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The Empress Letters

by Linda Rogers

What are the images conjured up by the city of Victoria? For me it’s tea at the Empress Hotel, a fairy-tale legislature, wonderful arts-and-crafts architecture, Butchart Gardens, and hanging baskets of flowers along the main streets. In other words, an improbably beautiful, unrealistic sort of place.

Linda Rogers’ historical novel, The Empress Letters, manages to capture all this fantasy and also reveal the darkly class-ridden, racist, and narcotics-driven substructure on which the fantasy rests. Rogers gets top marks for the atmosphere she creates; her plotting and characters, though, could have done with more substructure of their own.

The empress of the title is not, in fact, the city’s famous dowager hotel. Rather it is The Empress of Asia, one of the great oceangoing palaces of the early 20th century, on which our heroine, Poppy von Stronheim Mandeville, lounges about all day en route to Honolulu, Yokohama, and Shanghai, while typing a long, tell-all letter to her mysteriously vanished daughter, Precious. The purpose of this stately trip to Asia, in May of 1927, is to find Precious, who we learn early in the novel has a Chinese father. The self-deluded Poppy, on the other hand, doesn’t allow herself to figure this out until near the end of the novel; she would prefer to believe the girl’s father is Alec, the son of her beloved Scottish nanny, with whom she made love just once before he was shipped off to his death in the trenches of the Great War. In fact, paternity rests with Soong Chou, member of an influential Hong Kong family who came to Victoria ostensibly to work for Poppy’s mother as a chauffeur, but who is really there to further his family’s interests in the opium trade.

And that’s more or less all you need to know about the plot and characters of The Empress Letters. Just about everyone performs in a typecast manner, and with names like Poppy, Precious, Duffie, Beachie, and Boulie peppering the pages, it’s hard to settle down and start caring about what happens to them. One keeps hoping that, Fitzgerald-like, Rogers will slide us under the glittering surface of her Jazz Age mannequins, but it never really happens. The explanations for Poppy’s mother’s utter lack of maternal instinct, for instance, or for Soong Chou’s mysterious machinations, are hopelessly insufficient, and as for Poppy herself, she is given to conventional pensées such as “No effort guarantees immortality except giving life to the next generation.”

Instead of fictional depth, we get amusements. Celebrities drop in throughout the book’s pages – a sour-smelling but interesting Emily Carr, of course, since this is Victoria; an outrageously “out” Tallulah Bankhead, whom Poppy sleeps with in London and whom she regards as a feminist Boadicea; and a ludicrously domesticated Marc Chagall, whose studio is next door to Poppy’s in Paris.

The fact that Poppy’s family is Jewish (although this is never mentioned in the household) sets the tone for the casual racism and anti-Semitism that was rife in a small city like Victoria in the early 1900s. Even when anti-German feelings erupt in Victoria after the sinking of the Lusitania, Poppy’s mother doesn’t think it politic to inform her neighbours that her family is Jewish, not German. She knows which prejudice is more deeply embedded. As for the Chinese workers on which the city’s aristocrats rely for their lives of luxury, they are simply invisible when not ironing, cooking, or gardening.

On the manicured grounds of the von Stronheim mansion, there is an underground tunnel that the Chinese gardeners disappear into every night and re-emerge from every morning. When Poppy gets up the nerve to investigate, she discovers primitive bunk-rooms, as expected, but also a storage room filled with mysterious boxes. She begins to understand that not only the Chinese staff but also her mother are involved in the smuggling of illicit goods – first opium, and later liquor.

Victoria’s upper class at that time were, it seems, equal opportunity despots. Poppy notes that her Scottish nanny, Duffie, is not allowed to keep her son Alec with her on the grand premises of the stately home. She must farm him out to a working-class family, where she can visit him on Sundays. But at least Duffie could bring him to Canada: the male Chinese workers have no family life at all, although they keep up the pretense that they do by announcing that their wives in China have given birth (with the workers’ brothers who have remained back home “helping out”). Canadians today with an ounce of self-awareness know that such things happened – and doubtless still do – in our various refugee and immigrant communities, but Rogers is clearly privy to a great deal of specific detail on the subject, which she puts to good use in The Empress Letters.