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!