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.