Historical Fiction

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Christopher New. (2013). Gage Street Courtesan. Hong Kong: Earnshaw Books.

Historical fiction is enjoying something of a revival in the twenty-first century. Like Hilary Mantel, the reigning doyenne of the genre, Christopher New brings the past into a historic present tense. The patient and meticulous imagination of the texture of the past provides the atmosphere on which his characters depend for the breath of life. In Gage Street Courtesan, history takes the form of two days in the late October of 1869, in the British colony of Hong Kong. In this time and in the streets and houses of the colony, the lives of half a dozen main characters intersect and collide in the pursuit of business, prestige, love and survival.

The Gage Street courtesan is Franziska Goldmann, a Jewish woman from Galicia whose ambitions as an opera singer have been encouraged, then exploited, by a sinister protector who has set her feet on the different path that has led her to Hong Kong to cater to European clients, along with other professional “single women” in Gage Street and Lyndhurst Terrace. The fate that awaits her at the end of the book was inspired by an actual scandal reported in the Hong Kong press of the period. Franziska’s lover is a romantic German anarchist who has fled Europe after 1848 and is now a ship’s captain and an unsuccessful swindler. Indeed the men in this story are not much to write home about. We also meet a Jewish procurer, a pathetic milliner’s assistant who has succumbed to what the Victorians called “ruin”, and a runaway mui tsai (this is colonial fiction: most of the Chinese characters are servants or background figures). Prince Alfred, nautical grandson of Queen Victoria, also makes an appearance, visiting the colony in command of a naval frigate, and seeming fleetingly to offer Franziska a way back to the more wholesome world of music and respectability which has been closed to her. The dashing of these hopes provides the story’s tragic climax.

Christopher New deftly controls the different strands of the narrative, every now and then gathering his main characters in review, before setting them off again in pursuit of their individual adventures and desires, across the city. Colonial Hong Kong in the 1860s is nicely evoked, an odd and not very attractive combination of the cosmopolitan and the provincial. The book is well researched and the detail seemed to me to carry conviction. The storytelling is cool, intelligent, a bit detached: Flaubert, who was writing at the time of the story, might have observed Hong Kong with a similarly unillusioned eye. Like Flaubert, Christopher New is unsentimental about his characters, while making very clear how, in a man’s world, the burdens of history bear down with especial cruelty on women. (DK)


 

 
 
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