HERMIT OF PEKING: THE HIDDEN LIFE OF SIR EDMUND BACKHOUSE By Hugh Trevor-Roper, Eland, £14.99
Those familiar with the writings of Trevor-Roper know that when required he could bring to history writing the skills of a sleuth. His reconstruction of the last days of Hitler displayed how through careful investigation, reading of documents and persistent cross-examination he could recover the relevant pieces and then fit them into the jigsaw. This book shows the same qualities. It is a masterly piecing together of evidence drawn from obscure corners. Trevor-Roper thus lights up a little-known personality and his various exploits.
First, the all-important question: why did a specialist of 17th century British and European history venture to write the biography of a man who spent the better part of his adult life in early 20th century China. The answer is by sheer chance.
In the summer of 1973 a distinguished Swiss scientist asked Trevor-Roper if he would receive a piece of work by Edmund Backhouse for passing on to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. As an Oxford man, Trevor-Roper knew the name of Backhouse as one of the great benefactors of the Bodleian. Sir Edmund Backhouse had in 1913 presented to the library a collection of 17,000 volumes of Chinese printed books and manuscripts. He added 10,000 volumes in the course of the next eight years. These gifts made the Bodleian’s Chinese collection one of the best in Europe. Trevor-Roper was thus easily drawn and he received at Basel airport the manuscript that was being offered. When he read it, his curiosity was more than whetted as the work turned out to be the memoirs of Backhouse and they were obscene in the extreme.
Trevor-Roper had to decide if the memoirs were genuine. The existing record regarding Backhouse described him as a recluse. How did a recluse — someone for whom the epithet hermit was used — have such a torrid and vigorous sex life? The historian decided to turn detective and unearth the truth about Backhouse.
Having done his research, spread over three continents, Trevor-Roper decided to structure his book as a conventional biography — moving from Backhouse’s childhood to Oxford to his life in China, from the last years of the 19th century to his final years as a lonely figure in the outskirts of Peking in the early 1940s.
Backhouse successfully established himself as one of the most distinguished sinologists of his time who also served as an agent of leading British and US companies. He claimed he was on intimate terms with the good and the great in China and in Britain and had access to the Chinese court.
As Trevor-Roper unravels the evidence, he proves to his readers that Backhouse’s life was one big fraud. He had none of the contacts he claimed to have. The book that made him famous as a sinologist was a based on a diary that he himself had forged. He had swindled the companies that had employed him by luring them into grandiose but non- existent business deals. Yet in his time he had convinced and persuaded many highly intelligent and capable people. His memoirs were nothing more than fantasy.
Backhouse is now a lost figure and this book on him, written in the 1970s, is also forgotten. But it is good to have it retrieved because it demonstrates the great qualities of Trevor-Roper — his pursuit of documents, his reading of the sources, his sifting of the evidence, his construction of the historical context and above all his limpid and delightful prose. This is compulsory reading for anyone interested in the historian’s craft.