Reviewed by Claire Hayes
From its opening sentence, Peking Picnic evokes an exquisite sense of time and place – or rather of two places. For Laura Leroy, wife of a British attaché stationed in the striking surroundings of 1930s Peking, also yearns for the grey dripping clouds of her Oxfordshire home half a world away – where her children are at school and growing up without her.
It is in Peking that the novel begins, perfectly capturing the expat community’s internationally nuanced social life in its obsession with rank and status, gossip and affairs. Decisions are made and business transacted through a seemingly endless succession of parties and dinners – a world of colourful characters which Mrs Leroy understands and excels in. Visiting an At Home in the Scandinavian Legation, she is prevailed upon by her friend Nina Nevile to take part in an excursion to visit the ancient Buddhist monastery at Chieh T’ai Ssu, designed to give a visiting Cambridge Professor a taste of ‘a real Peking picnic’ and the beauty of the Chinese hills in spring.
Banish any visions you might have of ham sandwiches with curled up edges, hard-boiled eggs and stewed tea; this is an expedition equipped with enough servants and provisions to rustle up a series of four course meals (and copious drinks) at the drop of a topi, transported from Peking to its remote temple destination by car, ferry and donkey. But, as unrest brews in the countryside and Nina’s plans go awry from the beginning, it becomes a trip that will test the resilience and change the lives of its participants both young and old. From the Neviles and their party to Laura and her two young nieces, both couples contemplating love and those surprised to find it creeping up on them are brought together in this adventure, only to find themselves embroiled in a shocking encounter and brutal turn of events that might yet end in tragedy.
Peking and its surrounding landscape in that heady interlude between the two world wars is more than just a backdrop to the novel – this melting pot of humanity and filth, unfamiliar smells and noises, ancient culture and sudden beauty is central to Laura’s existence:
She was too familiar with these dirty sordid streets to be struck any more by the peculiarity of a whole city of one-storey houses; by the teeming yellow faces, the dust and squalor, the innumerable donkeys; but as her rickshaw crossed the Ta’Chang An Chieh, the great street running along the north side of the Legation Quarter, she turned her head to look at the Forbidden City. That was a sight on which, after all these years, she could never look unmoved. One behind the other, the great red gateways stood up in the evening light like immense double-decker Noah’s Arks, roofed in golden tiles, above the high crimson walls. Close at hand, on the right, showed the silvery green of the secular thujas round the Temple of the Ancestors – the ‘sunny spots of greenery’ of Xanadu planted, legend says, by Kublai Khan.
This atmosphere – so very different from modern-day Beijing – feels redolent of Lawrence Durrell’s descriptions in The Alexandria Quartet of another continent during a similar period – a sense of the strange and exotic which has been all but lost with the advent of globalisation.
Oxfordshire, on the other hand, is a place which Laura visits only in her thoughts, where she envisages the small brown heads of her children, Tim and Sarah; the duality of her life producing in her a ‘profound and trance like absorption’ which her friends have come to recognise. Indeed, Laura’s introspection is another significant aspect of Peking Picnic, as she considers the characters of her immediate companions: the two pairs of young lovers, Derek and Judith, Henri and ‘Little’ Annette who all turn to her for advice; her silent but surprisingly observant niece Lilah; the American novelist Miss Hande, and most of all the newcomer in their midst, Professor Vinstead, with whom she quickly develops a mutual understanding.
Laura’s thoughts are not confined to those around her but range freely on many aspects of life:
In her experience, all the richest and most valuable things were mixed up, somehow or other, with being hurt. Sooner or later everything that was nice hurt as well: love affairs hurt (like the devil); marriage hurt; children hurt – she half shut her eyes at the thought of children, as if to shut out Tim and Sarah and the intolerable pain of separation from them. And directly from being hurt, it seemed to her, sprang all the qualities she valued most, in others or in herself – courage, a measure of insight, and self-knowledge; and the secret sense of strength, of the indestructibility of the human spirit in the face of disasters, which is the most precious possession of all.
Little does Laura realise how much she will need to call on her own reserves of strength in the days ahead.
Such is the assurance of Peking Picnic, published in 1932, that it is astonishing to discover it is Ann Bridge’s first novel. This beautifully written book, full of humour, wisdom and vivacity, evokes an age long past and a clash of cultures (and an ambitious excursion gone wrong) which find parallels in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Occasionally, a descriptive passage may appear over-lengthy or a character sketch of another nationality somewhat outmoded, but this only serves to capture the spirit of an age long past.
Bridge writes with the insight of being the wife of a diplomat posted round the world and, from this impressive debut, went on to have a prolific writing career. Now reprinted by Daunt Books for a new generation of readers who will read it as a period piece rather than contemporary fiction, Peking Picnic nevertheless stands the test of time.
Claire Hayes blogs at Claire Thinking and loves books which recreate places that no longer exist in reality.
Ann Bridge, Peking Picnic (Daunt Books: London, 2015). 978-1907970597, 316pp., paperback.