Friday, January 13, 2012

More on The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

Great insights, my dears! I do hope some more of you join in. May I freshen your tea? Plump the pillow behind you?

I too enjoyed this book, particularly the chemistry between Mary and James. I was sad to hear he was heading off to India at the end, but it seems maybe something will change his mind. Hm.

And I look forward to reading the subsequent books to see how Mary resolves her conflicts with her heritage. I didn’t know a lot about Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century, so I did a little poking around (ah, research, thy sultry call never faileth!). While Chinese people had visited England since the 1600s, the first significant number of immigrants settled in the early nineteenth century, particularly in London’s Limehouse Reach along the Thames. They were largely sailors, and many worked for the East India Company. One of their number, who went by the Anglicized name of John Anthony, took on the role of ambassador between the immigrants and the Company and amassed a fortune in the process. He was the first Chinese man to be naturalized as a British citizen, supposedly through an Act of Parliament. Another Chinese man was graduated from Edinburgh University with an MD in 1855. The first Chinese minister to Britain arrived in 1877.

So if the Chinese were wealthy and educated, why did Mary cringe at admitting her background? Perhaps these chilling words from The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review, Volume 4: July through December, 1878, edited by Sir James Knowles, will show the depth of the prejudice against the Chinese:

“The Chinese are, by common ascent of all Western nations, pronounced to be an eccentric and impractical race. . . . Summarize the charges brought against Chinese immigrants by those most nearly interested, namely, British Colonists and United States citizens and these may be stated as follows: --they are pronounced to be the scum of the population of the worst districts of China; they migrate without their families, and the few women they import are shipped under a system of slavery for the vilest purposes; they introduce their own bizarre habits and ideas, and studiously eschew all sociability with colonists of other races; they outrage public opinion by hideous immoralities; they ignore or defy judicial and municipal institutions; they form secret and treasonable associations amongst themselves; they manage to afford, by their low and miserable style of living, to undersell and under work white men as mechanics, labourers, and servants; they fail to take root in the soil, making it their aim always to carry home their gains to the old country.”

What ugly rhetoric! The article does attempt to rebuke these attitudes or suggest ways to counter them. Note that the same volume has an article on why the women’s movement might bring about the downfall of society.

Either way, you go, Mary!

Another question for you to ponder: Why do you think the leaders of the Agency chose Mary? What skills would you need to be a good spy in the nineteenth century? Do you think you would make a good addition to the Agency?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I would love to be part of the Agency. I would like to think that if I were alive during that time that I would find more to life then needlepoint and the TON. I really liked Mary and I love how the author showed you how much potential she had in the scene where Anne and Mrs. Fame are asking her details about the room they are in, their jewelry etc when she first joins the agency. I think she is quite an interesting character especially with her half chinese heritage. Love love love the book. Sorry for the delay in response.