Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Hermit of Peking

Just finished reading an extraordinary biography of the little-known but distinguished British scholar, Sir Edmund Backhouse, who as a young man had come to China in 1895, made his name co-authoring two books on the last years of the Qing dynasty, before going on to live a somewhat reclusive life in Beijing until his death in 1944.
And there it could have ended, had it not been for his memoirs which ended up in the hands of Hugh Trevor-Roper in 1973. The memoirs had depicted a very different person: centred around his salacious dalliances as a young man with Beerbohm, Wilde and Verlaine, court officials in Peking and, even more incredibly, the Empress Dowager herself. It was sensational stuff, but could it be believed? There had already been accusations that the sources for his first book were dreamt up and when Trevor-Roper dug deeper it became evident that Backhouse was one of the most outrageous confidence tricksters and eccentrics of the century.
Backhouse lived a life in which fact and fiction became blurred. He’d come to China as a brilliant linguist it’s true but also to escape creditors. He’d been a secret agent during WW1, hired to buy arms for the western front, and as a not-so-secret agent for a British shipbuilder, and led them both a merry dance. He did the same for an American company. When things got complicated he would simply disappear and then appear again. And when cornered he would talk himself out of it. The memoirs turned out to be pure fantasy, but cleverly based on real events.
As an aside, it’s interesting that it was Hugh Trevor-Roper who played detective. Just a few years after this book was published, the famous scholar & sleuth authenticated the infamous Hitler Diaries… which turned out to be fake.
In any case, Hermit of Peking would make a great film.

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