The Concubine Saga is a combination of two previous novels of Robert Hart in China, written by Lloyd Lofthouse, My Splendid Concubine and Our Hart: Elegy for a Concubine.
It tells the story of a real person in history, Robert Hart, son of a Wesleyan pastor in Ireland, who left home at age 19 to work for the British Consulate in Ningpo, China in 1854. Hart stayed for 54 years until 1908. During that time, he received unprecedented honors not given to any other foreigner by the Qing Dynasty for his service to the country.
The Concubine Saga covers the first 10 years of Hart's stay in China, when he lived with a concubine named Ayaou who bore him three children and who also helped him understand the nuances of the language and culture, the social conventions, and many things that would help him understand the Chinese enough to become invaluable to the last Chinese dynasty. Hart became a trusted advisor and Inspector General of the country's Customs Service. He was known at the "Godfather of China's modernism," and was also "the architect behind China's railroads, postal network, telegraph systems and schools."
Back in 1859, he'd resolved to help the Chinese to the best of his abilities and had never swerved from that path. What he had achieved hadn't been done just for the glory and the power. He'd fallen in love with the Chinese culture. He could thank Ayaou for that.
Over the years, his rewards had been many. Queen Victoria of Great Britain had knighted him in 1893, along with a grand cross and a baronetcy. More than a dozen countries had honored him. Even the Vatican in 1885 had made him a Commander of the Order of Pius IX. (p. 545)What is telling is that Hart later destroyed documents and journals and other evidence of his early years in China, those years with the concubine Ayaou. I can imagine that on returning to England in 1908, he had to keep his record and image spotless to show he deserved the knighthood from Queen Victoria and the prestigious honor from the Vatican. What would people say about Hart's relationship with Ayaou if they knew about her, even if, according to The Concubine Saga, she was the key to Hart's education about the Chinese, how he grew to understand their culture and language and learned how to get along.
In this sense, I found it a sad "love" story. Luckily the author Lloyd Lofthouse was able to find surviving letters and journals written by Hart that helped him flesh out this story of the concubine Ayaou. I think Lofthouse tried to apologize for Hart's behavior by saying he was conforming to Victorian standards to deny any involvement with a concubine in his early years in China. His children with Ayaou were taken back to Ireland and placed in foster homes, supported until they came of age, probably remaining unacknowledged publicly by their father.
I learned about the politics of the European and U.S. presence in China during the 19th Century, and the Taiping Rebellion when about two million Chinese were killed trying to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. Robert Hart advised the Chinese dynasty in its dealings with the foreign powers and also in putting down the Taiping rebellion.
The history of this period is so complex that I can only recommend readers to pick up The Concubine Saga to learn more. I was frustrated that fact and fiction had to be combined in this historical novel, as I wanted to know more precisely where historical fact ended and fiction began in Hart's complex story. I would have loved to have read this as a fictional biography rather than as a novel. Lloyd Lofthouse has done an excellent job however of creating a fascinating book melding important events of 19th century China with a love story.
Title: The Concubine Saga by Lloyd Lofthouse
Paperback, 550 pages; Three Clover Press
Published: May 9, 2012
Objective rating: 4/5
Thanks to Virtual Author Book Tours and the author for a complimentary review copy of this book for the blog tour. For other reviews, visit The Concubine Saga Blog Tour
Giveway: The author is giving away one signed hardcover copy of the novel. Leave an approved comment on one or more of the blog posts found at Lloyd Lofthouse or iLook China between now and June 30 and automatically be entered into a drawing. (Note the giveaway is by the author at his two websites and not by this blog.)