Robert Hart (1835 - 1911) was the 'Godfather of China's modernism' and the only foreigner the emperor of China trusted. In fact, Hart played a crucial role in ending the bloodiest rebellion in history--the Taiping Rebellion--and he owes this success largely to Ayaou, his live-in dictionary and encyclopedia, his Chinese concubine.
About a year after arriving in China in 1854, Robert Hart falls in love with Ayaou, but his feelings for her sister go against the teachings of his Wesleyan-Christian upbringing and almost breaks him emotionally. To survive he must learn how to live and think like the Chinese and soon finds himself thrust into China's Opium War, where he makes enemies of men such as the American soldier of fortune known as the Devil Soldier.
First came "My Splendid Concubine" December 2007; then came the sequel, "Our Hart, Elegy for a Concubine" in 2010. Both novels have now been combined as one in "My Splendid Concubine's" 3rd edition.
My Splendid Concubine is a biographical novel about the life of Robert Hart, a British official in China. Born in Ireland, while he attended university, he gained a reputation for his rampant sexual escapades, despite his strict religious upbringing. His father intervened, put a stop to his womanizing, and arranged a post for him as a student interpreter in China. There he met, rescued, and fell in love with Ayaou, a young teen who, with her two sisters, were being sold into slavery/prostitution by their father. Struggling with the social norms and morals of the time, unable to marry her, he finally took her as his concubine. She bore him three children over the years. He was able to rescue one of Ayaou’s younger sisters, and the three set up a household.
Robert’s business acumen and strong communication skills brought him great success and he was soon promoted into more affluent positions. Soon, he gained a reputation of trust and respect from the highest levels of Chinese politicians, royalty, and officials. Despite his success, he struggled with his religious values and in the taking of concubines, a widely accepted practice among Caucasian men even though it was unacceptable in polite society.
Lloyd Lofthouse has written a “no-holds-barred” accounting of his tumultuous life. The author does not shy away from Hart’s strong sexual drive and encounters. He delves deeply into the relationships with Ayaou and her sister, bringing to life the heart-wrenching dilemma Hart faced. The author described the contrast between Hart’s sexual values and those of the women with great insight, for in China, being a concubine was far better than slavery or prostitution. Lofthouse’s first-hand experience in the Vietnam war, and the time he spent in the Orient, are evident throughout the novel in the vivid descriptions and detailed scenes.
Readers should understand before purchasing this novel that there are some graphic sex scenes, but I found it necessary in order to understand Hart, his personality, and what drove him. A provocative novel that brings to life lesser known practices and norms of China and its people. Highly recommended.