Lise Boehm was the pen name of Elise Williamina Edersheim Giles. She was born around 1859 in Scotland. Her father, Alfred Edersheim (1825–1889), was a Jewish convert to Christianity and a biblical scholar. In 1883, at the age of twenty-three she married Herbert Allen Giles (1845-1935), of Wade-Giles romanization system fame, who was some fourteen years her senior. Giles’ first wife, Catherine Maria “Kate” Fenn (1844-1882) had died during one of his postings in China and was buried in the Foochow Mission Cemetery.
Since Giles was in the British Consular Service in China, soon Boehm and her husband left England for the Far East. In Taiwan, Giles served as British Consul at Tamsui from 1885 to 1891. So although Boehm was not in Taiwan at the time of the French bombardment of Tamsui (referred to as “Kantow” in the novel and presently known as “Danshui” in Mandarin), she arrived not long thereafter. The battle scars on the buildings would have still been fresh. The people she met would have known of the events firsthand. The places the novel describes were real ones that Boehm knew well from her years living there. And some of the characters in her book will have been modeled after real types she met.
In short, Boehm was extremely well placed to write about Taiwan at the time. Unfortunately, however, despite the book’s claim to be a “tale of the French blockade of 1884-1885,” the interesting historical events of the time have but little mention in the novel. Instead, the story involves a romance between the wife of the British consul (presumably not modeled on Boehm herself) and a married British businessman.
The main characters are these:
- Reynolds, the British consul in Tamsui
- Isabel Reynolds, the consul’s wife; about twenty-three years old
- Oliver Drury, commissioner of the Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs at Kantow; thirty-three years old
- Patricia Drury, the wife of the commissioner; about thirty-six years old (but described as something of a battleaxe)
- the self-styled Duc de Borny, a French employee of the customs service; the local rake
While on leave in England Mr. Reynolds meets and, in a highly uncharacteristic move, impetuously marries Isabel, an actress and dancer. Theirs is a poor match, since the consul is a conservative, timid man, and Isabel is a young, free-spirited, self-obsessed, and stubborn flirt.
At the time, Tamsui was viewed as something of a hardship posting:
it would have been a matter of some difficulty to get a man of seniority and pretensions to stay in the island for an unlimited period of time. The inhabitants of the treaty ports of China hold that the island of Formosa is the hot-bed of all fevers and diseases. The people who live there are sincerely pitied, and their speedy death expected.
Many Western staples, such as beef, had to be imported from Amoy (Xiamen). And there was not even a telegraphic cable to provide news. Relatively speaking, the island was cut off. So it is no surprise that few Westerners lived in northern Taiwan then.
Thus, all the foreigners knew one another, and socializing meant seeing the same people again and again. The self-appointed head of Western society in Tamsui was Mrs. Patricia Drury, a woman with a strong sense of propriety. She’s also a bit of a nag. She and the newcomer, Isabel Reynolds, take a quick dislike to one another, which is the main wellspring for the novel’s events, as is the perceived need by the consul to hide Isabel’s past as a dancer.
The characters are for the most part neither all good nor all bad. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tend to make the characters especially complex or interesting; it just means the novel gets caught up in a lot more minor incidents than necessary, until, finally, a French shell acts as a deus ex machina and brings matters to a close.
The chief interest of this book for the modern reader is in its descriptions of Taiwan, such as this:
But now a flight of steps leading up to a great brown gate, over which spread out the immense branches of a beautiful banyan tree, appeared directly above them in the mist. De Borny raised his cap and took leave, and Mr. Vernon likewise departed. And the strangely assorted couple entered their own domain, and Isabel for the first time for many years possessed a home of her own.
And a most beautiful home, too, as she was forced to admit to herself next morning, when the fog had cleared away and the beautiful spring air was coming in through the open windows, and the genial, not yet glaring, sun was dressing up all the landscape in its brightest colours. Isabel was standing in a long verandah which ran along three sides of the bungalow which served as the Consulate dwelling-house. It was perched high up on a hill, which suddenly fell away at a little distance in front of the house, the ground disappearing in a mass of jungly ferns, grasses, cactus and banyans. Over and through this jungle could be seen, far below, a wide river swiftly flowing out to where, some half-mile to the right, a line of white breakers marked where the bar lay. Across the river, which was of no mean size or depth, rose almost straight from the shore a beautifully green hill, some fifteen hundred feet in height, with peak after peak seeming to peep round its shoulder: some rounded, others conical, as though a breath of volcanic fire had passed over them. Behind this hill, the South Hill of Kantow, a table-land emerged on the right-hand side, and below it, also to the right, the land flattened out into a narrow strip of beach and land which came out into a point, then seemed to curve again, and finally lost itself in an outstretching headland miles away.
Away to the left of the South Hill the river twisted and wound itself off in the distance nearly as broad as ever, in between two lofty cliffs, densely wooded. Through them one caught ever-changing views of range behind range of mountains of no mean height, now blue with mist, now a darker grey, now with a white cloud wrapped half round them, like a lady’s scarf, and now shining out distinctly. For an artistic soul this view, seen through waving banyans, with a foreground of bright red hybiscus flowers and white Annunciation lilies, would have been rapture.
Regrettably, the book does not contain enough such points to sustain the interest of those not captivated by the squabblings and petty concerns of the society women (or, as Mrs. Drury states, “ladies, please, not women, we have to distinguish between the two here”). For fictionalized descriptions of the French campaign and life in northern Taiwan toward the end of the nineteenth century, readers would be better served by Thurlow Fraser’s The Call of the East: A Romance of Far Formosa.
Formosa: A Tale of the French Blockade of 1884–1885 was published as part of a series called China Coast Tales in 1906. Lise Boehm died in 1921, and was survived by her husband, Herbert Giles.