Friday, June 8, 2018
The Lacquer Lady: Victorian Intrigue in Mandalay
A few years ago I was spending a weekend in Austin, Texas, just about a 90 minute drive from our home in San Antonio. It was a rainy Friday night, and my idea of fun is poking around bookstores. Just a short drive from my hotel was a massive Half-Price Books. If you are not familiar with HPB, it is a family-owned chain of used bookstores that started in Dallas, and it's all over Texas and quite a few other states. There are several locations in San Antonio but this one in Austin was the biggest I've ever seen, with an amazing selection. There were really nice collectible books and classics, and the fiction section had a whole bunch of Viragos, some in green covers, some in the original black. That's where I found The Lacquer Lady by F. Tennyson Jesse, first published in 1929.
Set in the late 1800s, the story begins with a young woman named Fanny Moroni, who is at a boarding school in Brighton. Having made a reputation for herself at school as being a teller of tall-tales, she leaves school to return to Upper Burma, where her family live. Her mother is half English and half Burmese, and her father is Italian and has a weaving business. He had once been a favorite of the king but had recently fall out of the circle. Fanny takes the long boat ride back to Mandalay with her schoolmate Agatha, who is also going to Burma to live with her missionary father. (At the time, Lower Burma was a British colony, and Upper Burma was still under royal control).
While Agatha joins her father and his curate saving souls, Fanny's social circle moves among the community of foreigners who are occasionally allowed into the inner circle of the Burmese royals in Mandalay, and becomes close to one of the princesses, Supaya-lat, eventually becoming one of the ladies-in-waiting. Fanny isn't a terribly likable heroine -- she's very selfish and self-serving, and has been compared to Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair.
Fanny was very aware of what people were like; she couldn't read through a book of Dickens, she couldn't have picked up newspaper and understood was anything about except the police-court cases, she couldn't have held an impersonal conversation on any subject whatsoever, but she had a sensitiveness, within her limitations, to human beings, that amounted to a talent, whenever her judgement was not obscured by her personal wishes. She was aware that she knew what the three men in the room were like far better than did Agatha, who had been seeing them for several days past. (Ch. V)
The royal court is thrown into turmoil when King Mindoon dies, leaving many sons by various wives and no definite heir to the throne. Fanny is sometimes in and sometimes out, but her fate is intwined with her friend Supaya-lat, and eventually, she unwittingly becomes a key player of the British invasion and takeover of Upper Burma.
This book started out rather slowly, but it really picked up about a third of the way after the king died and there were a lot of palace intrigues, some of them quite bloody and horrifying. This book is loosely based on actual events, and I didn't realize until I read the afterword Fanny isn't just a made-up character -- she's actually based on a real person, though the circumstances are not exactly the same. I'm also really intrigued by the writer -- F. Tennyson Jesse was not only a great-niece of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, she was a criminologist and journalist and was one of the few women to report on WWI. Her most famous novel is A Pin to See the Peepshow, which is based the notorious 1920s murder case of Edith Thompson and Frederic Bywaters. (I bought of copy after listening to Simon and Rachel's Tea or Books? podcast from last year; naturally, I still haven't read it!)
I was particularly interested in this novel because I've actually been to Burma, albeit very briefly. Years ago we were stationed in Japan and I met a friend in Bangkok who was visiting her son who worked at the consulate. After a few days in the city, we drove with her son and his friend up to Chiang Rai, where the friend had bought a retirement home. It's near the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, and we were actually able to walk over the bridge to Myanmar and shop in the market. We couldn't stay very long because the border crossing closed at 5 p.m., but I can say that I've actually been there.
This is my eighth book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018! I'm making great progress on my list.