Wednesday, January 16, 2019

4. The Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse by Hugh Trevor-Roper

My friend lent me this book with a strong recommendation.  We both got our bachelor's in history but he kept with it more than I and said this one was really good.  He was not wrong.  It was also nice to be reminded of how funny and rich history is, both the content itself, but also all the crazy back and forth between historians.  I am glad I never went into it professionally as it can be painfully petty and vicious, but from afar it is quite entertaining.

The Hermit of Peking is a really interesting book because the story itself is interesting, but perhaps even more so it is the way that Trevor-Roper structures it that really captivates the reader.  There is a prologue where he explains how he knew of Backhouse but hadn't really thought much beyond his generally understood reputation as an eccentric and scholar living through the most disruptive times in China.  A Swiss diplomat contacted him saying he had an interesting manuscript by Backhouse but one that was quite offensive and he wasn't sure what to do with it.  They meet at an airpot where the manuscript is handed over.  It turns out to be Backhouse's biography but basically x-rated (at least for the 1970s).  This spurs Trevor-Roper to really dig into Backhouse's life. As we go through his research and archival detective work, we learn more and more about Backhouse's life and work.  Each chapter peels away another layer of the onion and things that seemed true and straightforward in early parts get exposed in an entirely different way as you learn more and more.

I won't go into the actual story, as Trevor-Roper does the job extremely well and the fun is in the reading.  To give you some tantalizing hints, Backhouse was seen as a historian and connected diplomat to the Chinese court.  He donated extremely valuable documents to a library in Oxford.  He also lied and forged and pulled several long cons all of which ultimately failed.  Yet he is not outwardly evil, but rather sad and lost (though ultimately a survivor).  Trevor-Roper does an amazing job.  I have two criticisms of his analysis.  Both are probably ones that I am only able to make because of the time period I am in.  First, there is a subtle but nevertheless omnipresent revulsion against sexuality and particularly homosexuality.  It's not hardcore, but rather the slight contempt of the supposedly objective protestant.  Trevor-Roper talks a lot about what a great and creative storyteller Backhouse is, but dismisses his autobiography as basically pornography, with terms like "revolting" to describe the explicit text.  Second, there is zero critique in this book of colonialism.  I mean ultimately, Backhouse could have only pulled off the stuff he did because of colonialism.  It is unstated, but this book really reminds you that the British presence (and the other foreign nations) in China was basically all criminal (and that is putting it mildly).  They destabilized a polity in order to rob it blind and that went on at the governmental level and at the individual level.  For decades, other Europeans bought into Backhouse's lies, partly because he was so good at it, but also because of racism.  They were all too quick to assign any failure or contradictions on Backhouse's part to wily Chinese machinations.  I guess I benefit from decades of post-colonial theory to be able to see those failings so acutely (this book was written in the 1970s).  He isn't excusing of the behaviour of the colonial powers, but also kind of glosses over it all. 

Great book, though.

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