Hidden History

A Very British Time in China9 min read

Penelope Fitzgerald’s holiday in China – by Paul French


With the release of the film of Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel The Bookshop this year, hopefully she’ll win many new fans and readers. The Bookshop was Fitzgerald’s second novel and is thought by many to be her best. The film version, by the Spanish director Isabel Coixet, stars Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Bill Nighy. The story revolves around Florence Green, a middle-aged widow, who decides to open a bookshop in a small town, finding some support and some opposition. Though the book was famously set in Suffolk (Hardborough, a satirical version of the real town of Aldeburgh) the movie version was filmed in Northern Ireland and Barcelona.

Nothing very Chinese about any of that. But what most readers, and now watchers, won’t know is that The Bookshop was partly written in mid-December 1977 in an overheated Shanghai hotel room by a bored and restless Fitzgerald, unable to sleep and fed up with her long-planned trip to China that seemed never-ending. Contrary to popular legend, Noel Coward did not write Private Lives in Shanghai’s Cathay Hotel (just did a bit of polishing to a second edit), but Penelope Fitzgerald really did write the opening of The Bookshop in Shanghai, with Suzhou Creek outside the window.

Quite where Fitzgerald’s initial interest in China came from is hard to pinpoint. Born in Lincoln in 1916 the daughter of a one-time editor of Punch magazine, she was educated at Oxford and then worked for the BBC during World War II (days recalled in her 1980 novel Human Voices). During the war she met and married a young lawyer, Desmond Fitzgerald, who had an exciting war but came home an alcoholic. They, and their three children, settled down in the well-heeled north London suburb of Hampstead where they established a cultural journal called World Review.

Perhaps this was the start of her China interest? World Review was launched in 1951 at a time when most literary and current affairs journals (such as Penguin New Writing and Horizon) were failing and closing. Penelope co-edited the sadly short-lived publication with Desmond. World Review mixed politics, art, architecture, stories, poems, serialisations and reviews. It had colour covers and cartoons. Among its stated objectives from the start was to cover “British Relations with China”. And they did, just once, in July 1952 with an article entitled ‘The British in China’ by O.M. Green, edited by Fitzgerald herself.

The piece was a rather lacklustre defence of the days of the old Canton trade and the treaty port years of Shanghai, finishing with a less than rousing denunciation of the relatively new Communist government from a man who had been appointed the editor of the staunchly pro-British Shanghai newspaper The North-China Daily News in 1911. Green had lasted in the editor’s chair till 1930, and retired as unwaveringly pro-British as the day he’d got the job. He then had a second career back in England as a professional Old China Hand, moving from Women’s Institute tea to Women’s Institute tea and with little in between except a bit of journalism here and there.

World Review eventually folded in 1953. Desmond’s drinking led to problems that got him disbarred, and threw the Fitzgerald’s into poverty with Penelope taking a job as a teacher. They famously lived on a rickety old houseboat on the Thames for a while until it sank (though the experience provided fodder for one of her best novels, Offshore, in 1979). Desmond died in 1976. Leaving teaching, Penelope embarked seriously on a literary career and managed to earn a few advances. With the money she decided to take the holiday she’d always wanted – to China. Writing to her then editor Richard Garnett at Macmillan, she told him she was heading east in December saying, “I’ve wanted all my life to see the Great Wall under snow.”

To visit China in 1977 was not all that common, with the Cultural Revolution not long abated, Mao dead barely a year, the fallout from the Gang of Four trial still rumbling on, the Hua Guofeng-Deng Xiaoping power struggle raging, and the Beijing Spring still to come. Despite this, in 1977 Thomson Holidays, pioneers of the British package holiday, began offering all-inclusive tours to Peking (as they still referred to it) and Shanghai. Fitzgerald booked a tour from the 3rd to the 14th December. She got vaccinated against smallpox and cholera as advised, and bought a little red diary to take with her and record her impressions.

It was still a fair slog to China back then – a long flight to Peking via strictly communist Bucharest and Karachi, then under martial law. In many ways travel in China was designed to be endured rather then enjoyed. Fitzgerald notes in her diary the plane’s message to passengers when entering Chinese airspace: “It is forbidden to use cameras, binoculars or radios while flying over the People’s Republic of China.” It was not all communist austerity, though. China’s national airline, CAAC, flew them into Peking serving a meal of rice with shrimp, a hardboiled egg, slithers of duck meat, stringbeans and mushroom, which everyone grudgingly admitted wasn’t too bad, according to the diary. But the plane’s intercom still played songs praising Chairman Mao for the full duration of the eight-hour flight.

Penelope Fitzgerald

The Peking Hotel (the former Grand Hôtel de Pékin and now the Beijing Hotel on the corner of Wangfujing and Chang’an) was overheated and stuffy. The corridors were dimly lit, and room keys had to be handed in when stepping out of the hotel. Fitzgerald felt, in her own words, slightly self-conscious travelling on her own, an “unglamorous widow-lady” with “shabby luggage” and too hot in her sweaters and trousers (nobody warned the tour group about Peking’s suffocating steam heating).

Self-deprecating as she may have been, her holiday companions got the same treatment in her China diary (parts of which are noted in Hermione Lee’s 2013 biography of Fitzgerald). There is “dear Miss How, a missionary, with her primus stove, tea bags and spare bath-plugs,” and “‘Knightsbridgey’ Mrs Handley-Page in a Persian lamb coat,” as well as Mr Hall, a builder from Norfolk and life-long traveller, Mr Holdford, who constantly shouted “all aboard” to the consternation of the Chinese tour-bus driver, anMr Rod ss, a Newcastle factory owner who drank a little too much rice wine at the nightly, and seemingly endless, banquets. The entire party was united in their loathing of Chinese traditional breakfasts and in their concern over the cleanliness or otherwise of the shared chopstick jar.

Such were the types of Brit who booked package holidays to China in 1977. In charge of them all was Mrs Sun, who was flabbergasted by the British tourists’ ability to buy everything offered to them in Friendship Stores, while also surreptitiously taking advantage of her privileged position to snap up a top quality padded baby jacket for her grandson. The tourists made their selections and then waved handfuls of yuan at the shop assistants, who took as much as was required and never short-changed the foreign innocents. Strange pills appeared for those who had developed colds in Peking’s harsh winter air. Salty sodas and endless cups of thin green tea were provided to remove the Gobi grit from the party’s throats.

Then came an itinerary all too familiar to those who have endured a package holiday to China: the Great Wall (which Fitzgerald found to be “as expected”, with no mention as to whether she saw it under snow); pandas at the zoo (which she was only forced to coo over for ten minutes); a propagandistic Chinese opera (flummoxing the translators with lyrics such as “We dedicate our youth to communism”); the Temple of Heaven (which Fitzgerald found truly impressive); the Forbidden City (which she found akin to Versailles in atmosphere and “terrifying”); a commune (of little interest) and the Revolutionary Street Committee Kindergarten, who gave a performance extolling the recently concluded 11th Communist Party Congress before bidding all the Mr and Mrs Thomson’s goodbye in an amusing language mix up.

The Shanghai Mansions hotel, where Fitzgerald wrote the opening to The Book Shop

Next was Shanghai, a city still seemingly smothered in a dust sheet cast over the once great port since 1949. Fitzgerald, staying in the Shanghai Mansions hotel (now, as it was previously to 1949, the Broadway Mansions) adjacent to Suzhou Creek, wrote that she found the city “decadent and decrepit.” Red banners ran across the street urging people to “Unite Around the Central Committee Under Chairman Hua.” After a day or two of yet more sightseeing with the energetic Mrs Sun, Fitzgerald was done in, fed up, boiled in steam heating, overwhelmed by children dressed up as turnips dancing to celebrate the success of agricultural collectivisation, and unsure if curious looks from locals were friendly, indifferent or hostile. She had seen enough rivers of weaving cyclists, drunk enough thin green tea, endured enough morning congee and bought more than enough Friendship Store nick-nacks.

Sharing a room in Shanghai with the tea-making missionary Miss How, Fitzgerald woke early, unable to sleep. Leaving the hotel unescorted was problematic so she stayed in her room, quietly writing her China diary until she had nothing left to say. At that point she turned her diary upside down, and began writing on the back page. The opening scene and plot sketches for The Bookshop remain in the back of the diary, almost exactly as they were to appear when the novel was published in 1978 (and swiftly shortlisted for the Booker Prize).

However, there is one crucial change that perhaps reflects Fitzgerald’s own brief China time. In the final edit of the novel the opening line is, “In 1959 Florence Green occasionally passed a night when she was not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not.” But in the first draft in her China diary, the opening line arguably better reflects the early morning winter view across Suzhou Creek from her hotel, and a summation of her holiday in China: “Experiences aren’t given us to be ‘got over’, otherwise they would hardly be experiences.” ∎

Paul French’s City of Devils: A Shanghai Noir, a rags-to-riches tale of two self-made men set against a backdrop of crime and vice in the sprawling wartime badlands of Shanghai, is published in March 2018