Tag Archives: History

Imperial Woman, The Story of the Last Empress of China by Pearl S. Buck

Imperial WomanThis remarkable novel fictionalises the extraordinary life of Tzu Hsi, the last Empress of China. I was utterly enthralled from start to finish. Chosen to be a concubine, she rose to become head of the Qing dynasty through her own intelligence, diligence and careful planning. She studies determinedly to understand affairs of state and eventually rules with a mixture of altruism, serenity and extreme ruthlessness. Only a writer as skilled as Pearl S. Buck could have brought such a complex and ambiguous character to life so vividly; I empathised so deeply with the Empress that even her acts of violence seemed necessary to sustain the most important thing: the integrity of the nation. Her central struggle is the preservation of the ancient ways against Western industrial and cultural influence.

The plaque hanging above the Empress is inscribed with her full title, literally translated as "The Current Holy Mother Empress Dowager of the Great Qing Empire, Cixi (kind and auspicious) Duanyou (upright and blessed) Kangyi (healthy and well-maintained) Zhaoyu (clear and pleasant) Zhuangcheng (solemn and sincere) Shougong (long-living and respectful) Qinxian (royal and sacrificial) Chongxi (magnanimous and prosperous).

The plaque hanging above the Empress is inscribed with her full title, literally translated as ‘The Current Holy Mother Empress Dowager of the Great Qing Empire, Cixi (kind and auspicious) Duanyou (upright and blessed) Kangyi (healthy and well-maintained) Zhaoyu (clear and pleasant) Zhuangcheng (solemn and sincere) Shougong (long-living and respectful) Qinxian (royal and sacrificial) Chongxi (magnanimous and prosperous)’ and I thought having a double-barrelled last name was excessive.

The writing has a few of the hallmarks of fairytale at the start, easing the reader in and emphasising the glorious setting, customs and costumes as if other-worldly. This contrasts starkly with the real political and personal trials that Tzu Hsi encounters. The details are magnificent – I think I’ll adopt the ancient tradition of having the day off the first day that the wisteria blooms. The description is perfection: ‘her thoughts circled about him like mourning doves’ and ‘ancient twisted trees were planted and tended as carefully as though they were human, and indeed some of the trees were given human titles, such as duke or king.’

I am totally fascinated by this era of history. As soon as I had finished reading, I went straight online to learn as much as I could about the Empress and to find images of her and the palaces she so adored. I spent many hours in a Wikipedia hole.

Since finishing this book I have tried to start a few others, but nothing is taking my interest. A book this vivid, evocative and riveting is proving hard to follow.

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An Evening with Diane Atkinson: Author of ‘The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton’

Happy International Women’s Day!

Any regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of women’s history (in fact I wrote a little book of it), so I was delighted to have the chance to listen to Diane Atkinson speak about her book ‘The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton’. Here’s the blurb:

The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton

Caroline Norton: beauty and wit, poet, pamphleteer and blue stocking. She was married to a boorish minor aristocrat at 19, who accused her, for his own political ends, of an affair, or a ‘Criminal Conversation’ as it was know, with Lord Melbourne (the Prime Minister) which ended in the ‘Trial of the Century’. Pilloried by society, cut off and bankrupted by her family she went on to be the most important figure in establishing women’s rights in marriage. This is the startling story of how one woman changed marriage and revolutionised women’s rights.

Atkinson relayed a brief history of Norton’s life from her marriage, and subsequent political struggles, to her death. I was most compelled by her vociferous legal battle to gain access to her children and extend this right to all separated mothers (in the past, children of divorced parents were considered the father’s alone: the mother had no legal rights to see them). The question and answer section was very interesting at Atkinson spoke more about her research; she spent two years going through over a thousand letters written my Mrs Norton. Atkinson was confident and knowledgeable – she held the room beautifully. 

It was heartening in my small town to see a room full to bursting of people interested in women’s history. 

Find out more about Diane Atkinson here.

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