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The Lacquer Lady (VMC) by F. Tennyson Jesse
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The Lacquer Lady (VMC) (original 1929; edition 1979)

by F. Tennyson Jesse (Author)

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1785131,949 (3.89)76
An account of a young girl who leaves Brighton for the Kingdom of Mandalay and Burma where she becomes the favourite of the Burmese Queen. When she falls in love the destiny of that magnificent kingdom is changed forever.
Member:luciavitrix
Title:The Lacquer Lady (VMC)
Authors:F. Tennyson Jesse (Author)
Info:Virago (1979), 384 pages
Collections:Your library
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The Lacquer Lady by F. Tennyson Jesse (1929)

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Two young women leave their Brighton boarding school to rejoin their relatives in Burma; Fanny Moroni- part Italian and part Anglo-Burmese- hopes to get access to the royal city on the strength of her father's trade connections. Agatha, meanwhile, is to join her missionary father...
But when King Mindoon breathes his last, one of his wives manipulates events to get her daughter - and the easily led Prince she has married- on the throne. In a series of huge massacres, all the rival royals are despatched...
Knowing nothing of Burmese history when I began, this was quite fascinating. As the French, Italians and Brits squabbled over the country, desperate messages to the British government from an imperilled diplomatic staff are largely ignored, as problems in other colonies take precedence.
The author really brings 19th century Mandalay to life. The characters- shallow, exuberant Fanny and the vaguely disatisfied High Church Agatha- are so vividly drawn. Excellent read. ( )
  starbox | May 21, 2021 |
I started reading this for Virago Reading Week a couple of weeks ago but have only just finished it now. It is my first F Tennyson Jesse and what a great introduction.

Tennyson Jesse is described as a criminologist, journalist and author. There is an interesting biography of her life here http://www.kemnal-road.org.uk/Pages/People/FTennysonJesse.html and she sounds like a character straight from a novel in her own right.

This was published in 1929 and is beautifully written. My copy is now flagged with lots of sticky notes and underlining of particular passages.

It is set in Burma in the late 19th century and gives an account of the reign of King Thibaw and his wife Supayalat. I don't normally go in for historical tales of royal courts but found this an intriguing account of colonialism, of male and female relationships and the pursuit of liberty - personal and national.

The author tells the story of court life - warts and all. There is a chilling account of massacres during King Thibaw's reign which rivals modern accounts of reigns of terror.

Ultimately what impressed me most about Tennyson Jesse's writing was its contemporary tone...there are of course many politically incorrect phrases reflective of the times but perhaps a quote will give you an idea of what I'm trying to convey....

"Lyric ecstasies ...why are we all brought up to expect them, why is the whole convention of the book world a convention accepted by the world of living beings, based on the idea that sooner or later life is transmuted by something wonderful that is supposed to make everything different? Life is never quite round like that...it's all sorts of funny shapes, not enough here, too much there...."

See what I mean?

It's not any easy read - the characters are challenging - but I couldn't put it down and I've been reading about the history of Burma ever since. ( )
2 vote alexdaw | Feb 6, 2011 |
The Lacquer Lady is set in 1870s and ‘80s Mandalay, in the time period leading up to the British takeover of Burma. Fanny Moroni is one part Italian, one part Burmese, who goes to school in England and returns to a country in a fair amount of turmoil. When King Mindoon dies, Thibaw becomes king, thus beginning rather disastrous seven-year period culminating with the British takeover of Burma and the ending of the Konbaung dynasty. Fanny enters into this sphere by becoming a lady-in-waiting to his Queen, Supaya-lat—who gives proof to the saying that behind every powerful man is an even more powerful woman.

At first, getting into this book was slow going—I wasn’t all that interested in Fanny’s time in England. The novel got much more interesting when Fanny and Agatha went to Burma, for it’s in Burma that Fanny really started jumping off the page. She’s not the most appealing main character I’ve ever read about (Supaya-lat is much more interesting, and I wish that the author had focused on her more), but she’s got a lot of gumption nonetheless. I enjoyed the contrast between Fanny’s exoticness and Agatha's typical Englishness.

What I especially loved about this novel were the author’s descriptions of Burma—it’s almost like a character itself. You really get a feel for the period in which the novel is set, and you get an idea of the relationships between the native Burmese and the kala (foreigners)—British, French, Italians, Americans, etc. F Tennyson Jesse, a great-niece of the poet, was a journalist, but she really had a talent for writing historical fiction as well. If you can get your hands on a copy of this novel, do; it’s a really smart fictional telling of one of the more important moments in Burmese history. It’s all the more remarkable considering that many of the people in this novel were real. ( )
2 vote Kasthu | Sep 2, 2010 |
Fanny was aware of what people were like ... she had a sensitiveness, within her limitations, to human beings, that amounted to a talent, whenever her judgment was not obscured by her personal wishes. She was aware that she knew what the three men in the room were like far better than did Agatha, who had been seeing them for several days past. She didn't think consciously about them, for her interest in human beings began and ended with her own relationships with them ... (p. 61)

Fanny Moroni, half Burmese and half European, was educated in England and returned to Burma as a young woman c.1880. These were the last years of the Konbaung Dynasty (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konbaung_dynasty), just prior to British rule. Fanny befriended a young princess, Supayalat, and found herself a regular guest at the palace. When the reigning king died, leaving no successor, Supayalat and her mother engineered the ascension of a minor prince,Thibaw, to the throne. Supayalat became his queen and Fanny was appointed the European Maid of Honour at court. Thibaw's rule was filled with violence and subterfuge, but Fanny was oblivious to all of this. She was too caught up in beautiful clothing and lavish parties. The political events swirling around her were understood only insofar as they affected her social life and luxuries.

Fanny's character was not unlike Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair: attractive, witty, and completely self-centered. And the more she immersed herself in court life, the more she lost touch with her European heritage and the French, British, and Italian friends living outside the castle walls. She even took action to benefit her personally, which brought disastrous consequences to others. A few years later she found herself alone, and getting older:

What had happened to her? I can't be old, not at twenty-six, though Fanny desperately, unaware that the swift doom of her Eastern and Latin blood was upon her. She only knew that somehow she had grown used to seeing herself in the pretty concealing Burmese dress, that this event of trying on a Paris frock for hte first time in two or three years had suddenly made her see herself with new eyes. Without her having noticed it, the glow and life which had been her chief charms were gone, and gone too was the suppleness that had been her chief beauty. (p. 287)

This was a sad state of affairs for Fanny, but I couldn't find much sympathy. I enjoyed the action and drama as political events unfolded, but the book didn't hold my interest as much as it would have with a more likeable protagonist. ( )
3 vote lauralkeet | May 29, 2009 |
Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse, Lord Alfred Tennyson's great niece, started her career as a journalist and was best known for her crime reporting and mystery novels. The Lacquer Lady then is a departure from her usual ventures. In this novel, she tells the story of the downfall of the Burmese kingdom in the 1880s. In her Preface to the novel, Jesse states, "To the late Rodway Sinhoe, expert in matters Burmese and 'the Father of the Mandalay Bar', I owe my first thanks, for it was he who told me the true story of the causes which led to the Annexation of Upper Burma --how it was 'Fanny' and her love affair, and not the pretext (justified as that would have been) of the Bombay-Burma Corporation that drove the Indian into action at last."

Fanny Moroni, the protagonist of the novel is introduced to the reader as a young girl, the daughter of an Italian father and Burmese/British mother, at school in Brighton. She is called back to Burma as her parents have found favor at the court in Mandalay. She is accompanied on her return trip by the daughter of a missionary, Agatha Lumsden.
The author contrasts the characters and social positions of the two young women. Fanny is described as a rather shallow, but vivacious, young flirt, who is dazzled by the court at Mandalay. Agatha's role is to be the comfort of her widowed father and a virtuous paragon for the British missionary community. She eventually marries her father's young assistant, Edward Protheroe.

Jesse had access to members of the European Burmese community, some of whom were intimate with court life, so the details and descriptions of the Burmese court during the reign of its last monarch, King Thibaw, are vivid and memorable. I found this glimpse into a long, lost world the most intriguing and valuable aspect of the novel.

The story of the downfall of King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat, as related by Jesse, is no doubt accurate to some degree, but it seems highly colored by a British colonialist bias. Oddly the characters of Fanny and Agatha are more described than enlivened. The one character who has a dimensional being is Edward Protheroe who actually ponders and considers the situations before him.

Given the current situations in the erstwhile British colonies of Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Pakistan -- this novel offers valuable historic insights into how we got here from there. ( )
7 vote janeajones | Mar 12, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
F. Tennyson Jesseprimary authorall editionscalculated
Colenbrander, JoannaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leighton, Lord FredericCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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This book is dedicated to Sir Harcourt Butler, G.C.S.I, G.C.I.E, with affection and gratitude
Frater, ave atque vale
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Nothing, thought Fanny, on board the S.S. Bengal, is like what you expect it to be.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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An account of a young girl who leaves Brighton for the Kingdom of Mandalay and Burma where she becomes the favourite of the Burmese Queen. When she falls in love the destiny of that magnificent kingdom is changed forever.

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Book description
"First published in 1929, this prodigious novel of adventure and romance matches the great tales of Kipling and Stevenson, Buchan and Maugham. Based on a true historical incident, The Lacquer Lady is set in the 1880s in the gem city of Mandalay during the last years of the opulent, decaying Kingdom of Burma. Into the Royal Palace, with its whispering gardens, its elaborate ritual, its savage violence, its intrigue, comes Fanny Moroni, the young daughter of a ne'er-do-well British merchant and a Burmese woman. Pretty, vain, impertinent, and brave--just back from a dull boarding school in Brighton--Fanny becomes the favorite of the Burmese queen, Supaya-lat. One critic observed that Fanny Moroni was a character 'good enough to take tea with Becky Sharp.' It is her dreams, 'bolder, cruder, more rapacious, more vivid' than those of other girls, that prove her ultimate undoing. Fanny's reckless love affair with Pierre Bonvoisin, a French adventurer, changes the destiny of the glittering Burmese kingdom, as well as her own." (from the back cover)
Back cover description:

First published in 1929, this prodigious novel of adventure and romance matches the great tales of Kipling and ZStevenson, Buchan and Maugham. Based on a true historical incident, The Lacquer Lady is set in the 1880s in the gem city of Mandalay during the years of the opulent, decaying Kingdom of Burma. Into the Royal Palace, with its whispering gardens, its elaborate ritual, its savage violence, its intrigue, comes Fanny Moroni, the young daughter of a ne'er-do-well British (sic: Italian) merchant and a Burmese woman. Pretty, vain, impertinent, and brave --just back from a dull boarding school in Brighton -- Fanny becomes the favorite of the Burmese queen, Supaya-lat.

One critic observed that Fanny Moroni was a character "good enough to take tea with Becky Sharp." It is her dreams, "Bolder cruder, more rapacious, more vivid" than those of the other girls, that prove her ultimate undoing. Fanny's reckless love affair with Pierre Boinvoisin, a French adventurer, changes the destiny of the glittering Burmese kingdon, as well as her own.

Born in 1888, Frymwyrd Tennyson Jesse, a great-niece of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, began a career as a journalist in 1911 and was one of the few women to report from the front during World War I. Of the nine novels she wrote, A Pin to See the Peepshow is perhaps the best known. She died in London in 1958.
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