Frances Osborne has written two biographies and one novel, all of which are set in the first half of the twentieth century. The biographies, of which this is the first (2004), are both about ancestors of hers, in this case her great-grandmother. She seems blessed with interesting relatives.
Osborne’s great-grandmother, Lilla was born in 1881 in what the English who settled there called Chefoo – now called Yantai, in Shandong province of China – then a treaty port, the origins of which Osborne explains in detail. Indeed, the whole story is a fascinating blend of events in Lilla’s life and events and processes in the wider world. Lilla, who was 102 when she died, lived in China, India and England during the Boxer rebellion, the First World War, the great depression, the rise of Hitler, the Japanese invasion of China, World War II, and the Communist victory in China. Osborne does a good job of succinctly inserting the relevant information into the story of Lilla’s life. This she presents as an ongoing series of obstacles to be overcome in terms of both circumstances and relationships, with an underlying drive to compete with her identical twin sister Ada.
The centrepiece of the story is the cookery and household hints book, now lodged in the Imperial War Museum in London, that Lilla wrote while interned in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. In both freezing and boiling temperatures, and often nearly starving, she wrote out on an upright typewriter (the mechanics of which Osborne explains for those too young to have experienced them) hundreds of recipes for the food that she had loved in her life before the war – Lilla’s feast. Some are recipes for Chinese and Indian dishes, but most of them are for traditional English fare, including hearty roasts, delicate sandwiches and cakes and desserts that were as far from her current existence as can be imagined. How she found the strength to do this is amazing and heart-warming. It’s a book which ‘makes you believe that if you could fill your mind with a cream cake or anything delicious then you could transform the bitterest experience into something sweet and shut out the things you needed to forget.’
Osborne has used a variety of evidence in putting this story together. Not much of it comes directly from her great-grandmother, though there are documents and photos that provide the bare bones of her story. There are some official records. Not surprisingly, given that their families were scattered across the British Empire in India and China, many of Lilla’s relatives were copious letter writers, and some of these have survived. Letters between the twin sisters, though there must have been literally thousands of them, have not. Relatives and friends provided recollections. And though Lilla rarely mentioned her time in the internment camp, other inmates have written accounts that explain what it must have been like for her.
But for all that, there are gaps in the story, as Osborne readily admits. There are many times when she has to resort to how Lilla ‘must have’ or ‘would have’ felt, and to what she ‘perhaps’ thought or did. ‘I have had to deduce how it must have felt to Lilla to be in a certain place, at a certain time,’ she writes. ‘I closed my eyes and could almost see and hear what must have happened to her. Could imagine what she might have thought and felt.’ Well maybe. We know that biography always has an element of fiction to it, and here that element is larger than usual. Osborne also heightens the tension, and supports her version of Lilla’s life as a roller costa by alluding to future problems ahead, so there are phrases like ‘little did Lilla realize’, and mention of ‘the terrifyingly high hurdles yet to come’. In such ways, Osborne makes it her own story, as well as Lilla’s.
Is it only because Frances Osborne is the wife of George Osborne, British Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, deeply unpopular because of his enthusiastic dismantling of the British welfare state, that I am questioning the narrative template she has applied to her great-grandmother’s life? Outside of the known facts, Osborne can, of course, present her great-grandmother any way she chooses. But by emphasising her as a homemaker and hostess, someone with a love of food and entertaining within the expatriate community, Osborne precludes the idea that Lilla could be seen as a colonialist trespasser on Chinese sovereignty, an exploiter of China’s people and resources. Presumably Lilla didn’t think of herself like that; Osborne certainly doesn’t credit her with much geopolitical insight, writing for example that ‘It didn’t occur to her that the treaty ports might simply cease to exist’. Osborne explains her various returns to China, and stubborn refusal to leave, as attachment to the land of her birth, and the location of the fruits of her enterprise. They could equally be seen as a blinkered and ignorant clutching after money and status in the face of circumstances that common sense might suggest could only end in disaster. Still, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and maybe no one could reasonably have been expected in 1939 to see the repercussions of the Japanese invasion of China, or in 1949 to have understood the implications of a Communist victory against the Kuomintang. It is in many ways a lovely book, especially if you turn Lilla’s life into ‘something sweet’ and ‘shut out the things you needed to forget.’
You can read more about Frances Osborne and her work here.