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Mysteries of History

Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse by Hugh Trevor-Roper Knopf, 316 pages, $10


FOR THE FOREIGNERS living there, turn-of-the-century Peking remained a "Forbidden City." The pleasures of the hidden quarters, lying in wait for the foreign touch, only suggested the more refined, if more hidden, pleasures of the Imperial count. With their triumph over the native Boxer rebels in 1900, Westerners penetrated the political decadence of Peking. But beneath its new mask of subservience to the West, the reality of the old court, filled with power-hungry eunuchs, stocked with useless riches, was preserved.

Only one Westerner of the time was believed to have entered the fantasy world of the Chinese court and re-emerged with fact. With his high connections, his gift for languages, and his eccentric lifestyle, Sir Edmund Backhouse was one of the most fascinating characters then inhabiting the city. Even his attempts at self-effacement attracted attention--riding through the city in his rickshaw, a fan held before him, Chinese-fashion, to hide his face, this strange Westerner in Eastern garb drew many stares.

Yet the real fame of Backhouse belonged not to his contemporaries but to history. The Englishman co-authoredChina Under the Empress Dowager,a unique insider's view of late 19th century Imperial politics, based on "The Diary of His Excellency Ching-Shan," a man of the court. Just before publication, Backhouse pleaded with his co-author, J.O.P. Bland, a popular British journalist working in Peking, to remove his name from the title page of the book. Bland, convinced that Backhouse's plea was just another example of his over-humility, refused. Bland was convinced his decision would be vindicated by history. Now, a recent biography of Backhouse, written by Hugh Trevor-Roper, the noted British historian, suggests it might have been better for both collaborators in the long run if history had lost.

With a success greater than any Backhouse could claim in the Imperial court, Trevor-Roper penetrates the mystery of the self-styled Hermit of Peking. But what is so fascinating about this book, what makes it so immensely readable, is not merely the catalogue of Backhouse's many frauds, of which the fabrication of Ching-Shan's diary is not even the greatest, but Trevor-Ropor's personal involvement in the story.

The book actually begins in 1973 when Trevor Roper is asked to review Backhouse's memoirs to determine whether they would be a suitable addition to the collection of manuscripts which the scholar left to Oxford. These memoirs, which recount Backhouse's sexual encounters with some of the most prominent figures of his time, are so obscene, that Trevor-Roper, upon reading them, first had the characteristic Backhousian reaction of preferring to run away from the problem rather than face it. But instead Trevor-Roper plunged deeper into the mystery and emerged with a biography of Backhouse based neither on what others have said about him nor on Backhouse's own exaggerated recollections of his life, but of some substance in between. Hermit of Peking is the clever story of a clever man, cleverly constructed. It is a story worthy, one might say, of Backhouse himself.

And the strengths and weaknesses of the book are those of the Backhousian method. Rather than patiently penetrating the mysteries of history step by painstaking step, as would a professional Sinologue, both the historian and the historian he is writing about prefer to assault the gloom head on, neglecting details and looking only for the general pattern that emerges. For Backhouse this meant creating new details each time he needed to give credence to an already created story. For Trevor-Roper this means emphasizing certain old details in order to give credence to a new story.

So in his frequently told tale of the discovery of the forged diary, Trevor-Roper quotes Backhouse as insisting that, when he found the diary in an abandoned house during the post-Boxer looting, no one else was around. So, in Backhouse's "negotiations" with the Chinese government in the name of the shipbuilding firm John Brown and Co., Trevor-Roper finds that the hermit was the sole negotiator. So the British foreign minister, waiting for the shipment of arms from Shanghai to Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands of guns to aid in the war effort, suddenly realizes that no one has ever seen these guns except Backhouse, his secret agent.

And so, after having paid Backhouse a commission for contracting with the Chinese government to have them serve as the printers of that country's money, the directors of the American Bank Note Company learn that their negotiator, not to mention his deal, is totally unknown to the Chinese president.

BACKHOUSE EMERGES, in Trevor-Roper's vividly written portrait, as a man who hid himself from probing eyes and re-emerged with his own version of reality. Like the hot-house atmosphere in which it flourished, the main quality of that reality was its self-containment. Trevor-Roper returns to the world of Backhouse's memoris which offer the best prof:

...They were not random hallucinations, the wandering visions of a weakened mind: shot through though they were by grotesque sexual obsessions, they were highly rational constructions, artfully designed not only to be coherent in themselves, indestructible by obvious fact, but also to corroborate other, earlier, now threatened figments of the same mind.

As long as Trevor-Roper remains within the realm of these Backhousian mysteries, his truth about the method to the madness of the hermit of Peking rings true. In this context, the author's contention that Backhouse spent his life imaginatively substituting himself for those who were intimate with Verlaine, Lord Rosebery, the Empress Dowager, and other sources of power, is convincing.

But as soon as Trevor-Roper tries to re-emerge from art into history, his facts take on the air of fantasy. And because Trevor-Roper has not offered enough objective evidence about Backhouse's career (he paraphrases the hermit much more often than he actually quotes him), the reader cannot fully believe the author. Thus Trevor-Roper's attempt to explain Backhouse's turn toward Germany in the '40's as an illustration of fin desiecle elitism of the British upper class converting into fascism, is simply a poor fit. It is like trying to find a practical use for a lovely collection of China vases. Perhaps it is because he realizes this, that Trevor-Roper submerges himself once more in his artful construct of the mystery of Backhouse. Our final conclusion about whether the diary was forged should be based, Trevor-Roper contends, not on the evidence of the manuscripts, but on the character of Backhouse.

By the end of the book, our conclusion, of course, is obvious. By constructing an internally consistent portrait, Trevor-Roper has made his point well. But what the book gains in artfulness it loses in historical validity. Peking of the time is seen only through Backhouse's scheme. Not only for the hermit was the greater mystery of China lost.

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