Wednesday, 15 January 2014
I want to recommend two books written by wildly successful female authors. Remember the autobiographical Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang in 1991 and Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert in 2006? Don’t underestimate them simply because they were so popular.
Jung Chang has also written, with her husband, a biography of Mao: The Unknown Story and has now produced what must be the ultimate revisionist history. It is Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China. Because of her heritage Jung Chang has been able to read much of the enormous volume of archival documents released in China this century and she has come to the conclusion that the Dragon Empress was not so much a Dragon as a powerful political force.
Jung Chang is so vehemently convinced of this that at times one begins to doubt but not so.... all the evidence points to two hopelessly inept Emperors (Cixi’s son and adopted son) while Cixi and her advisors made all the strategic plans. Fascinating material. On her death bed Cixi left instructions for China to become a Constitutional Monarchy in nine year’s time and that Pu Yi, her great-nephew should be the Emperor. Lots more stories here – and don’t forget Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor. Some Sinologists objected to the contradictory portrayal of Mao in her biography but the consensus this time seems to be that Jung Chang has got it right.
Elizabeth Gilbert, happily enjoying the fortune made by Eat, Pray, Love, has also been nominated for awards such as the Pen/Hemingway Award and the National Book Award so don’t be surprised to find me heartily recommending The Signature of All Things. I gave this book to several of my friends for Christmas because I feared they wouldn’t buy it themselves! It is set in mid-nineteenth century, when the world was in a ferment of new ideas and new technology. I can only describe the language as felicitous – because it is entirely appropriate to the time without seeming false. At times events veer towards the absurd. But, wait! Think about it! This actually happened! Not so absurd after all.
The story begins with a small boy, son of a successful gardener at Kew Gardens, in late 18th century Europe, who becomes a protégé of Sir Joseph Banks and goes off exploring for medicinal plants with Captain Cook. He later takes an incomparable wife, a Dutch woman whose family has been connected to the Dutch equivalent of Kew, the Hortus Botanicus, in Amsterdam for several generations. They move to the New World, to Philadelphia, where of course they become fabulously wealthy dealing in the new market for quinine and other medicinals. They eventually have a child, an extremely plain but extremely clever girl called Alma and later adopt a very beautiful girl called Prudence. You should know something about the scientists of the 19th century in order to appreciate all the references. Alma, who is a marvellous central character, becomes a world expert on mosses. After many harrowing adventures Alma roughs out the theory of evolution, before Charles Darwin, but never publishes because of what she calls “the Prudence Problem”. A problem Darwin also had.... how to explain the self-denying type who does not fight to win. This book is great fun. Enjoy it.
Buy these books at Abbey's (131 York Street Sydney) ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers