Hooray, 20BooksOfSummer no 14 and I’ve almost finished no 15, too. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll manage the set by the end of 3 September … Another of Verity’s lovely parcel of books, this was another green Virago cover. I’ve read a couple of Bridge’s books before (“Illyrian Spring” and “The Lighthearted Quest“) and while this was different from both of them, it was similar in its strong sense of place.

Ann Bridge – “Peking Picnic”

(25 December 2017 – from Verity)

A rather odd book, I felt, set in the British diplomatic community in Peking in the 1920s. It spends most of its time building up the characters and situation, then suddenly throws them into a violent and frightening situation very different from the norm (I say that: they’ve already been through seven sieges, apparently) when they’re kidnapped by brigands on a long trip that’s more than just a straight picnic to a temple compound outside Peking.

It’s all observed by a couple of outsiders: an American novelist who seems drawn from life but doesn’t do that much interesting and Professor Vinstead, an expert in psychology from Cambridge. He comments, about their blase attitude to “bad joss” (bad karma caused by helping a monk pick up his prayer beads):

It was most peculiar, the indifferent way in which all these people went casually about among them, taking their pleasure as if in the most complete and suburban security.” (p. 110)

And it IS odd: they are really in a kind of bubble, only interacting with the locals in the form of their servants and knowing the stiff upper lipped way of dealing with trouble. It has been compared to “Passage to India” and I sort of understand that, in the disconnect between the Europeans and the locals.

The sense of place is beautifully done, especially around our heroine, Laura Leroy, wise and fastidious, who is constantly dwelling in both China and England, where her beloved children are, and seeing scenes in her mind’s eye of both what they might be doing now and what she might have been doing in the past – having, she realises, through comments made by one of her nieces, a much more honest time and conversations than she does in the brittle diplomatic world.

Bridge is known for writing travelogues but this is more of a treatise on national character, because we get a lot on the love style of the French, plus discussions of the Chinese. These can feel a bit patronising, but then Laura’s ability to converse with them fluently gets them out of disaster. Similarly, perhaps, her lower-class maid is mocked and the book feels quite snobbish, but it’s the same maid who rescues them at the point of no hope. So efforts are made to understand others and it’s generally positive rather than, for example, the awful descriptions of black people in Ellen Glasgow, but it’s a bit uneasy.

In fact, to be honest, I found the whole thing quite uneasy. There’s lots of 1920s style love affairs and casualness about sex, and indeed Laura speaks of her infidelities quite lightly, which I didn’t really like, as she also appears to have a strong and supportive marriage. I know it’s only a novel but I haven’t liked that kind of thing since I got married! However, there is much to enjoy about the novel and it’s very self-assured for a debut (even though she obviously used her own background for it, making the research presumably easier), with foreshadowings and the holding together of a large cast of characters confidently marking her out as technically very competent already.

This was Book 14 in my 20BooksOfSummer project.


I’ve almost finished Book 15, the delightful “Guard Your Daughters” by Diana Tutton. In other book news, I’ve bought the next tranche of Iris Murdoch in the new(ish) Vintage Classics edition, and was busy lining up red spines from “The Nice and the Good” to “The Black Prince”, but to my horror and semi-fury, they never did “Bruno’s Dream” in the red-spined / graphic illustration format, and it looks like “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” and, which I knew about, “Jackson’s Dilemma”, weren’t done either. Who reissues 23 of a novelist’s 26 books in a uniform edition and not the other three? “Bruno” has an introduction, but he certainly doesn’t match!