Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge

As Ann Bridge’s books are so hard to get hold of I have not been in a rush to read the few books of hers I have managed to locate, so it took a long plane journey for me to finally crack Peking Picnic open. And I’m so glad I did. It didn’t supercede my love of Illyrian Spring, but it came very close. Ann Bridge is such a superb writer and her characters are all absolutely, marvellously, touchingly real, so much so that I could hardly bear to close the pages on them.

Like Illyrian Spring, Peking Picnic is set on foreign shores, this time in 1930s China. It is ostensibly about a group of people attached to the Foreign Legation in Peking going on a three day trip to a temple in the countryside on the outskirts of the city. However, it’s really about so much more than this, and this is what I love about Ann Bridge’s writing; her novels are never what they seem on the surface. As with Illyrian Spring, Bridge weaves a beautiful picture of a foreign country and of a journey through it, but the real story lies in the inner lives of her characters, and the complexities of their emotions and thoughts as they progress through the events of the novel. For many of them, it will turn out to be a journey of self discovery and personal growth that they never imagined when they set off, and it is this aspect of the novel that provides the real drama, despite the genuinely dramatic incidents that will end up happening over the three days.

The story centres around Laura Leroy, admired by all, and a wonderful, sensitive and wisely written character. She is a 37 year old diplomat’s wife, who has lived in Peking for eight years. She misses England, and it pains her to be away from her beloved children, who are at boarding school, but she also loves the Chinese people, speaks Chinese fluently, and adores Peking and the local countryside. She feels like she is caught between two worlds, and it is this otherworldly quality that makes her such an interesting and complex woman to know. Laura’s marriage is barely described; we never meet her husband, except for hearing his voice through walls, which is telling in itself. They are merely ‘fond’ of one another, and for a woman capable of great love and affection, this is clearly not enough. Interestingly, Laura doesn’t have any moral objection to falling in love and having significant relationships with other men despite being married; she believes that as long as she loves everyone she is in a relationship with genuinely and deeply, it doesn’t lessen the existing ties she has. I thought this was a very daring philosophy to express considering that this book was written in the early 1930’s, and normally I would baulk at it, but somehow, it made complete sense in the light of Laura’s nature.

Laura is wise and contemplative, and the journey to the temple undertaken by the party of various different men and women, all of varying ages, nationalities and personalities, finds each of the characters at some point relying on Laura’s qualities to advise, encourage, inspire and help them. It’s difficult to say much more than this without ruining the plot, but each character is going through a different stage of their lives during the Picnic; some are discovering themselves, others are discovering what it is to love, and what it will cost to sacrifice themselves for it. Laura finds herself at the centre of these personal discoveries, while also falling in love herself, and trying to work out whether her own life is giving her the satisfaction she so clearly gives to others.

This is a beautiful, thoughtful, and quietly moving novel that is filled with the tremendously gentle, worldly wisdom of Ann Bridge that I so enjoyed reading in Illyrian Spring. There isn’t a huge amount of action, but there doesn’t need to be; all of the plot and all of the interest is in the characters and their relationships both with each other and with their inner selves. I also greatly enjoyed the depiction of China and its people; as a diplomat’s wife herself, Ann Bridge was very well travelled and clearly has a real knowledge of and affection for Peking and its natives. Peking Picnic was a real treat to read and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes a novel that reveals the vagaries and beauties of the human soul; Ann Bridge very much reminds me of Dorothy Whipple in that respect.

As many of you will know, I LOVE Ann Bridge and it really is criminal that she is largely out of print; thankfully Capuchin Classics have seen sense and Peking Picnic will once again be available in paperback in May, so do watch out for that. In the meantime my one woman campaign to get Illyrian Spring, one of the most marvellous books I’ve ever read, back in print continues. I’m no Erin Brockovich but I am determined to succeed; if you agree with me do petition Persephone as I would love for them to reprint this absolutely marvellous book to allow its beauty to touch many, many more people than just us lucky few who have come across it second hand!

41 comments

  1. I’d noticed that Capuchin were reprinting Peking Picnic so I think I’ll buy their edition, in lieu of not having a green Virago one.

    I’ll sign your petition for Persephone to republish Illyrian Spring too as it’s the VMC I have most been wanting to read (especially since reading your review).

    1. I’m glad to hear you’ll be buying this – I hope that they correct the horrendous typo that appears to be on the front cover (Anne instead of Ann) before they put it out for sale though!

      Thank you – Nicola Beauman said she wasn’t sure it was time for Ann Bridge to have a revival but if enough of us say we want it she might reconsider, I hope!

  2. Rachel – I still have Peking Picnic languishing on my shelves. I’ve always heard that Illyrian Spring is better so I’ve been waiting to get a hold of that before starting with Picnic. Your review sounds marvelous and I’m tempted to just go ahead and read it now. And I second Claire’s comment…I’ll sign any petition to help you republish Illyrian Spring.

    1. You have it languishing?! Don’t wait any longer! Illyrian Spring is better so you’ll still have it to look forward to after reading Peking Picnic! Thank you for your support – I should draw up a petition pronto!

  3. Hi Rachel, such an eloquent review. Peking Picnic sounds very much to my taste – definitely going to order the Capuchin Classics reprint now. The character of Laura has some similarities by the sound of it, with wise and beautiful Cressida in The House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair (Persephone). It leads me to wonder if Jocelyn Playfair ever read Peking Picnic…

    1. Thanks so much Merenia! You are always so lovely. I’m glad you’re going to order Peking Picnic, I promise, it will be well worth it. What an interesting comparison – I had a think about what you said about Cressida and you’re very right – it is just that sort of quiet, calm collectedness which hides a tumultuous interior that Laura possesses too. It would be interesting to know if Jocelyn Playfair knew of Ann Bridge’s work – I believe Peking Picnic was very popular at the time of publication so it could well be that she did. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know for certain?

  4. This is me browsing in a bookshop.

    ‘Oh, such a gorgeous cover and oh look, a period setting!’ Flipping open the front cover I browse the synopsis. ‘Lovely characters and a strong female voice…check!’ Scanning halfway down I notice the setting is not England and instantly slam the book shut and replace it on the shelf.

    It’s hopeless…I’m hopeless! But, having said that I feel that I really should read Illyrian Spring so I’m not so far out of the loop. Ann Bridge must be a very talented author and I love that she reminds you, in part, of Dorothy Whipple.

    1. Oh Darlene! The characters are English, mostly, if that helps?! I am positive Ann Bridge is an author you would absolutely love and I am hoping you will find a copy of one of her books to try soon!

  5. Well, I finally read the much awaited Illyrian Spring in February and found it just as exquisite as you’ve described. Went on to read Enchanter’s Nightshade in March, which is charming. And now the only Ann Bridge I’ve got left to read sitting on my shelf is Peking Picnic. I have a few books that I so look forward to reading that I try to save them until I’ve read through some of the less-likely-to-please books I have waiting for me. Books I tend to save as a treat, besides the works of Ms. Bridge, are anything by Elizabeth von Arnim, and Persephones.

    1. Oh I am so delighted you have read Illyrian Spring and enjoyed it so much! I’d love to read Enchanter’s Nightshade – I have Singing Waters on my shelf to read next. I can understand you wanting to save Peking Picnic – it’s so hard to know you’ve read everything you can get your hands on of a certain author. I am not going to hurry to read Singing Waters because I want to know I always have an Ann Bridge in reserve. As you say – you need books saved up as treats!

  6. I feel so bad as I checked out Illyrian Spring on your recommendation before the Christmas holiday, began reading and was enjoying myself but as always with holidays got busy and sidetracked and it went back to it’s spot on the library shelves. We also have Peking Picnic (how lucky am I? We actually have seven of her books (a couple may be travel narratives?–there is no description on the books unfortunately as to the contents), and all I have to do is walk up two flights of stairs to get to them. I swear I am going to go and grab Illyrian Spring off the shelves on Monday and start all over again. This one sounds good, too! I love these sorts of books that are gentle reads but totally worthy and worthwhile!

    1. Danielle, how could you put Illyrian Spring back on the shelf?! Tsk tsk! I am so pleased you have access to her books at the library – what a great library you have! – and I hope you went and got Illyrian Spring back today! I am so certain you will adore it by the time you finish!

      1. How could I indeed! I went looking for it yesterday and it is Missing! I checked and everything else we own by her is in its proper place. I returned in early in February, so I have no idea what happened to it. I expect it is misshelved, and with thousands of books up there I wonder if it will ever surface. I brought home Peking Picnic instead, but of course I want to read Illyrian Spring…

  7. …oh, and good for you to try and bring them back into print. Have you tried Bloomsbury Press, too? And looking at our catalog, did you know (and I’m sure you did) that Anne Bridge is a pseudonym and she has other books under Lady Mary Dolling O’Malley? It looks as though she was quite prolific.

  8. I’d never heard of this author. This sounds wonderful, but of course my library hasn’t got it and neither has my bookshop. All the lovely books seem to be getting put back into print in Britain and not here!

    1. I’m glad you have heard of her now! I am certain you will love her but the trick is tracking her down. She’s totally out of print apart from when Capuchin Classics will reissue Peking Picnic in May so look out for that online! I’m sorry your library doesn’t have her – mine doesn’t either as anything pre 1999 doesn’t exist, apparently! Keep an eye out on ebay, she’s always got something going cheap on there!

  9. I’m just re-reading ‘Peking Picnic’ as I have loved Ann Bridge’s books for years. ‘Illyrian Spring’ is one of my all-time favourite books, one of my Desert Island books in fact, and I have a lovely signed copy. I also have a signed ‘Singing Waters’, another favourite.I too wish that her books were better known. Encouraging that there are to be re-issues.Signed copies are from the abebooks website. I still have many to read-I’m looking forward to them, her descriptions of places are so wonderful.
    Vivienne Rendall.

  10. I thought this was a great review. I think I will eventualy have to check it out after reading this.

  11. I agree that Ann Bridge should be better known. Her books are so intelligent, with wonderful descriptions of scenery and flowers. You long to see the places she describes. I confess I still have many of her books to read-the Julia Probyn series for example, of which I’ve read one. Firm favourites remain ‘Illyrian Spring’ and ‘Singing Waters’. I look to abebooks.com for the source of my books, and ‘New and Used’ on Amazon can be useful. I’ve recently acquired a book called ‘Portrait of my Mother’ which is semi-autobiographical. I long to see a picture of AB to see what she looked like. Google Images is no good. Can anyone help?

    1. Thank you for your comments, Vivienne! I’m glad you are another fan of Ann Bridge. I have only read Illyrian Spring and Peking Picnic so far, but I have Singing Waters at home, as well as The Lighthearted Quest. I have rationed myself as I find it so hard to come by cheap copies of her books!

      There was a photo of her on the back of the penguin orange paperback of Illyrian Spring – if you can find a copy of that you’ll find out what she looks like! I no longer have that edition so I can’t help I’m afraid!

  12. Thanks Booksnob-I’ll look for a copy. Do read ‘Singing Waters-it’s lovely. But it’s so nice to re-read the books!

  13. Booksnob-Just found a copy you mentioned on abebooks. With postage it comes to £25, but I’ve ordered it.It’s from the USA.
    Many thanks!

      1. Yes, it mentioned the photo on the back cover. I’m looking forward to receiving it.
        Vivienne.

  14. Is it true that the central character in ‘Peking Picnic’ is largly based on George Mallory with whos Ann Bridge had climbed Mont Blanc?

  15. I don’t know if the character in Peking Picnic was based on George Mallory but it is very possible.
    I’ve seen a terrific film in an Imax cinema about the discovery of George Mallory’s body in 1999 .I think he did get to the top of Everest.
    Vivienne Rendall.

  16. This is so pleasing, to find all this appreciation of Ann Bridge. The first one I read was Illyrian Spring, at school, in 1951, and I never forgot it. So much so, that in 1987 I persuaded my husband to take a trip from Italy down the coast of what was then still Yugoslavia to Dubrovnik, where the hotel was not only still standing, but still had much of its pre-war furniture.
    I have read just about all of the books over the years, mostly library copies, and collected some in recent years, but had no idea she was still so popular

  17. i just finished my second reading of peking picnic a few minutes ago and it leaves me feeling wistful and sad, especially since if laura was a real person she would be dead by now, making one wonder, what’s the point? this is a book that builds like a wave, at first it seems passably dull and mild in its interest but then as the wave gets closer to shore it starts to build. another book about china is Oil For The Lamps Of China, and both are very powerful. ann bridge by the way is a pseudonym for Mary O’Malley. she obviously was deeply familiar with all facets of chinese life at the time, whether from the point of view of the chinese themselves or from that of the colonials. i just wish i could visualize her descriptions.

  18. To all Ann Bridge fans,
    See the following link for what appears to be a photograph (and interesting information) of Ann Bridge with George Mallory!

    M Fillis
    Sydney, NSW,
    Australia

  19. The photo of Ann Bridge with George Mallory (without captions here), can also be viewed at the following link with some references to ‘Cottie Sanders’, ie: Ann Bridge:
    http://theesotericcuriosa.blogspot.com/2010/04/climbing-esoteric-book-shelf-wildest.html

    “At the time of Lytton’s visit, Mallory had befriended a vivacious young woman named Cottie Sanders – later the novelist Ann Bridge. She found him charming and considerate, but his uncertainty was plain.
    ‘My experiences of friendship are with my own sex,’ he told her in May 1911. ‘To confess the truth, I don’t much understand women and they make me feel like a mouse.’ Mallory’s relationship with Sanders helped him acquire the confidence with women he displayed in other aspects of his life. Three years later, his uncertainties were swept aside in a tumult of new emotions when he met Ruth, marrying her on the eve of the First World War. ‘It’s too, too wonderful that you should love me,’ he told her in one of his first courtship letters, ‘and give me such happiness as I never dreamt of.’ But it was a happiness which could not last.”

  20. Singing Waters was my first Ann Bridge novel, and since then I have read Julia Involved (includes three Julia Probyn novels: The Lighthearted Quest, The Portuguese Escape, and The Numbered Account). I am going to check our library today for Illyrian Spring and Peking Picnic. My only problem with reading Ms. Bridge’s novels is that I end up aching to travel to the location of each book (especially Albania, the setting of Singing Waters), and that is just not possible! Best wishes in your efforts to have her works republished.

    1. I’m always so delighted to hear from other Ann Bridge fans, Sherry! You may be interested to know that Illyrian Spring and Peking Picnic have both been recently republished in paperback and are widely available so do take advantage of that – Illyrian Spring is an especially beautiful edition published by Daunt Books. Oh I quite agree – I am desperate to go to Croatia after reading Illyrian Spring! And thank you for reminding me of Singing Waters…I have it waiting on my shelf and can’t wait to discover what’s inside!

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