Book Review: My Splendid Concubine by Lloyd Lofthouse

Writing a book is hard. As a writer, I know how difficult it is to put the pen to paper and put what you have to say out there for the world to see and then be ripped apart. I try to be fair in my reviews and, even when they aren’t very good, look for the positive and leave the choice of whether or not to read the book up to my readers. My reviews are my opinion – nothing more.

But sometimes, you come across a book that is so bad that it becomes a moral duty to spare others the pain of reading it. I really hate to go that far in a review, but this book is so bad I even feel bad for Lofthouse’s wife. Let me explain.

My Splendid Concubine claims to be about how Robert Hart, one of the most important and influential Western men in Chinese history, kept his concubine, his one true love, a secret. As a customs officer in Ningpo, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou from 1854-1908, Robert Hart spent his life trying to keep the faltering Qing dynasty from going bankrupt. He was an Imperialist when most of the rest of the world wasn’t (including most Chinese people). While the dynasty did fall in 1911, Hart was often referred to the only true Western friend of China. In short, Robert Hart is a fascinating individual who led an amazing life during one of the most dynamic times of Chinese history.

What the book is actually about, though, is the one year of Robert’s life in China when he had two concubines – sisters. Which one is the splendid one? I have no idea.

Now, I have no problem with the book focusing on this one part of his long life. I like a good romance and to focus on the Victorian gentleman hiding away his secret Chinese lover sounded very exciting. The problem is the delivery. The book is extremely soft-core pornish. Almost every single page describes Hart’s erection in some manner. Only a quarter of a way through the book I knew far more about Robert Hart’s erections than any woman should, even his concubine(s). He is also described as a rather perverted individual (and not in a good way). The book is supposed to be about an epic love, yet Hart views every woman he sees only as an object of sexual desire. He has the uncanny ability to “feel the heat” of a woman simply by being in her presence, even if she is a 6-year old girl. He even lusts after his own sister, Mary, wishing they weren’t blood related. He only meets one Western woman in the course of the book, and his description focuses solely on the woman’s breasts. He does not see women as people (like he claims, repeatedly, ad nauseum), but as a collection of skin, breasts, wetness, and warmth.

Hart is also portrayed as a hypocrite with a superiority complex. He repeatedly says that be found the ownership of women to be wrong, yet he then proceeds to purchase two. This was OK in his mind because 1) he was in love, and 2) it was “more like a dowry,” (even though in neither case the money went to the girls’ father).

The “struggle” of Hart’s religious upbringing clashing with his love of both his concubines is supposed to be the “poignant” part of Lofthouse’s narrative. But, again, the delivery is a failure. The struggle is simple: Christians have one wife while the Chinese (can) have many. Just because someone is Chinese, it does not automatically mean they have many wives and concubines, but it is allowed and encouraged if one can afford it. But to be Christian, one may only have one wife – no exceptions. But rather than being either Christian or Chinese, Hart attempts to be both. In one of the most maddening and stupidly humorous expressions of this problem Hart says (in a paraphrase), ‘wait, it isn’t a preacher who is allowed to judge me; only God can tell me what to do,’ even though Hart never has a discussion of multiple wives with the missionary preacher. The only person telling Hart that he can’t love two women is his bible, the word of God. Even when God speaks, he doesn’t listen. In fact, the only admonition the preacher actually gives him is that he should introduce the women to the bible. However, Hart refuses to do this because “then they might leave him.” He realizes the bible is truth, but wants to break it’s covenants for his own satisfaction. To do so he must keep his women in ignorance of the truth (possibly damning their immortal souls) just so he can keep them both in his possession and bed and fantasies. Throughout the book he makes bad decisions for his girls because of his own selfishness.

The overall structure of the book is also severely lacking. The book opens with Hart, in his 80s, going to see the Dowager Empress Cixi. He goes there to talk to her about the fact that he “had a concubine once.” The book then flashes back to tell the tale. But the ending never goes back to the scene with the empress to explain why he would tell her this. You never find out which concubine is the “splendid” one. You never even find out who was trying to kill him for most of the book. There is no closure to this book. It was an obnoxious read with an abrupt and painful ending. There is a sequel, Our Hart: Elegy for a Concubine, but I really can’t take any more of Lofthouse’s writing.

The real pain of the book is the negative characterization of Hart. The perverted, selfish, idiotic representation in this book is the most unfair characterization of this influential man imaginable. 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.

I really didn’t know how this book was published until I realized that the forward was written by Anchee Min, Lofthouse’s wife. Anchee Min is one of the most important writers of English Chinese literature today. I have several books written by her and have enjoyed her writing. I can only guess that Lofthouse was able to get his book published by riding his wife’s coattails and I can just imagine poor Min having to grit through her teeth as she had to smile and say, “yeah, Lloyd, this book is great.” Poor woman.

I’m not really sure how to rate this book as I can’t give it anything less than one star, but that seems like a stark insult to any books that I have given two stars to.