The Empress Lover
Fourth Estate $29.99 pb, 336 pp, 9780732291273
There is probably a subtle, composite word in Mandarin for it: the mixed elation and outrage of finding that something – a book, an artist, a secret holiday destination – which you privately cherished for its obscurity has been discovered by someone else. There must be a word for the chagrin attached to recognising that the intruder has possessed it more thoroughly; knew it first; has broken the unspoken pact and told everyone. If there is such a word, Linda Jaivin, sinologist and translator, will know it, and so would the McGuffin of her seventh novel, The Empress Lover. Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, who was also a sinologist and translator, has been a personal joy of this reviewer’s household: gentleman, scholar, baronet, adventurer, linguist, flamboyant aesthete, friend of Wilde, expatriate, hoaxer, enthusiastic homosexual, and, finally, according to his extravagant, long-suppressed ‘memoirs’, lover to the septuagenarian empress dowager of China. Now the gem glints dustily in a fiction of his own.