Today feels like the last day of the summer. Now September is here, shoes and socks are back on feet, cheesy carb cravings return, holidays are over and everyone’s staring down the cold hard barrel of autumn. If you, like me, are in need of a little something to help you cling on to those long hot days with a last burst of escapism, might I suggest the glorious Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge …
I began reading Peking Picnic with an enormous Scotch egg, which was, I reasoned, rather an appropriate accompaniment. After a gruelling few days while Vita had struggled with a nasty virus, I was exhausted. Far too exhausted to cook supper, hence the oversized egg, which I consumed, along with the book and a large glass of whisky, in the bath.
Peking Picnic, written in 1932, is by Ann Bridge, the pen name of Mary Ann Dolling O’Malley, a diplomat’s wife. It is Bridge’s first novel and was an immediate success, winning the sizeable Atlantic Monthly prize. Ann Bridge went on to write several novels, which often featured the same winning combination of troubled upper-class heroine, social satire, and romance, all in a minutely observed exotic environment. As well as these ‘foreign office novels’, she wrote travel books, family memoirs and a series of detective stories. (I wrote about her very charming Illyrian Spring here.)
Back to the bath, where I wanted a Peking panacea for the hell of the last few days. I have rarely been so grateful for fiction being such an effective vehicle to a different life. This thing disguised as a paperback was in fact a pocket-private-jet-time-machine, ready to transport me to a louche world of cocktails and dressing for dinner, spiced with romantic intrigue. Yet the first sentence seemed to be a warning:
To live in two different worlds at the same time is both difficult and disconcerting.
Of course Ann Bridge doesn’t mean my two worlds; she is referring to the ‘inhalfness’ of her heroine Laura Leroy, stuck between the adult world of China, where she is a diplomat’s wife (like her author), and that of her children left behind in Oxfordshire. We first encounter Laura at a party, ‘but she was not really seeing any of it’, instead her gaze rests on a memory of her son playing cricket, sufficiently vivid to include:
the little freckles on the white forehead and the big ones on the bridge of that snub nose.
So at first Laura Leroy seems rather a wistful figure. She has ‘vague fits’ in which her mind drifts and she forgets she is mid-conversation; or else she seeks out solitary spots to sit and daydream about her children (though she is almost always disturbed by men telling her how ‘deliciously cool’ she looks in the heat).
Soon, however, we discover all sorts of unexpected characteristics beneath her willowy exterior. We first glimpse Laura’s ingenuity and efficiency when she consults a ‘profit and loss account book’ in which she keeps track of ‘lunches and dinners given and received’:
They are all written up in that, and when I am giving a party I can turn anyone up and see at once what I owe them, and work them off. I balance it once a quarter or so and start afresh.
I find this to be an inspiration, but Laura’s wide-eyed niece questions the insincerity of her system. Laura matter-of-factly responds, ‘It’s a job.’
Strictly speaking, it is not her job, it’s her husband’s. For an unofficial diplomat, Laura is certainly highly skilled: not only does she have her clever profit and loss entertaining system, but she speaks excellent Chinese, is adept at gleaning political information through the servants, and, as we see at the book’s climax, she remains calm in a crisis and is exceptionally good at thinking on her feet. Looking at it from the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is a travesty that Laura isn’t drawing a salary, that her account book is used only for social engagements, not a wage.
The Peking Picnic of the title is no brief British jaunt into the countryside, with rugs, strawberries and Scotch eggs; it is a three-day expedition, involving donkeys, river-crossings, temple lodgings, and begins amidst rumours of oncoming war. We take in the sights, conjured with Bridge’s painterly eye – things are:
sharply coloured even in the distance under the pouring glittering brilliance of the intense light, detailed beyond European belief in the desiccating clearness of the bone-dry air of Central Asia.
Most members of the picnic party are at varying stages of falling in love with each other, and the expedition is very much an opportunity for musing about the nature of love. When asked if her husband is ‘the great love of your lifetime’, Laura says, somewhat disarmingly, ‘He’s one of the three’. She thinks extra-marital affairs are fine, providing the husband doesn’t suffer the cruelty of knowing about them and so long as she has ‘the intention of permanence’ with each lover rather than being merely ‘promiscuous’. Perhaps Ann Bridge, whose husband was something of a philanderer, wants to make the point that women can stray too, or maybe she wants to show that a marriage can work in spite of taking an unorthodox form.
It seems that everyone is a little bit in love with Laura Leroy, and who can blame them? The more time I spent with our heroine, the more I fell for her. In particular, I grew to admire her eccentric strain of practicality. One of my favourite examples of this takes place when they arrive at the temple where they are to sleep. Laura ‘set to work with a practised hand to arrange her few effects’:
Taking a couple of nails from her trouser pocket she drove them into the wall with a brickbat picked up in the courtyard, and hung her pocket mirror on one and her towel on the other.
I instantly forgave Laura the vanity of treasuring her pocket mirror for the tomboyish dexterity with which she happens upon a couple of nails in her pocket and hammers them into the wall. Later, when the picnic party gets into a tangle with a group of Chinese soldiers, Laura’s peculiar combination of charm, wisdom and nous makes her a brave and formidable heroine indeed.
On the face of it, a bunch of expat toffs and eccentrics going on an expedition and getting into a fix sounds like a daft storyline, but Bridge creates a substantial shadow to her lighthearted caper by reminding us of the perennially close presence of death. One of her characters grimly remarks:
‘You don’t get ill in Peking – you die; in about forty-eight hours, as a rule.’
At the temple, the picnickers witness a soldier murdering a monk, ‘plunging the bayonet into his body – once, twice, a third time’, until the dead body rolls over ‘with a horrible boneless collapse’.
Equally uncomfortable to read, though unintentionally so, is Bridge’s habit of passing observations, often ventriloquized through Laura, on ‘the Chinese race’. This was written in 1932, we must remember, before the full horror of thinking along such racial lines became unforgettably apparent. If it is an effort to get over the racial stereotyping, it is at least made easier by Bridge’s sympathetic, detailed and nuanced view of the Chinese.
For instance, we are informed that the Chinese use compass points for directions rather than left and right – ‘both a more civilised and a more intellectual way of giving directions than our own’. Laura observes ‘that loveliest of Chinese inventions, the small pipes bound to the pinion feathers of pigeons, so that the birds cannot fly without creating this ethereal music’ and wonders, ‘who would not love and honour a race which could devise a thing like that?’ When an American companion asks Laura if she thinks it strange or shocking that the Chinese use human beings ‘for the work of beasts’, she springs to their defence:
I don’t think hauling a cart or pulling a rickshaw is nearly as unhealthy as being a stoker on a liner, nor as dangerous as coal-mining, and it’s certainly far less demoralising than leaning against a wall all day and drawing the dole.
These moments of acute and surprising observation bring to mind the writing of another diplomat’s wife, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She travelled to Turkey in 1716 and wrote a series of extraordinary letters in which, with great panache, she turned Western prejudiced perceptions of foreign customs on their head. The two of them make me wonder if every diplomat’s wife holds such intelligent and unexpected opinions.
I began Peking Picnic in the bath, and finished it a fortnight later, snatching twenty minutes on a park bench while the baby napped in her pushchair. I’m sure I’m not the first mother to note the difficulties of reading with a baby: not only do you have a new person to nurture, entertain and keep alive, there is so much more to do by way of housekeeping, so much less sleep and, to cap it all, babies love nothing more than pulling off one’s reading specs! When reading time is so precious, choosing the right book is essential. Luckily, Peking Picnic could not have been better, for not only did it transport me so effectively to another – far more glamorous – world, but at the heart of this world is a mother who remains decidedly ambivalent towards it. Our heroine glides through the cocktails, parties, romance and adventure while her ‘spirit’ luxuriates in memories of her children. Yes, I adored escaping the domesticity of new motherhood to adventure in 1930s China, but it was reassuring and pleasantly life-affirming to think that wonderful Laura Leroy would prefer to be at home with her children after all.