I was very sad to hear, through fellow-Red Roomer Kim Packard, of the death of writer Han Suyin, last 2 November. Only last Sunday, I mentioned her novel, A Many-Splendoured Thing, in my piece about the moon. I was very sad, that she did not know just what a powerful impression her best-known book has made on me. Best-known, because Hollywood made it into a film – with Oscar-winning song – starring Jennifer Jones and William Holden. Although the film is pure Technicolor, Stereophonic Sound, Swelling Strings and bucketfuls of Sentiment, as only Hollywood used to be able to serve up, it does not do the novel justice, and I am sorry that it is that – rather than the book itself – which sticks in the memory of my mother’s generation. As for my own generation, I have met few readers who have heard of either the film or the book. Since the book seems to be currently out of print, I managed to locate, through Amazon, a copy for myself, then a couple more for friends, neither of whom has read it, yet. I suspect it lies somewhere, buried under other books or papers, forgotten. Not contemporary enough, and not a classic. I guess the enthusiasm I tried to convey was not persuasive enough.
I am genuinely surprised that more people have not read A Many-Splendoured Thing, since it is a gem. It is like a small piece of Ethiopian Opal I have. From a distance it is just a brick brown stone, but pick it up and turn it in the light, and you see flames of gold, vermillion and emerald flashing inside it.
Every obituary of Han Suyin I have read so far*, states that A Many-Splendoured Thing is a love story based on the author’s own true life affair with journalist Ian Morrison, who was killed whilst covering the Korean war. A love story, it is. So much more than a love story, though. It is a chronicle of Hong Kong life in 1949-50. A place as colourful as the people who inhabit it, most of whom are just passing. Western missionaries and businessmen escaped from the troubles in China, waiting in the hope that they can return to evangelising or making money. Starving refugees who flood in every day. Wealthy Chinese on the run from Communists. There is the sexually abused Chinese servant girl who risks everything to stand up for herself. There is the narrator’s own sister who defies the rules and traditions of her family with her dream of escaping China. The British expats who look down on the locals. Han Suyin describes Hong Kong as a place
“where people come and go and know themselves more impermanent than anywhere else on earth. Beautiful island of many worlds in the arms of the sea. Hongkong.
And China just beyond the hills.”
As narrator and character in her own novel, Han Suyin is a Eurasian (her mother was Belgian and her father, Chinese) in a milieu where this is viewed by the polite society of cocktail parties and gossip, as a result of a kind of promiscuity, of breaking social codes. Yet it is that very mix of East and West that gives her that invaluable insight into both cultures. She is able to describe each with first-hand experience.
In the book, the narrator – a widow with a young daughter – makes a conscious choice to be Chinese. Having completed her medical training in England, she waits in Hong Kong for the right time to go and practise in China, confident that the Communists will not harm a doctor. Loyal to her Chinese upbringing, she does not intend to marry again, saying that her heart is safely dead. When she meets journalist Mark Elliott at a dinner party, events are triggered that are beyond her careful emotional control. She describes the meeting in a precise manner which stirs the reader and yet is strangely unsentimental. A man comes to sit in the chair next to her. She looks up at him. Suddenly, she is acutely aware of the texture of the carpet under his shoes, as though it were against her skin. “It was as if something had suddenly turned in its sleep within me, and sighed,” she writes.
Mark Elliott, however, is a married man. Moreover, the couple have to contend with the prejudice and offended sensibilities of both Westerners and Chinese. Han Suyin goes on to relate the affair not merely as a passionate love which capsizes their lives but as a thing of rare and refined beauty. She describes feelings with the eye of an aesthete admiring the cornflour blue patterns of a rare porcelain vase, or a poet describing the hues of a peacock’s tail. Both she and her lover are extremely sensitive to Beauty, whether that manifests itself in the perfect roundness of the moon rising up in the sky during the Moon Festival, or the grace of colourful Chinese goldfish, or poetry. One gets the feeling it is Beauty that nourishes their relationship. A relationship that lives and breathes every ounce of the world’s splendour.
Like so many Easterners writing in English, Han Suyin’s prose is poetical without too much lyricism. It is as careful as a quill drawing an abundance of flowery and ornate – but nonetheless rigorously precise – patterns on a parchment. Patterns so intricate, you may often interpret them in more than one way. Here you see the swirly tail of a dragon – and yet it also looks like a bird of paradise. The double-meanings of Eastern philosophical poems. The understatements which make the message all the more powerful.
A poem, by Francis Thompson, is also what gives the novel its title. It is this extract, from O World Intangible, that Mark Elliot sends Han Suyin in a letter from Korea:
“The angels keep their ancient places:–
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.”
Love story, political history, social portrait and pure, unadulterated beauty, A Many-Splendoured Thing is a book that belongs in the Mount Parnassus of 20th Century Literature.
* Han Suyin Guardian obituary
* Han Suyin The Independent article
* Han Suyin New York Times obituary
* BBC Radio 4 Last Word (18 minutes 44 seconds in)
* Television interview with Han Suyin