A Battleship Salesman

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It sounds like a terrific book: ‘Of the greatest possible interest’ (Daily Telegraph), ‘Illuminating’ (The Times), ‘Sound . . . informing . . . fascinating’ (Spectator). It sold very well, too. And why ever not? Here was an unimpeachable and wonderfully readable account of the hitherto unknown inner working of the Chinese court during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899. I quite enjoyed it myself when I picked up a copy years ago at the Paragon Book Gallery in New York.

So I wish I could recommend it, but alas I can’t. At least not since reading Hermit of Peking (1976) by Hugh Trevor-Roper. I now know, as do the dozens of historians and commentators who for decades depended on China under the Empress Dowager for hard if colourful facts, that its authors J. O. P. Bland and E. Backhouse – Backhouse particularly, since he supplied the material – cobbled together most of it in an imaginative exercise that can only be called phenomenal, as talented as it was corrupt.

Hugh Trevor-Roper was Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford when in 1973 he received a letter from a Swiss doctor named Reinhard Hoeppli. Hoeppli had a strange request. He was in possession of a manuscript of memoirs written by an English scholar he had known in Peking. The author, Edmund Backhouse, had died in 1944; Hoeppli, presumably acting on Backhouse’s wish, wanted the manuscript to be deposited in the Bodleian and perhaps published. After all, the scholar had once donated a number of rare Chinese books to the library. Would Trevor-Roper examine the text and see to its fate in Oxford?

Trevor-Roper, being the best sort of endlessly curious scholar himself, agreed to have a look. What he found was startling. In frank and explicit but plausible detail, Backhouse told of his experiences as the friend, and frequently lover, of dozens of the most notable figures of his time, from Verlaine to Walter Pater, Gladstone and Max Beerbo

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About the contributor

Charles Elliott is a former senior editor in a New York publishing house, where he published Hermit of Peking. He recalls once having possessed several pages of Backhouse’s unpublished memoir but can no longer find them.

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