Historical Novels Review Online
Listed with the MAY 2008 REVIEWS:
MY SPLENDID CONCUBINE
Lloyd Lofthouse, iUniverse, 2007, $21.95, pb, 365pp, 9780595458431
When Robert Hart escapes his conservative English family for China, he’s hoping to change his life for the better. Raised with traditional Christian values, Hart is shocked when one of his first conversations with his Mandarin teacher involves purchasing a concubine. China is full of surprises for Hart, and his adjustment to the culture is awkward at times. He finds a mentor in Guan-jiah, a eunuch who assists him with his business and helps teach him about Chinese culture and values.
Hart finds himself in love at first sight with Ayaou, a young boat person whose father is trying to sell her as a concubine. Unfortunately, Ward, a vicious and abusive British mercenary, purchases Ayaou before Hart. A fellow Brit offers to sell Shao-Mei, Ayaou’s sister, to Hart, and Hart purchases her, but only to save her from being raped and abused. Hart is finally able to strike a deal with Ward to purchase Ayaou, but this action sets a chain of devastating events into motion that will change the lives of Hart, Ayaou, and Shao-Mei.
The beginning of the novel is slow going, but the pace speeds up once Ayaou enters Robert’s life. Some readers may be uncomfortable with the frank sexuality of the novel, as well as Hart’s simultaneous romantic relationship with both Ayaou and Shao-Mei, but those who are interested in unconventional romances with an out-of-the-ordinary setting will find plenty to enjoy.
Lofthouse put a lot of research into My Splendid Concubine, seeking out source material that has been saved in an underground archive in China. Robert Hart was a major figure in the westernization of China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but his legacy is long forgotten by many. While this novel focuses more on Hart’s romantic entanglements than his diplomatic and governmental work, it may pique readers' interest in learning more about this interesting historical figure. –- Nanette Donohue
Author's Note: My Splendid Concubine focuses on Hart's early years in China as an interpreter for the British Consulate in Niingpo. In the sequel, Our Hart, Elegy for a Concubine, we join Robert as he becomes Inspector General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service and struggles to hold onto his love for Ayaou while saving an ancient empire from ruin and destruction.
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