Amanda Roberts’s fifth reckless false statement: “The perverted, selfish, idiotic representation in this book is the most unfair characterization of this influential man imaginable.”
Robert Hart would not be influential in China until he became Inspector General in 1863. The 2nd edition of My Splendid Concubine focuses on Hart in China when he was learning about China and how to speak Mandarin while giving in to the same temptations that led him astray while he was attending college in Belfast.
If Roberts had read the same primary source material that I used while researching Hart’s life, she would know—for example—that on page eight of Entering China’s Service that “anyone who reads the journals through knows that his mental struggles about women were not soon or lightly won; whether the relapse was to daydreams or to a Chinese mistress, it caused him ambivalence and anguish.”
On Sunday, August 27, 1854, Hart writes: “Bad company led me away from the path of duty; my punishment was not merely spiritual loss but bodily suffering. … I have made resolution upon resolution, broken almost as soon as made. I am almost led to despair … the Almighty is disobeyed, and my soul’s in danger of death Eternal! What a miserable state I am in!”
On Thursday, October 19, 1854, Hart writes, “A couple of China Women have been peeping in through my windows. I hope I may be able to control myself properly here. Many temptations surround me …”
On Sunday, October 29, 1854, Hart writes, “Now some of the China women are very good looking; you can make one your absolute possession for from 50 to 100 dollars (not British pounds) and support her at a cost of 2 or 3 dollars per month … I too often think of love and its pleasures … It is sinful to think of forbidden pleasures–to cherish such thoughts and yet fear to carry them into execution makes a person very unhappy, quite miserable in fact: So if I think to continue in the habit of such imaginings, I might as well carry them into execution.”
On Sunday, November 5, 1854, Hart writes, “One moment resolving on good: the same moment a temptation comes—it is yielded to—and then one moralizes on the matter.”
Those few examples only touch on Hart’s battle with his libido and temptation. In fact, shortly before his death, Hart burned his journals covering about seven of the first ten years he lived in China starting with May 1855 when he went to spend the summer at the home of Captain Dan Patridge (real name), who was the principal agent of Jardine and Matheson, the largest opium merchant in China.
What did Robert Hart do that motivated him to burn what he wrote that covered those years? What do you think an opium dealer would provide in the way of pleasure?
The answer may be found on page 151: “His rebellion and sinfulness … evidently led him to women of easy virtue and some kind of (retributive) illness thereafter, had been his one fall from grace by age 19. Almost immediately he had come to China, just at the age when the woman question arose most persistently and bedeviled his solitude. … He became strongly conscious of his need for someone to love.”
3rd edition: April 2013
On page 152, it says, “As this ineradicable craving for affectionate companionship builds up in this young man of age 20, working away in solitude in his lodging in the Ningpo Consulate, we cannot help looking ahead … How does this image of an I.G., who at the height of his worldly power was least inclined to worldly love, square with the young man we see in a struggle of conscience at Ningpo in 1855. And how does the Robert Hart of July 1855 compare with the same man three years later at Canton?”
On page 153, “Whatever may have been his bittersweet struggles with his Wesleyan conscience, the fact remains that God enters less frequently into his journal hereafter. Gone is the thought of being a missionary; there is less attitude of prayer and seeking divine help. Love of woman seems to anchor Hart permanently in this world with no need for keeping lines out to the hereafter.
“We can also infer that experience with Ayaou anchors him permanently in China (page 154). … The Robert Hart whom we meet almost three years later in the next remaining installment of his journal is a different person—self-confident, clear as to his own interest, and easily in touch with the Chinese he is dealing with. Hart’s years of liaison with Ayaou gave him his fill of romance, including both its satisfaction and its limitation.”
In addition, Sterling Seagrave, the author of Dragon Lady (nonfiction–ISBN: 0-679-73369-8), wrote on page 148 of his book, “Robert was raised a strict Wesleyan when this meant twice-daily readings of Scriptures. Money was to be saved, not frittered away. Life was all work and pleasure was sinful.”
Further down the page, Seagrave says, “The appointment to China rescued him (Hart) from an embarrassing situation. College had liberated him from small-town scrutiny, and he had enjoyed a series of infatuations with middle-class young ladies intent upon marriage. What they could not provide, Hart and his chums found among the professional ladies in Belfast pubs, one of whom gave him something [historical evidence suggests syphilis] to remember her by.”
Near the end of Roberts’s review she says, “It makes me want to write my own narrative of Hart’s life just so salvage his reputation. I think I’ll add that to my list of possible books to work on.”
She may want to read this passage on page 231 from Entering China’s Service first: “Relations of love and sex between Asians and Westerners are properly considered in the category of trans-cultural contact. What the double standard of Victorian England would in Hart’s day have called wild oats and swept under the rug, biographers of the late twentieth century are expected to scrutinize as meaningful experience. We can only regret that the moral standards and practical necessity of an early day deprived us of Hart’s record of his coming of age as a resident of China during his service in the [British] Canton consulate in early 1959 and his first years in Customs from mid-1859 to mid-1863.”
Continued on March 24, 2013 in Dissecting the “Moral Duty” of a Reckless and False Review: Part 5 or return to Part 3
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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