Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse
Edited by Derek Sandhaus
Earnshaw Books. 336 pages, $39.99
SIR EDMUND BACKHOUSE (1873–1944) has long been considered one of the prime homosexual self-fantasists of the last century—as delusional and self-created as “Baron Corvo,” the pederastic social climber who appointed his fictionalized self as Pope in the novel Hadrian the Seventh (1904) and inspired A. J. A. Symons’s classic sleuth biography The Quest for Corvo (1934).
Yet some have always wondered: what if Backhouse’s reminiscences of gay life in Peking a century ago were based on the truth? Had he witnessed the many types of homosexual coupling indulged in in the ironically named hammam, “The Hall of Chaste Pleasures”? Had he also been serviced by the all-accommodating passive employees of the Peking Opera? What if he had been the kept boy of the last Dowager Empress (and was regularly penetrated anally by her outsized clitoris), as he had claimed in a late manuscript held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, entitled Decadence Mandchoue (1943)? Still others have argued that—notwithstanding the unlikelihood of Backhouse’s chief assertions—the manuscript remains a triumph of the embroiderers’ art: a fine piece of fiction.