If you’re new to this blog, and you’d like to find out what this is all about, it’ll probably help you to scroll down to the first post about the Mystery Challenge,in which I’m asking readers to help me find out more about the love letters from 1920’s China.)
Today I’ll be posting the last of Bessie’s letters to Mr Bruce – It would be nice to think that he had followed Bessie’s advice, and had married her friend Margaret, but in my next post I’ll explain why I’m pretty sure this didn’t happen.
I’ve learned quite a lot about Canton and the Shameen district from various websites. The view of Canton comes from this site, and the map of Shameen, from here.
And I’ve ‘borrowed’ the 1920s postcards below from a wonderful postcard site – there are lots more there, if you’d like to see more. The second one below would have been somewhere near to where Bessie had stood and waited, hoping to catch sight of Mr Bruce.
And the steam ship in this photo could have been the same as the one where Bessie’s husband, Jimmy, had discovered that ‘something was going on’ between her and Mr Bruce
Here is the transcript of Bessie’s final letter. I found it very moving, and I’m sure that many people would be able to identify with Bessie, standing outside the building in Shameen, hoping to see the man she loved, one last time.
Bruce dear, it’s quite true that a woman can kill her conscience much deader than a man can kill his. Otherwise I shouldn’t be writing to you today. If one has a dead heart, a dead conscience more or less doesn’t matter.
I’m at the Canton Hospital with the kids. They have just had their tonsils and adenoids removed. Poor little wretches. Jimmy is crying for water which he can’t have. You can’t imagine anyone crying for water can you?
I have been in Shameen twice lately. Monday I was in the playground outside your window for a long time – it was awful. And yesterday I saw Bing to speak to – did he tell you?
I am a dutiful wife now. Forever, I think, except for such a slight deflection from the path as this, and I’ll admit there is a certain amount of self-satisfied pleasure in duty well done. And not only that – trite as the sentiment may seem – it is pleasurable to see another person happy.
I would like to tell you all the details of that Thursday evening and the next morning, but what’s the use. Things could have resulted so differently but they didn’t so there is an end to it. Did Margaret tell you that he mutilated my “family album”, the one we straightened up, remember? Removed forcibly every photograph that contained your physiognomy.
But he overlooked that one of David and you on the top of the boat (Kongmoon), so I at least have one of your ears and a little bit of your gurgly old pipe.Isn’t Margaret a good sport and a dear? I don’t know what on earth I’d do without her.
I do wish that you would convince her that you never liked me at all and that you really set out to marry and save her from her present fate. I mean I wish you could do it. Really I do, dear. Because you’ve got to marry somebody, sometime, and it might as well be a somebody who would furnish you with enough excitement to keep you from being bored to tears.
I am so glad you went to see Margaret while we were in Hong Kong. Because she told me lots that you said, and it helped. And she keeps my love letter for me so that I can read it over now and again. I love it. There’s nobody in the world but you could write such a dear one. But I suppose I must let it go too after a bit – when I’ve learned it all by heart perhaps. Of course I’ll write to you when I get home, nothing could stop me if I thought you wanted me to but it is a desolate thought that I’ll never have another word from you. You spoke of how long it would take us to get over this. I hope you won’t take long – and I hope I never get over it. It’s very unmaidenly, or at least unmatronly, for me to admit all this, I’m sure. When you don’t realise what you’ve missed in life until it’s too late to have it, what matters it how brazen a hussy one becomes.
The six weeks left to me in China are creeping by. I didn’t know days could be so long. Do you believe in the much hackneyed mutual telepathy? Two or three days ago at the tiffin table little Jimmy asked when you were coming again and that night he insisted on including you in his prayers. Well I include you in mine, such as they are. The best love I have – the only one with a thrill in it – is yours. Please keep it until you get a better; that better one is waiting for you somewhere. That sounds like “Mother to her wayward boy”. It isn’t – it’s just because I don’t know what to say or how to say it so I rave on just to be in some sort of communication with you. But I can’t go on forever because my babies are requiring more and more attention.
This is my last letter to you for the present and it’s my good-bye too, and I’m heartsick Bruce dear. I never knew I would care so much. My dear. My dear, why did you come so late?
With the help of my friend, I’m still finding out more about Mr Bruce and his relations, but I’ll get back to this research later.
(If you’re new to this blog, and you’d like to find out what this is all about, it’ll probably help you to scroll down to the first post about the Mystery Challenge,in which I’m asking readers to help me find out more about the love letters from 1920’s China.)
In a previous post I mentioned that Bessie had written two more letters to Douglas Bruce after she had told herself that she would not contact him again, so here is the first page of the handwritten version. It does seem that their ‘affair’ had not gone further than the kisses she refers to. The full transcript shows that her marriage to Jimmy had not been entirely happy even before she had met Mr Bruce.
One of the details that I’ve tried to research, is the ‘monastery tower’ she had visited with him – and declared her feelings for him. I came across a site which shows a beautiful porcelain dish with significant landmarks of the old city of Canton.
Bessie’s tower might possibly have been the Zhenhai Tower, which, according to this site, “is a bit of a hassle for a westerner if you don’t do this within a tour that stops right outside”
Here is my transcript of the complete letter.
There isn’t much point in my writing you, but I think I shall feel better if I do. I can’t tell you how sorry I am to have brought you into this mess. Now that Jimmy and I have had it out and he is convinced that I am not absolutely rotten (of course I had to lie to convince him – I said you had kissed me only once – so
I’ve got the seven or eight other times to remember, all to myself) he is doing all he can to make up for his past behaviour and I should be happy – but my dear, dear I’m not. Every time he kisses me I can scarcely keep back my cries to you. I’m not going to see you anymore and I can’t bear to think of it. There is a great hole in my heart – you have the piece that was dug out whether you want it or not.
Of course I had no idea that I cared this much and it surprises me all the time that I do, and I don’t want you to think that I want or expect you to do anything about it. I’ve chosen this way and I’m sure I’m right in doing so. I’ve made you out as a noble person as I could, because you have been so darned decent through it all. Of course it wouldn’t make any difference to you what he thought about you but I wanted him to know that it was fully as much my fault as yours, and I did my best to make him believe it.
Margaret gave me your note yesterday but of course you had Jimmy’s letter by the time I got yours so there was no need for me to do anything about it.
Poor Jimmy.I am much sorrier for him than for myself and you of course will forget all about it soon I hope. If I could just get you out of my mind everything would be all right but I’m not in the least ashamed to say that what I said in the monastery tower I meant.
Write me just one letter Bruce because you’ve never said very much to me and I’d like just a little something to put in that hole if I can be sure that you mean it. Please don’t say anything more than you mean. I don’t need your love, just some liking and forgiveness for bringing you into my messy life this way.
Good-bye, dear person.
There was no use telling Jimmy that I care for you when I had chosen to stay with him, was there? It would only be worse for all three of us, and I did so hope I could keep him from writing that letter to you if I could persuade him that for the last few times we had seen each other there had been nothing between us. Besides, I’m a coward, so don’t like me if you don’t want to.
As you will see if you peer closely at the first handwritten page above, you’ll see that this transcript was written as an afterthought at the top of the first page. Although I know that the man in the picture above is indeed Douglas Bruce, I can’t guarantee that the woman leaning towards him is Bessie.
A BRIEF DIGRESSION from My Mystery Challenge!
Yes, I do have other things to think about - among these, a brief visit to London to catch up with my writing friends, Crysse Morrison - who took this photo (take a look at her blog to find out more).
and Roger Jinkinson (You can read about his own books and his passion for the research into the fascinating real-life story that led to his latest book, American Ikaros) Before meeting up with Crysse on the South Bank, I had time to browse through Poetry books and magazines at the wonderful Saison Poetry Library on Level 5 of the Festival Hall. The reference section seems to have a copy of every poetry book published in Britain since 1912. Without really expecting it, I was amazed to find that my own very slim volume, Single Travellers (Flarestack 2004) was squeezed in on the ‘C’ shelf.
Last week (Wednesday February 17, 2011) I was delighted to receive this praise from writer, Sally Jenkins for my professional publication of Paper Lanterns – and some nice comments about the contents, too! -
So far, this is all the information I have about Douglas Bruce, the recipient of the love letters I refer to in the previous post. I would be really grateful if anyone could find out more about him and/or his descendants .
Douglas G* Bruce was employed by the Asiatic Petroleum Company. The earliest evidence of his employment there is this company memo, dated in pencil, Wuchow 1915.
The memo itself was certainly not written during business hours, as you can see from my transcript of the original handwritten ‘poem’ .
The date on the back of the photo of Shing Mui is July 1916, so it is likely that her letters to Mr Bruce were written around that time.
(There were two studio photos of young Chinese women – the one here, and in my previous post has her name written on it. ) I’m not sure whether or not the girl below is a younger version of the same person. In one of my next posts I’ll be including an early, rather grainy photo of Mr Bruce with 4 young Chinese women, one of whom might be Shing Mui.
I’ve been trying to work out when and where Mr Bruce was born. There’s very little to go by, but he would probably have been in his late teens or early twenties, and this would place his birth in the early or mid 1890s.
The first letter from ‘Bessie’,
the married English woman,
would have been written in Canton in 1920,
or even 1919, and Mr Bruce must have been relatively young at that stage, as Bessie writes:
“What do you mean by upsetting the equilibrium of two highly respectable (!) ladies in their heretofore blissful states of married and single blessedness? And two at once mind you! And you so young and all.”
One of Bessie’s final letters to Mr Bruce shows that she also calls him ‘Gragg’, which seems to be his middle name*(see above).
If that is so, it could make him easier to track down as Douglas Graff Bruce, born sometime in the 1890’s, probably somewhere in London, as this picture seems to be the earliest one that I have and the picture was taken by London Portrait Co Ltd, 58, New Oxford St., W.C. 109 Finsbury Pavement 8 Aldgate High St, E.C.
In this one he might be a year or two older, because of what looks like the start of a moustache. It was taken by J.J. &S. Johnson – Artists & Photographers, Glossop Road, Sheffield. Is he wearing a uniform of some kind?
There are several more photos and a few more documents that might help readers to trace this man, and his friends, both men and women. This small photo below, taken in 1919 shows Mr Bruce on the right and his friend Mr Meyer, who appears in several other photgraphs and was clearly a very close friend, as there’s a picture of a baby boy named Bruce Meyer.
Although I know that readers of Paper Lanterns have enjoyed the novel, and the storyline of the main character’s grandmother that I’ve created, based on all this material, I have now become totally absorbed in all these real-life characters, most of whom, if not all, will have long departed this life. In fact, I have to admit that it’s becoming an obsession!
PLEASE do circulate the link to this challenge! (And remember that anyone who contacts me with new information will receive a free a copy of Paper Lanterns or The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society)