BOOK REVIEW / Bound for the lust outpost of Empire: The mountain of immoderate desires by Leslie Wilson, Weidenfeld pounds 14.99
Sunday 20 February 1994
Samuel Pink, raised in a fusty West Country rectory, is informed by his reprobate tutor that he is secretly the illegitimate son of Queen Victoria and her gillie John Brown. Samuel takes his own regal shortness of stature as confirmation of this, along with innuendos in the annual letters from his unknown mother. He is sent via Oxford to career prospects in the East. Though careful to safeguard his 'royal secret', Samuel grows wistful at each glimpse of the profile on coins or biscuit tins.
Meanwhile we meet Lily, a foundling who was rescued in infancy outside the walls of Soochow by an eccentric British Chinese scholar called Jackson. Having been left by her parents to die because she is female, Lily is then betrayed, at puberty, by her protector's abuse. As part of his current bid for immortality, Jackson is on a diet of cobras' gall bladders, and engages in a little-known Taoist regime of teeth grinding and sexual gymnastics with Lily which would not please Esther Rantzen.
In Hong Kong, Lily is like honey to the busy bees at the mission for fallen women, where expatriates throng to hear her touching testimony (they always thought that Jackson was up to no good). In religious ferment himself, Samuel hears Lily's story, falls in love with her and takes her as his mistress, exposing them both to the risk of scandal.
In this novel, it isn't just the Chinese women - their feet bound to tiny decorative stumps or in a double bind like Lily's - who suffer. Mrs Darley, wife of a drainage and carbolic enthusiast at the Public Works Department, causes her husband such embarrassment at the Club with her erotic adventures that he has her 'doctored' by a radical surgical technique which leaves her mutilated. Colonial wives are trapped. So are missionaries and prostitutes. When Lily wins pounds 200 at the races and has the wit to buy a portfolio of Chinese joint-stock investments, the reader cheers her gumption.
Leslie Wilson's period research is detailed but subtly applied. Subtler still is the way she mixes the molehills of behavioural absurdity (a thrusting Devon parson blackmailing his way on to smart invitation lists) with mountainous human extremes: suicide, murder, female castration, plague, infanticide. The reader's perspective has been so cleverly adjusted that it all appears as one satisfying dramatic landscape. It is like White Mischief with black comic relief.
Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beachart
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I was a Woman Against Feminism too
- 2 Is Gideon Levy the most hated man in Israel or just the most heroic?
- 3 Students offered grants if they tweet pro-Israeli propaganda
- 4 The Tory donor whose firm is one of Britain’s biggest tax avoiders - with HMRC's blessing
- 5 John Barrowman praised for Commonwealth Games opening ceremony gay kiss
Comic-Con 2014: Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch and Game of Thrones' George RR Martin set to attend
Hercules, review: Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson takes centre stage in preposterous movie
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?
George R. R. Martin responds to 13-year-old fan's 'heartfelt' letter asking for a grisly death in Game of Thrones
Star Wars 7: Plot details 'leak', with sequel's opening sequence and premise revealed
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Vladimir Putin is given 'one last chance' to end hostilities in Ukraine
The 'scroungers’ fight back: The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Ukrainian military jet was flying close to passenger plane before it was shot down, says Russian officer
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Massive rise in sale of British arms to Russia
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: victims’ bodies bundled in black bags and loaded onto trains