If you’ve read my latest novel, Paper Lanterns, you will know that the middle section of this book was inspired by the photos and letters from China in the early 1920s. As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t normally read somebody else’s personal letters, but when the writers and the recipients are no longer alive, it’s different – or at least, it feels that way. Even so, I do feel a twinge of unease, now that I’m trying to find out about more about them and their possible descendants. Douglas Bruce is seated between the two other men, ignoring the camera, holding a magazine with a picture of a woman on the back page.
Mr Bruce’s treatment of the young Chinese woman, Shing Mui, seems to have been less than kind, in spite of the fact that she has written, ‘ I have seen many many persons not so good as you are, I again thank you for your kind love.’ The letter was probably written in 1916, and it seems likely that he was in his very early twenties at that time.
This picture shows him standing very close to two other young Chinese woman, and the one on the left strongly resembles the second photo of the girl in my previous post, Shing Mui. Who are these women, and who is the man at the rear, appearing to keep a wary eye on them?
I know that it’s not for me to judge this young man for his behaviour nearly a whole century ago, and although he might have been called a ‘cad’ in those times, because of his involvement with the married English woman, Bessie, she herself acknowledges her own responsibility. After her husband, Jimmy, has put a stop to the budding romance, she writes to Mr Bruce, ‘I can’t tell you how sorry I am to have brought you into this mess.’
Bessie seems to have started the flirtation in a light-hearted way, together with her close friend, Margaret Hartle, ‘we two rush together to weep on each other’s shoulders for what we haven’t got and never will get. It’s a great bond – this being crazy about the same person.’
This picture shows ‘Mr Bruce’ on the left, and the way that the young woman is leaning against him as she laughs, it could well be Bessie herself, but I haven’t yet got enough information to identify her among the many other pictures of young women in this collection.
It’s pictures like these that bring these men and women to life. They make me want to find out more about them, and at the same time, they make me feel sad. All those young people, here on the screen - moments of real people’s lives captured as they happen, but at that same moment, they have gone and can never be recaptured.
What is clear, is Bessie’s distress as she writes the final words of the very last letter that she will write to him, “This is my last letter to you for the present and so it’s good-by too, and I am heartsick Bruce dear. I never knew I would care so much. My dear. My dear why did you come so late?”
If you’d like to read the previous posts about this challenge, just scroll down to 6 Degrees of Separation – Can you help solve the challenge? Please forward this to anyone who might be interested in helping me with this challenge (anyone who supplies me with any information about these people will receive a free copy of Paper Lanterns)