This is a love story set in China during the Republican Era (1911 to 1949). The main male character is Virginia Woolf's nephew, Julian Bell, and the main female one based on the Chinese author Ling Shuhua.
Virginia Woolf's sister, Vanessa, married Clive Bell, an art critic. At the age of 27, their son Julian, after trying to make a career for himself as a poet in the Bloomsbury Group, in which his aunt and mother were so prominent, made the decision to go to China. He obtained a job as a lecturer on modern British writing, and arrived in Wuhan in September 1935.
The family had always been unusually open on sexual matters. Vanessa Bell had quite open affairs during her marriage, including one with another art critic, Roger Fry, and her husband did the same. Virginia Woolf at least toyed with lesbianism. Sexual frankness, you might say, was an obligatory part of the Bloomsbury ethos and, brought up in this atmosphere, Julian Bell felt it quite natural to write regularly to his mother reporting on his sex-life.
His letters, which survive, contain details of his affair with a Chinese woman who he indicates by the letter "K." He had been in the habit of attaching letters of the alphabet to his lovers, and this Chinese woman, being the 11th, consequently received the 11th letter. In China during the 1990s, rumor in literary circles had it that this person was Ling Shuhua, a famous writer of short stories and the most eminent woman in the association of modernist writers in 1930s China called the New Moon Society.
In the summer of 1998, Hong Ying, a young Chinese writer who now divides her time between China and the UK, set about reconstructing this supposed love affair as a novel. It was published in Chinese in Taiwan in 2001 with the title K. In June 2002 Ling Shuhua's daughter, Chen Yiaoying, sued Hong Ying and two periodicals that had published extracts from the novel. Her mother had died in the 1990s, but in China the dead remain protected by libel laws. If found guilty Hong Ying would have had her book banned for 100 years and lost all her assets in China.
But in December last year she was acquitted on appeal. The only condition the court imposed was that certain passages should be cut and the novel's title in China changed to The English Lover. This English paperback edition is presumably of the original complete text, translated by Mark Smith and Hong Ling's husband, Henry Zhao.
The most affluent areas of China during this period are portrayed as a paradise waiting to be destroyed. Wuhan and Beijing are each described in idyllic terms. Julian is given a large house, complete with two servants and a generous salary. The woman he falls in love with, simply called Liu, is the wife of the university's dean and as such she inhabits even more opulent surroundings. As the seasons change over the East Lake, scenic beauties succeed one another in eloquent succession. Beijing, too, is characterized by sumptuous hotels, lavish restaurants and charismatic theaters. Another expatriate calls it "the last paradise."
This enthusiast is Harold Acton, the English ultra-aesthete of the era (he was capable of publishing lines of poetry such as "We groin with lappered morphews of the mind").
One of the great virtues of this novel is that it gets the historical and literary background exactly right. Not only does Hong Ying know all about Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell's circle -- she also knows about the enthusiasm among intellectuals of the era for going to work in China. Another literary personality teaching in Beijing was the brilliant eccentric William Empson -- he continued to sport a wispy Chinese beard into the 1960s. One of the few disappointments of this book is that, though named, he doesn't appear in person.