The quest for Backhouse

Look if it’s OK with you I’m just going to breeze on in and pretend it hasn’t taken me about a month to post something new. OK? Good.

So (sliding nonchalantly into the blogging chair) today’s dead odd person is Sir Edmund Backhouse, who distinguished himself as a sinologist in the early 20th century, helping to shed light on the Dowager Empress’s China which was then as shuttered and mysterious to Westerners as Kim Jong-il’s North Korea is to us now.

Backhouse was born into a prominent Quaker family in England on this day in 1873, coming of age in Oxford in the feverish 1890s. He ran up huge debts at university and fled England in 1895, and the next verifiable sighting has him in Beijing in 1899 (we will return to these missing years). Backhouse was a quick study and made himself useful as an interpreter of Chinese as well as writing his own accounts of political and courtly intrigues.

With British journalist J.O.P. Bland, Backhouse published China under the Empress Dowager in 1910, aided by the hitherto unseen diary of courtier Ching-shan, which provided invaluable insight into the Boxer Rebellion and other tumultuous events. This was followed four years later by Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking, which delved further into imperial history.

Between those two publications Backhouse started to donate manuscripts to his alma mater’s Bodleian Library. He would eventually hand over eight tons of documents, resources of inestimable importance for scholars of the Middle Kingdom.

During World War I Backhouse worked undercover as a British agent and tried to profit from his imperial connections in a fraudulent arms deal, playing off American, British and Chinese interests. The spectacular collapse of the scheme forced Backhouse to vacate Beijing until some years after the war (an episode which brings to mind the double-dealing and espionage of the extraordinary Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln, who died in China a year before Sir Edmund). Backhouse’s later years were marked by increasing isolation. No doubt chastened by his failed arms deal, he shunned the company of Westerners. He died, alone, in Beijing in 1944.

So that’s Sir Edmund Backhouse. Not the strangest little lotus blossom, really.

Except…

In Switzerland, thirty years after Backhouse’s death, a man named Hugh Trevor-Roper took delivery of two volumes of autobiographical writings by Backhouse. Trevor-Roper was a distinguished historian, his book The Last Days of Hitler being a much-lauded account of the Führer’s downfall.

The writer compared this find to A.J.A. Symons’ discovery of Frederick Rolfe’s “Venice Letters”, which set him off in pursuit of “Baron Corvo” (as Rolfe sometimes styled himself), detailed in his book The Quest for Corvo. Trevor-Roper even speaks of his own “Quest for Backhouse”.

The writings, the historian averred, were “of no ordinary obscenity”, and filled in many of those blank spots in Backhouse’s biography. What had he been up to? In Backhouse’s account, he appears Zelig-like at the side, or in the bed, of a breathtaking array of public figures.

At school, for instance, he was taught French by the poet Paul Verlaine, and travelled with him to Paris where he met most of the great French writers of the time (and became a sexual plaything of a number of them). Later years found him making up a foursome at dinner with Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and Max Beerbohm, at a time when he was helping Aubrey Beardsley edit The Yellow Book. Oh, and he was also bedded by the then prime minister, Lord Rosebery.

Backhouse evidently roamed the globe, summering in Russia with Tolstoy, discovering the joys of eunuch sex in Constantinople and appearing on stage with Sarah Bernhardt in Paris. Although he was largely homosexual, women weren’t entirely safe from his attentions: the renowned courtesan La Belle Otero, an Ottoman princess, even the Dowager Empress herself succumbed to his charms.

It was a devastatingly frank account bristling with famous names: a biographer’s dream.

Except…

Trevor-Roper dug deeper and concluded that while Backhouse had taken care to add a modicum of plausible circumstantial detail, most of his outlandish claims could be overturned by rudimentary research. Nonetheless the historian’s brick-by-brick demolition of Backhouse’s house of lies is carried out with elegance and wit. Witness this gem of understatement: “With the consent of his parents (which seems surprising), he accompanied Verlaine to Paris in the Easter holidays…”

The result of Trevor-Roper’s enquiries was Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, published in 1976. It was a sensation, but not just because it exposed Backhouse as a relentless fabulist in the chronicling of his own life. Because it was one thing to debunk an as-yet unpublished account, so luridly fanciful that he must surely have meant it to be read as fan fiction rather than autobiography. Far more damaging, however, was Trevor-Roper’s re-examination of many of the documents that Backhouse had used as primary sources and passed on to the Bodleian. For instance Ching-shan’s crucial diary – whose authenticity had long been contested – was definitively proven to be a fake penned by Backhouse himself. So too were many of the other manuscripts in the Bodleian bequest.

Trevor-Roper had exposed one of the most outrageous academic frauds of the 20th century, a terrible blow for the sinologists who had used the material as the basis of their writings. It was a singular piece of scholarly detective work that should at least have secured Trevor-Roper’s reputation as a seeker of truth and an enemy of chicanery.

Except…

If the name Hugh Trevor-Roper sparks any recognition, you’ve probably raced ahead and spotted the enormous irony in all this. For ten years after laying his hands on that Backhousian haul Trevor-Roper was back in Switzerland to examine the “Hitler Diaries”, a set of volumes in the possession of Stern. The German magazine had spent a huge amount to buy what they claimed were the authentic diaries of the Nazi leader. Trevor-Roper was then working for The Times, but was called on in his capacity as an expert on the Third Reich and Hitler in particular. He evaluated the writings and declared them authentic. That Trevor-Roper’s employer stood to benefit from serialisation rights of the Führer’s journal was – he insisted – by the by.

It was not long before the “diaries” were exposed as fakes, and not particularly good ones. They were bulging with glaring anomalies and easily disproven inaccuracies of the type that Trevor-Roper had so skilfully deconstructed in Backhouse’s account. In his defence, Stern had lied to him about key details, but his reputation never fully recovered.

Hugh Trevor-Roper died in 2003. Sadly for devotees of A-list smut, Edmund Backhouse’s “memoirs” have never been published.

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7 comments

  1. Wanda

    Delighted you’re back in the blogging chair.

  2. Bruce

    This site is a bit of a tour de force.

    One stand-out vignette from the memoirs is Backhouse’s encounter with a famous courtesan, who tells him that he is a much more accomplished lover than Lord Kitchener. Backhouse later ‘chaffs’ Lord Kitchener with the comparison, but the great man is unfazed.

    ‘Where there’s no will, m’boy, there’s no way,’ he replies, knowingly.

    Priceless. I always think of Lord Kitchener pulling one of his moustaches as he delivers the excuse and letting it twang back into place after the word ‘m’boy’.

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  5. Anthony Hope

    A fascinating blogpost. Many thanks!

    Btw, if you haven’t checked it out yet, I recommend the compelling and very funny British TV dramatisation of the “Hitler diaries” débacle, Selling Hitler, starring Jonathan Pryce and Alexei Sayle. It’s available on DVD (and on a popular video-sharing website whose name rhymes with WhoCube). The TV series was based on Robert Harris’s masterly book, also called Selling Hitler.

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