The journey that led to My Splendid Concubine started with my mother, who thought like a Victorian. The way she raised me would eventually become the driving force behind a decade of research, writing and revisions.
Concubine started writing itself in 1999 — sort of like a fire pushed by the Santa Ana winds in Southern California. I would often find myself studying research material or working on another chapter at three in the morning.
Of course, my mother did not introduce me to Robert Hart. My wife did. She said, “Since you have some Irish in your blood, you might be interested in this famous Irishman that went to China.” That led to a Christmas present to myself from Harvard, Entering China’s Service, Robert Hart’s Journals, 1854 - 1863.
After I started reading Robert’s journals, it didn’t take long to discover that my mother and Hart’s father, Henry, had something in common: a deep, personal connection to religion and a love for God.
Henry was a pastor in the Wesleyan religion and owned a small general store in the town of Armagh thirty miles from Belfast. My mother, on the other hand, loved to read and was the silent type. However, if she found explicit sex in one of her romances, it went into the fire. If a bad word came out of my mouth, a quarter went out of my pocket and into a can kept on the fireplace mantle to be donated to the church on Sunday.
In comparison, before supper each evening, Henry Hart asked his twelve children, one at a time, “What did you do for God today?” Robert was the oldest. However, while in college, Robert’s quest for love ended in all the wrong places. Once Henry Hart heard about what his oldest was doing at the University in Belfast, Robert’s guilt drove him to China.
After reading Robert’s journals, I felt as if I’d met a kindred spirit. To understand Robert was to understand myself. The reason for that was because Robert was also conflicted when it came to his desire for love and the religious guilt brought on by those feelings. Early in his journals, it was obvious that Robert was having the same tug-of-war I spent half my life dealing with. During Robert’s first year in China, when he was having a bad day struggling with his desires, he went to church twice on Sunday instead of once.
Then in 1855, he met Ayaou. That’s where the real mystery begins — the love story between Robert and Ayaou, his concubine. Why did Robert destroy the journals that covered his first three years with Ayaou? Why did he go through the surviving journals later in his life and black out some of the entries? Why was it that three years later, Robert was no longer searching for love? Temptation seems to never enter his mind again.
The answer was simple. The love he found with Ayaou fulfilled all his expectations and afterwards nothing else compared. It was as if he had been starving and stumbled on a feast. That’s what My Splendid Concubine is about — Robert’s journey through love’s passionate flames while finding peace with his God.
Before I finished reading Robert’s journals and letters, I knew I wanted to write his story. It would take another eight years to put it together. To do that I had to become like a Sherlock Holmes. One of the first steps in that journey was to understand Chinese culture and off to China we went — not once, but many times.
Thank you Lloyd for sharing this insight with us. If you'd like to learn more about MY SPLENDID CONCUBINE please check out the website: http://www.mysplendidconcubine.com/