I’ve just finished reading The Lacquer Lady by F Tennyson Jesse (first published in 1929). The novel is set in Mandalay in the 1880s and charts the fall of the Burmese royal dynasty and the annexation of Lower Burma by England. Jesse visited Burma in the 1920s, where she learned about the downfall of the kingdom and something of the people involved in those events. The book is beautifully written, and a profound study of passion and politics. There’s much in it that’s ripe for discussion, but one of the things that struck a particular chord with me was the way in which the Buddha and his followers are described.
In Jesse’s book the Burmese in general, and the Burmese royal family in particular, are characterized as children: “a nursery of vicious children…playing with toy soldiers, but with real lives, had become so vicious that the grown-ups had to step in and take charge”. The grown-ups are, of course, the British with their “bloodless conquest”. The Buddhists’ “religion of pessimism and humility” is juxtaposed with the “muscular” Christianity of the British missionaries. Buddhism is “a selfish creed. The good Samaritan might have passed on with a reflection on the transitoriness of human happiness had he been a follower of Gautama”. Their kindness is passive, not active and in fact leads to cruelty: injured animals are left to die in agony because “Buddhism forbade the merciful taking of their tortured lives”. On the other hand, it has “high ideals”. The Buddhists are not idolaters: they do not worship the Buddha and the images of him are only “to help the devout mind to concentrate on the idea of the Buddha, the just man made perfect.” But while the Buddha is “the just man made perfect” he is in Nirvana “wrapped away from the cries of suffering mortals”.
The depiction of the Buddha in British fiction is a subject that has interested me for many years, and in particular in what I call “early encounter” fiction, that is Victorian/Edwardian. Though there are earlier references (for example in Marco Polo or Daniel Defoe’s work), widespread interest in the Buddha coincided with the British occupation of India. It was the builders of Empire, the traders, explorers, soldiers and administrators, who brought back the first tales of the East; and the writers and artists who followed in their wake who translated these new experiences into art.
Indeed, the Buddha found his way into best-selling fiction. Mark M Hennelly has suggested that in The Moonstone Wilkie Collins uses the stolen gem to make a connection with The Diamond Sutra and oppose “Indian and Hindu transcendental values” against “the more materialistic and rational Victorian temper”. Mary Braddon, another sensation novelist, in her three-volume Vixen introduced the incomparable Miss Skipwith who is writing a book about the Buddha. This is “a tremendous manuscript on blue foolscap, a work whose outward semblance would have been enough to frighten and deter any publisher in his right mind”.
Grant Allen’s 1899 novel Hilda Wade: A Woman With Tenacity Of Purpose tells the tale of a group of British tourists in the Himalayas. Their Buddhist guide – villainous, sullen, furtive, scowling, shifty, cruel, sensuous and a half-caste into the bargain – leads them into Tibet to betray them to “Buddhist inquisitors”. Since “No Eulopean” is allowed into Tibet, these “Tibetan fanatics” sentence them to death. Luckily Miss Wade has studied Buddhism and despite some misgiving about idolatry her companions save themselves by following her lead and joining in the lamas’ “half magical ceremonies”: knocking their heads ostentatiously in the dust, “doing poojah, before the ever-smiling Buddha” and, since they don’t know any mantras, making up their own: “Hokey - pokey –winky - wum”. Having thus persuaded the Tibetan monks that they are Buddhists, their lives are spared.
From what I’ve read so far it seems there is reason to think that the earliest references to Buddhism in British literature betray, at best, fascination with the exotic and, at worse, hostility. There may have been a shift to a more sympathetic portrayal by the end of the nineteenth century, marked by works like The Light of Asia by Edwin Arnold – which I’ll be looking at in Books and the Buddha Part 2.
Hilda Wade: A Woman with Tenacity of Purpose by Grant Allen (London, G P Putnam, 1899) (available on Project Gutenberg)
Vixen by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (London, 1879, John and Robert Maxwell) (available on Project Gutenberg)
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (first published 1868) (London, Penguin Classics, 1981)
Detecting Collins’ Diamond: From Serpentstone to Moonstone by Mark M Hennelly Jr, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol 39, No 1 (Jun 1984) pp 25-47
The Lacquer Lady by F Tennyson Jesse (first published 1929) (London, Virago, 1979)