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Hermit of Peking: The hidden life of Sir Edmund Backhouse Hardcover – 1977
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As a psychological investigation, the book is intriguing: Blackhouse left Oxford a bankrupt at the end of the nineteenth century, having wasted a fortune buying jewellery for actresses; in China he became a skilled translator, but his various fantasies drew in, and ultimately disappointed, the Bodleian (which was led to believe he had a treasure-trove of rare books that never arrived); the British government (for whom Blackhouse promised to negotiate the purchase of a large amount of weapons for use in World War One); the American Bank Note Company (which expected a significant contract with the Chinese government); and a number of Sinologists, who accepted his story of discovering a diary of great historical value for interpreting modern China. After all this, and after a lifetime of apparent celibacy, in old age he composed a pornographic memoir of bogus meetings with late-nineteenth century bohemians and preposterous sexual exploits, including servicing the aged Dowager Empress; he then converted to Catholicism and chose to end his days under Japanese occupation - of which he approved - rather than accept repatriation.
Trevor-Roper convincingly diagnoses this arc as showing how "the empty aesthetic élitism of the late nineteenth century was converted gradually into the brutal, hollow, glittering, sadistic élitism which was one of the constituent elements of fascism...Only in the purulent atmosphere of the decaying Manchu court could a pale reflection of English decadence linger on until it could be ravished and possessed by the brutal, but still perverted masculinity of fascist Führerprinzip".
As a historical account, the book is also very rich: the longstanding rivalry between two correspondents for the "Times" (who both used Blackhouse) is a major theme, and we meet a number of British imperial officials and players. Religion does not feature very much, although Bishop Frank Norris of Peking appears, assisting Blackhouse with some day-to-day matters, and there is a legal dispute with the missionary Kenneth Scott Latourette, who criticised the value of a book co-written by Blackhouse.
As a narrative, the story is at times a page-turner; however, the fiascos which Blackhouse causes again and again gradually lose their black comic interest as their inevitablity becomes depressingly repetitive. At the end, I could not help but feel irritated that I had given so much time (nearly 400 pages) in the company of a man who claimed to have had intimate links with many notable persons, but who in fact, we discover, was far less significant.
The index is written with wit. Best entry: "Brown, John, Queeen Victoria's Ghillie...a eunuch? if not, why not? 306".