had been subject.” Christians have been raped, robbed, forced to flee their homes, many have been murdered, and yet the missionary can’t relate this without being branded as a righteous proselytizer and her fellow missionaries dismissed as “heavenly colleagues.”
I’m glad to say that proselytizer Phoebe is shown in a more sympathetic fashion as the novel progresses; she rises bravely to the challenges of the siege and displays admirable compassion for the Chinese Christians seeking refuge in the legation quarters. Still, it does raise the question of the narrator’s hostility to men and women of the cloth. Is it a concession to current attitudes or a valid reflection of opinions at the time?
While it’s easy to image that anti-missionary flavour in historical novels is a reflection of modern secular views, reading contemporary fiction from the treaty port days of Old China can be an eye-opening correction to this assumption, and no more so than with China Coast Tales. This series of ten stories, published by the Shanghai-based Kelly and Walsh in six volumes between 1892 and 1906 under the pen name Lise Boehm, was written by Elisa Giles, wife of the British diplomat and notable China scholar Herbert A. Giles. The stories, which typically feature missionaries, customs and consular staff, and expatriate wives, are a scathing look at the petty jealousies and ambitions of Westerners in China. The women in these tales are malicious gossipers and meddlers. She held missionaries in the greatest distain, which was not an altogether uncommon view among her expat contemporaries. Missionaries were seen as being tactless, upsetting establish customs, and causing unrest. Some of the this ill-will toward missionaries stemmed from snobbery (they tended to be from lower down the social ladder) and resentment at missionary criticisms of popular expat pastimes like gambling, drinking, and fornication.
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The Boxer Rebellion has been under-utilised as a subject for fiction, so the excellent Dragons in Shallow Water is an especially welcome addition to the China bookshelf. It is published by Earnshaw Books and is available from various retailers including Amazon.com.
Readers might also be interested in Kane’s first novel, Electric Shadows of Shanghai, which tells the story of a young British couple caught up in political and romantic intrigues in 1930s Shanghai.