A less than 1-star review of the 2nd edition of My Splendid Concubine that was posted on a Blog, Two Americans in China dot com [December 9, 2012], and on Amazon.com is the focus of this post. This review ran for 1,145 words. It took me a few months to decide to write a response, because it meant digging through thousands of pages of research—most of it from primary source material, Robert Hart’s journals and letters.
In addition, it also meant attracting the wrath of mostly anonymous Internet vigilantes (cyber bullies) that allegedly think they have a moral duty to attack any author that responds to a review of his or her own work no matter how misleading that review might be.
I have no problem with a negative review—even if it is 1-star—that is honest and does not resort to reckless and false claims to influence readers, but Amanda Roberts’s review of My Splendid Concubine may be, in my opinion, a reckless review, and I want to take advantage of my 1st Amendment rights as an American and have my say regardless of the mostly anonymous-cyber bullies who would probably vote “NO” in an attempt to bury this if I were to post it on Amazon.com.
Note: This post originally appeared as a six-part series on iLook China.net starting May 13, 2013 in Dissecting the “Moral Duty” of a Reckless and False Review: Part 1
Roberts says, “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 …”
After we remove all of the reckless, false claims, what’s left is Roberts’s brief and honest opinion: “The book is extremely soft-core pornish, and it is my moral duty to spare others the pain of reading it.”
My question is: Does that “moral duty” give Amanda Roberts (or anyone for that matter) the right to write a reckless and false review?
If Roberts had read “Entering China’s Service: Robert Hart’s Journals, 1854—1863”—as I did using a highlighter and tagging pages—before writing her review or after reading the 112,538 words of My Splendid Concubine’s 2nd edition, she would know how reckless and false the claims she made are that supports her ‘moral duty’.
Amanda Roberts’s first reckless and false statement: “As a customs officer in Ningpo, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou (known as Canton back then) from 1854-1908, Robert Hart spent his life trying to keep the faltering Qing dynasty from going bankrupt.”
This is far from accurate, because it would be years before Robert Hart went to work for the Chinese, and then several more years before he would have the authority and opportunity to dedicate himself to keeping the Qing Dynasty from going bankrupt.
On Page 1 of “Entering China’s Service”, it clearly says, “As head of the Maritime Customs from 1863 to 1908, Hart hired an international staff of hundreds (mainly British) as well as a subordinate Chinese staff of thousands to collect the revenue of foreign trade.”
And Customs only raised about a third of the Qing Dynasty’s revenues. However, it would have been correct to say that while Hart was Inspector General the revenues from Customs were the only reliable source of money that the Qing Dynasty could depend on.
In addition, as a Custom’s official of China’s emperor, Hart never worked in Hong Kong, a British Crown colony. Instead, he spent a few days in Hong Kong after arriving in July 1854. While in Hong Kong, he struggled—for the first time—to learn Chinese before being posted to Ningpo via Shanghai.
In addition, Hart did not work as a Chinese Customs officer out of Ningpo. Hart first arrived in China not speaking one word of Mandarin and his job description was as an interpreter working for the British—not the Chinese, and for his first few years in China, he worked for the British consulate in Ningpo.
Then on March 20, 1858—while still working for the British as an interpreter—Hart was transferred to Canton three years and six months after he arrived in China.
Hart would not leave his job with the British to work for the Chinese in Canton until June of 1859, and his title would be Deputy Commissioner of Customs—not Commissioner or Inspector General.
It wouldn’t be until November 1863—more than nine years after arriving in China—that Inspector General of Customs Horatio Lay, in Shanghai, would be dismissed (fired) and Hart would replace him.
Amanda Roberts’s second reckless and false statement: “What the book is actually about, though, is the one year of Robert’s life in China when he had two concubines – sisters.”
Actually, My Splendid Concubine covers a span of two-years and four months, and Hart meets Ayaou for the first time during the summer of 1855 near the end of Chapter 3 on page 59—19,665 words into the novel. It isn’t until Chapter 12 at about 50,000 words that Hart, Ayaou and Shao-mei come together as a family of sorts. By then we are 44% of the way into the novel.
Roberts’s third reckless, false statement: “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.”
In fact, when Robert Hart meets with the Dowager Empress in 1908, he’s seventy-three—not 80, and he will die by age seventy-six in 1911.
Roberts’s fourth reckless false statement: “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).”
In fact, a quarter of the way into the first 112,538 words is about 88 pages, and the word “erection” appears five times or on 5.7% of the first 88 pages. It is a reckless false statement to claim that “almost every single page describes Hart’s erection in some manner” when more than 94% of the first 88 pages do not refer to his erection.
In fact, the word “erection” is used only nine times on six pages in the entire novel. In addition, Ayaou calls his erection a “sun instrument” and that word is used six times. Together, “erection” and “sun instrument” appear 15 times or 0.013% of the time.
I think it is safe to say that Roberts was very uncomfortable with the sexual themes of this novel for her to exaggerate nine of 112,538 words into “almost every page describing Hart’s erection in some manner.”
Amanda Roberts’s fifth reckless false statement: “The perverted, selfish, idiotic representation in this book is the most unfair characterization of this influential man imaginable.”
Robert Hart would not be influential in China until he became Inspector General in 1863. The 2nd edition of My Splendid Concubine focuses on Hart in China when he was learning about China and how to speak Mandarin while giving in to the same temptations that led him astray while he was attending college in Belfast.
If Roberts had read the same primary source material that I used while researching Hart’s life, she would know—for example—that on page eight of Entering China’s Service that “anyone who reads the journals through knows that his mental struggles about women were not soon or lightly won; whether the relapse was to daydreams or to a Chinese mistress, it caused him ambivalence and anguish.”
On Sunday, August 27, 1854, Hart writes: “Bad company led me away from the path of duty; my punishment was not merely spiritual loss but bodily suffering. … I have made resolution upon resolution, broken almost as soon as made. I am almost led to despair … the Almighty is disobeyed, and my soul’s in danger of death Eternal! What a miserable state am I am in!”
On Thursday, October 19, 1854, Hart writes, “A couple of China Women have been peeping in through my windows. I hope I may be able to control myself properly here. Many temptations surround me …”
On Sunday, October 29, 1854, Hart writes, “Now some of the China women are very good looking; you can make one your absolute possession for from 50 to 100 dollars (not British pounds) and support her at a cost of 2 or 3 dollars per month … I too often think of love and its pleasures … It is sinful to think of forbidden pleasures–to cherish such thoughts and yet fear to carry them into execution makes a person very unhappy, quite miserable in fact: So if I think to continue in the habit of such imaginings, I might as well carry them into execution.”
On Sunday, November 5, 1854, Hart writes, “One moment resolving on good: the same moment a temptation comes—it is yielded to—and then one moralizes on the matter.”
Those few examples only touch on Hart’s battle with his libido and temptation. In fact, shortly before his death, Hart burned his journals covering about seven of the first ten years he lived in China starting with May 1855 when he went to spend the summer at the home of Captain Dan Patridge (real name), who was the principal agent of Jardine and Matheson, the largest opium merchant in China.
What did Robert Hart do that motivated him to burn what he wrote that covered those years? What do you think an opium dealer would provide in the way of pleasure?
The answer may be found on page 151: “His rebellion and sinfulness … evidently led him to women of easy virtue and some kind of (retributive) illness thereafter, had been his one fall from grace by age 19. Almost immediately he had come to China, just at the age when the woman question arose most persistently and bedeviled his solitude. … He became strongly conscious of his need for someone to love.”
On page 152, it says, “As this ineradicable craving for affectionate companionship builds up in this young man of age 20, working away in solitude in his lodging in the Ningpo Consulate, we cannot help looking ahead … How does this image of an I.G., who at the height of his worldly power was least inclined to worldly love, square with the young man we see in a struggle of conscience at Ningpo in 1855. And how does the Robert Hart of July 1855 compare with the same man three years later at Canton?”
On page 153, “Whatever may have been his bittersweet struggles with his Wesleyan conscience, the fact remains that God enters less frequently into his journal hereafter. Gone is the thought of being a missionary; there is less attitude of prayer and seeking divine help. Love of woman seems to anchor Hart permanently in this world with no need for keeping lines out to the hereafter.
“We can also infer that experience with Ayaou anchors him permanently in China (page 154). … The Robert Hart whom we meet almost three years later in the next remaining installment of his journal is a different person—self-confident, clear as to his own interest, and easily in touch with the Chinese he is dealing with. Hart’s years of liaison with Ayaou gave him his fill of romance, including both its satisfaction and its limitation.”
In addition, Sterling Seagrave, the author of Dragon Lady (nonfiction–ISBN: 0-679-73369-8), wrote on page 148 of his book, “Robert was raised a strict Wesleyan when this meant twice-daily readings of Scriptures. Money was to be saved, not frittered away. Life was all work and pleasure was sinful.”
Further down the page, Seagrave says, “The appointment to China rescued him (Hart) from an embarrassing situation. College had liberated him from small-town scrutiny, and he had enjoyed a series of infatuations with middle-class young ladies intent upon marriage. What they could not provide, Hart and his chums found among the professional ladies in Belfast pubs, one of whom gave him something [historical evidence suggests syphilis] to remember her by.”
Near the end of Roberts’s review she says, “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.”
She may want to read this passage on page 231 from Entering China’s Service first: “Relations of love and sex between Asians and Westerners are properly considered in the category of trans-cultural contact. What the double standard of Victorian England would in Hart’s day have called wild oats and swept under the rug, biographers of the late twentieth century are expected to scrutinize as meaningful experience. We can only regret that the moral standards and practical necessity of an early day deprived us of Hart’s record of his coming of age as a resident of China during his service in the [British] Canton consulate in early 1959 and his first years in Customs from mid-1859 to mid-1863.”
Amanda Roberts’s says, “There is a sequel, Our Hart: Elegy for a Concubine, but I really can’t take any more of Lofthouse’s writing.”
Too bad, because in the 117,000 word sequel, the word “erection” never appears, because Hart—as his own surviving journals show—has matured and is a changed man from the one who arrived in China struggling with his Wesleyan, Victorian, British guilt because in 1854, he was as horny as a room full of adolescent boys and a few years before his death, he did his best to sweep those years under the rug by burning seven years of his journals that cover his first decade in China.
The reason we know about Ayoau is because they had three children together, and in 1865 Robert arrives unexpectedly in Northern Ireland with Anna, Herbert and Arthur Hart, and without Ayoau.
Some historians believe Ayaou died in child birth (the theory that I prefer), but others claim there is a letter that proves he sold—or gave with a dowry—Ayaou to another man in an attempt to whitewash his reputation.
We know that he took the children to Ireland where he found them a foster home, and Hart never sees those children again.
If it had not been for those three children, I’m sure that Ayaou would have been banished from Hart’s edited and revised history too.
How would you describe a man that may have sold the mother of his first-three children to another man and then takes those children halfway around the world from China to Ireland so their mother never sees them again? If this theory is true, what does that say about Robert Hart?
There is one last reckless and false claim by Roberts that I want to clarify: “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.”
In fact, my wife had nothing to do with the publication of this book, because I am an indie author. She also did not tell me ‘this book is great’. I did not use her agent or her publisher. And my wife had nothing to do with the recognition this book has earned from other reputable unbiased sources. You see, not everyone agrees with Amanda Roberts’s “moral duty to spare others the pain of reading it.”
Amanda Roberts, most people think for themselves. They don’t need someone on an alleged evangelical crusade willing to claim anything to achieve what she may see as a moral duty.
I’ve also written about this subject in My Mother would have Burned this Book (March 2011), because there have been other reviews similar to yours but much shorter that may have also had a burning “moral duty to spare others the pain of reading it.”
Another word for this is censorship, and there is a long history of censorship linked to a moral duty to censor books dealing with graphic sexual topics.
Maybe the truth is that Amanda Roberts is an alleged throw back to the Victorian era and would rather sweep the truth under the carpet that this historical fiction novel reveals and hide it—the same thing that Robert Hart attempted when he burned those journals.
Ms. Amanda Roberts, as valid as your opinion is (for you), there are other opinions of this book that are just as valid.
– PRAISE FOR –
1st edition of My Splendid Concubine:
2007 iUniverse Editor’s Choice
2007 iUniverse Publisher’s Choice
2008 iUniverse Reader’s Choice
Honorable Mention in General Fiction
2008 London Book Festival
“Packed cover to cover with intriguing characters and plot, a must read for history fans and a fine addition to any collection on the genre.” – Midwest Book Review, May 8, 2008
“A stunning work that enmeshes imperialism, modernity, miscegenation and plain old desire in a sweaty matrix of destruction and painful birth.” – City Weekend Magazine, May 8, 2008
“Those who are interested in unconventional romances with an out-of-the ordinary setting will find plenty to enjoy.” – Historical Novel Society, May 2008
2nd edition of My Splendid Concubine
“A powerful novel whose beauty exceeds that of the book’s cover.”
– Writer’s Digest judge’s commentary, April 2009
Honorable Mentions in General Fiction
2009 San Francisco Book Festival
2009 Hollywood Book Festival
Our Hart, Elegy for a Concubine, the sequel to
2nd edition of My Splendid Concubine
Honorable Mentions in General Fiction
2009 Nashville Book Festival
2009 Los Angeles Book Festival
2009 London Book Festival
2009 DIY Book Festival
“Our Hart is a unique and entertaining read, recommended.” – Midwest Book Review, April 2010
“Fine and tightly controlled Novel” – Historical Fiction Society, May 2010
“Political intrigue and matters of the heart are both fully explored. … readers who enjoy vicariously experiencing other times and cultures will find Our Hart a fascinating journey.” – Commentary of a Writer’s Digest judge, April 2011
Finalist in Fiction & Literature: Historical Fiction:
The National “Best Books 2010” Awards, December 2010
3rd edition of My Splendid Concubine: April 2013
(formerly titled The Concubine Saga)
Honorable Mentions in General Fiction
2012 San Francisco Book Festival
2012 New York Book Festival
2012 London Book Festival
“Drawing on heavily researched passages with great dramatization, The Concubine Saga is a strong pick for historical fiction collections, highly recommended.” – The Midwest Book Review, July 2012
Disclaimer: No money was paid to bribe another person to write a positive review of this book or to honor it with a literary award of any kind, and I’m sure if we go to court with a judge, lawyers and a jury, that fact would be easy to prove. There was no guarantee of a response from any of these sources or what that response might be.
His latest novel is Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.
And the woman he loves and wants to save was trained to hate and kill Americans.
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