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Frances Donnelly on Ann Bridge, Peking Picnic, Slightly Foxed Issue 82

Chinese Whispers

Until recently, I’d never heard of the novelist Ann Bridge. But Peking Picnic (1932), her first novel, set in British diplomatic circles in Peking in the 1920s, captivated me. Ann Bridge was a pen name for Lady Owen O’Malley, who was writing about a world she’d experienced herself as a diplomatic wife. Her heroine, Laura Leroy, is married, more or less contentedly, to Henry, Commercial and Oriental attaché at the British Legation in Peking.

This diplomatic world is brilliantly evoked in the novel’s opening scene, a party at the Scandinavian delegation. Laura is warmly greeted by the German Counsellor, then by the Flemish Minister, while the Italian First Secretary kisses her hand and the Japanese Minister bows very low. The British delegation hail her with equal pleasure, even though she’s probably met all of them the day before at a similar engagement. It is a claustrophobic world of familiar faces and endless socializing.

Though Peking Picnic is set in the same period as the British Raj in India, there is one crucial difference. The British do not rule China. Laura, her husband and indeed everyone else in the novel are there through the goodwill of the host country. Laura wonders whether the British community’s fondness for bestowing nicknames on one another stems from their need to feel a more cohesive community in a vast and volatile country.

From the outside, Laura’s life is enviable: many servants and a large house underpin her duties as wife and hostess. Yet the book’s opening statement alerts us to sadness and conflict in her life. ‘To live in two worlds at the same time’, she reflects, ‘is difficult and disconcerting.’ The body cannot be in China and Oxfordshire simultaneously. ‘So the whole man or woman, in such circumstances, can never completely be anywhere.’ This is the core of th

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Until recently, I’d never heard of the novelist Ann Bridge. But Peking Picnic (1932), her first novel, set in British diplomatic circles in Peking in the 1920s, captivated me. Ann Bridge was a pen name for Lady Owen O’Malley, who was writing about a world she’d experienced herself as a diplomatic wife. Her heroine, Laura Leroy, is married, more or less contentedly, to Henry, Commercial and Oriental attaché at the British Legation in Peking. This diplomatic world is brilliantly evoked in the novel’s opening scene, a party at the Scandinavian delegation. Laura is warmly greeted by the German Counsellor, then by the Flemish Minister, while the Italian First Secretary kisses her hand and the Japanese Minister bows very low. The British delegation hail her with equal pleasure, even though she’s probably met all of them the day before at a similar engagement. It is a claustrophobic world of familiar faces and endless socializing. Though Peking Picnic is set in the same period as the British Raj in India, there is one crucial difference. The British do not rule China. Laura, her husband and indeed everyone else in the novel are there through the goodwill of the host country. Laura wonders whether the British community’s fondness for bestowing nicknames on one another stems from their need to feel a more cohesive community in a vast and volatile country. From the outside, Laura’s life is enviable: many servants and a large house underpin her duties as wife and hostess. Yet the book’s opening statement alerts us to sadness and conflict in her life. ‘To live in two worlds at the same time’, she reflects, ‘is difficult and disconcerting.’ The body cannot be in China and Oxfordshire simultaneously. ‘So the whole man or woman, in such circumstances, can never completely be anywhere.’ This is the core of the novel and of the lives of colonial wives. Laura has two children, aged about 8 and 10, already at boarding school in England. She goes back to England for two months – ‘two precious months!’ – every year. Life abroad is spent in an anguish of loss, fed only by letters, those stiff, halting, probably monitored missives from a bleak English boarding-school. Physically she is in China, emotionally her heart is with her children. It’s the treatment of this particular theme that spoke to me so deeply – one absent entirely from novels of colonial life written by men, with the honourable exception of Rudyard Kipling. I was powerfully reminded of the life of my grandmother. Born in the same year as Ann Bridge, she spent most of her married life in Peshawar on the North-West Frontier. She was not an imaginative or emotional woman, so I was amazed when, unprompted, she told me one day of her terrible pain each time she had to leave her three boys and return to India. The ship left from Tilbury, she told me, and the first few hours she spent sitting on a coil of rope, weeping. Her boys, including my father, had been left with her own mother in Plymouth. There is one photo of this great-grandmother, a black pillar with a stern face and a hat resembling Napoleon’s. She died in 1920 of the Spanish flu. She could neither read nor write but had brought up seven children as an army wife. It was this formidable matriarch who kept the children and sent my grandmother, still in her twenties, back to India. ‘It’s a choice,’ she told her daughter. ‘You either lose your children or your husband.’ It is this wrenching decision that has shaped Laura’s life and which, beneath her calm and composed exterior, has left her desolate and vulnerable. Henry is a decent man, but he is often emotionally and physically absent. Much of their communication seems to be shouted through the bathroom door while he’s taking a bath prior to yet another social engagement. When a planned trip to the Buddhist temple of Chieh T’ai Ssu in the Western Hills throws Laura and Edward Vinstead, a young visiting Cambridge professor, into close proximity, Edward is immediately aware that this beautiful and reserved woman is lonely. The trip has been arranged because Laura has two young English houseguests who need entertainment. Lilah, built like a young Valkyrie, speaks very little, though when she does, she is worth listening to. Judith is a singer of great charm and talent. Also among the party are an American lady novelist, various members of the British military and the diplomatic service and, of course, Edward. The Buddhist temple is strikingly beautiful and, at this season, drenched in blossom, but from the outset the trip is fraught with difficulties. The surrounding countryside is in the hands of warlords. Donkey transport fails to turn up and luggage disappears. Reaching the temple, the visitors enjoy one night of memorable beauty and pleasure before hungry, leaderless soldiers appear. Laura and her party are in real danger. Help does arrive, but the charged events of the weekend – including, eventually, a death – affect everyone in the party. Laura has become aware of Edward Vinstead’s feelings for her and is confused as to what her own response should be. This drama with its heightened emotions is vividly described. But perhaps Ann Bridge’s greatest gift is her ability to evoke a particular landscape, in this case the Chinese world outside the sophisticated urban life of the diplomatic community. Pre-revolutionary China is a country of blue-clad peasants toiling in fields of maize and soya in a manner a medieval English peasant would recognize. Laura, accustomed to the lush green of Oxfordshire, had initially been aghast at the mountains, the vast open plains and the searing summer heat of their new posting. But gradually the alien beauty of China has transported her. At the beginning of the book, sitting in her garden at dusk, she’s keenly responsive to the sights and sounds of the capital:
The night air was full of the smell of wood-smoke, Chinese sanitation, Chinese food and donkey dung. There was a different quality of sound from a European city . . . no traffic roar, but instead the muffled drumming of soft feet on unpaved earth, bare or slippered feet, the pad of camels, the light tapping of small unshod feet of donkeys.
She’s also sympathetic to the customs of the countryside. During their journey to the temple, there are many gruff enquiries from the blue-clad workers in the fields as to where they are going and why. These must receive a civil response.
It was a loud and prolonged conversation as all conversations with country people invariably are. They are amazed, first and foremost, that a foreign devil can speak Chinese at all. You next have to satisfy their curiosity as to what your business is. Hopeless to try to cut out these preliminaries! Leading the most monotonous of lives, without post, papers or books, their one mental interest and sustenance is that derived from the spoken word. A stranger is a blessing, a Chinese-speaking foreigner is a gold mine.
This vivid evocation of the ordinary life of a country surely explains a great deal of Ann Bridge’s initial success. It’s hard to convey how sought-after novels which told you about places and cultures you would never visit were before the advent of mass tourism. In my own home, at the end of the 1950s, I remember my mother falling greedily on Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, while I was equally enthralled by Bunty’s Tyrolean Holiday and Velma’s Veldt Adventure – the junior branch of literature about ‘abroad’. Ann Bridge was the daughter of an English father and a mother from Louisiana. They were initially a wealthy family, and holidays were spent in Switzerland where Cottie, as she was known in the family, became passionately interested in climbing. When she was 20 she met the climber George Mallory, with whom she shared a mountaineering friendship, and possibly more (he later died on Everest). It was at this time that Ann’s father lost his money, and she was unable to take up the place she’d won at Oxford. Instead, she continued to live at home and worked as a secretary. But her life changed dramatically in 1913 when she married Owen O’Malley, a British diplomat. Peking Picnic, her first novel, written to supplement the family’s income after their posting to Peking, was an immediate success and won the $10,000 Atlantic prize for fiction. It was the start of a prolific and highly successful writing career. Seven novels, set in various exotic locations, were followed by a successful set of thrillers featuring Julia Probyn, a well-bred sleuth and problem-solver. A modern reader, and in particular a young reader, may find Ann Bridge’s attitudes, as a member of the British ruling class in the 1930s, hard to relate to. But one cannot blame a fine writer for not being ‘woke’ in 1932. I enjoyed her for her searching and touching analysis of Laura’s feelings for her children and for her wonderful evocation of strange and beautiful Chinese landscapes I’ll probably never see. She’s a writer I’m warmly recommending to my friends.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 82 © Frances Donnelly 2024


About the contributor

Frances Donnelly still lives in Suffolk, in the Waveney valley.

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