29 NOVEMBER 1968, Page 15

Three voices


Mrs Beer's House Patricia Beer (Macmillan 36s) The Incense Tree Diana Hopkinson (Routledge and Kegan Paul 30s) Birdless Summer Han Suyin (Cape 35s) Mrs Beer's husband was a railway clerk, her house was a small red brick house in an outlying suburb of Exmouth. Her younger daughter's account of a small-town childhood conveys with pre-Raphaelite intensity the sensation of life in a matriarchate. The sensation was not painful, but it was unremitting. Mrs Beer did her duty in the state of life she had got herself into (she felt she had married beneath her) and did it with a swing. But her vitality was fun- nelled into her intentions. She had been a school-teacher, so her daughters must be school- teachers. She belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, so her husband must become a Ply- mouth Brother. An early memory of Mrs Iher's daughter was seeing her father bicycling off to be baptised by total immersion. 'It was a sum- mer evening, and he was carrying a change of clothes rolled up in a towel, an unpleasantly fraught version of some one going bathing.'

It takes the shock of adolescence to crack the detachment through which children observe their world. It takes a disciplined memory to recall those observations without falsifying them. Patricia Beer's recall of the Plymouth Brethren variety of religious experience rings true because she has the candour to remember enjoying as well as observing. Hymns, of course, are always enjoyable. There is an animal release in hymn singing. Of the hymns she quotes I myself particularly enjoyed:

`Twas vain for Israel bitten By serpents on their way' for the evocation (not however intended) of

serpents snatching a quick bite en route. But this small closed society of the Saved, positive of its salvation, faithful to its tenets with the faithfulness of those who go only to one grocer because he is the best grocer, also afforded a re- lease from the pressure of Mrs Beer's inten- tions by a reassuring mundanity, a kind of righteous going bathing—though her daughter is too loyal to say so outright. The truth giveth life: Mrs Beer's House oould be a trivial book, in fact, it is oddly enthralling.

Diana Hopkinson was born to the relative freedom of wealth. She learned customs, not conventions, she was not expected to become anything in particular, she was blessed with a mother who had a life of her own. But the sig- nificance of The Incense Tree is due to the fact that she was born a mischling, the child of a Gentile father and a Jewish mother, and had her predominant ancestry from a race which depends for its continuance on intellect, adapt- ability, sensibility, knowledge of the world, family connections and - the unquenchable Jewish talent of perceptiveness.

In intervals of schooling she was duly travelled about—to Belgium, to Italy, to Geneva, where the flower-beds had bloomed to order and she felt that 'everything was for the best in a wonderful Europe.' When she was nineteen she was sent to spend a summer in Munich on her own. It was 1931. ' "One day," said Frau Hey, "Hitler will come and take away my grand piano."' And one day 'I joined a group of students who were making a light- hearted demonstration outside the Braune Haus. We laughed at the Brown Shirts strutting out- side the building and mocked them by imitating the Hitler salute.' But this was a side-show affair among the riches Munich had to offer: the new art-form of films, Modernismus in decoration, Mozart evenings in the courtyard of the Resi-

denz, Palestrina in the Theatinerkirche, sailing, being looped the loop with, bathing by moon- light, love and new friends and freedom all round in the Davidsbiindlertanz of the Weimar Republic.

After Munich, Oxford, autumnal and unwel- coming, and -Lady Margaret Hall at the end of Norham Gardens 'like a railway terminus.' At a Labour Club dance her partner jolted her against a very tall young man—a German Rhodes Scholar whose name was Adam von Trott zu Solz. He proved to be disappointingly more serious-minded than her Munich com- panions ('When we stood on the steps, admir- ing the starry skies, he asked me if I had read the works of Jean-Paul'), she less single-minded than the Labour Club implied. But a laughing love grew into a perplexed triangle where the third party was Germany. His patriotism was filial and protective. He was appalled by the spread of Hitlerism, knew it must be com- bated, idealistically believed that it could be overcome. But the evil must be fought, the true Germany defended, from within. So, loving honour more, he went back to Germany.

Censorship froze their letters. Each time she visited him he was more uneasy, more with- drawn. They had to meet where he was not known. She must observe every regulation, or her landlady would be penalised for housing a Jewess. With an averted head he had to walk her past houses badged with the Yellow Star, walls daubed with Juden heraus. He kept to his purpose, was not suspected, had a position. `Adam made several journeys to England dur- ing the last summer before the outbreak of war. His movements and his objectives were wrapped in a secrecy which alienated many of his friends.' In 1944 he took part in the attempt on Hitler's life and was hanged. With her un- quenchable Jewish perceptiveness, she saw his fallacy and never lost her faith in him.

Birdless Summer is also by a mischling. Han Suyin, born Rosalie Chou, was the child of a Chinese father and a Belgian mother. It should be an interesting reminder to broad-minded whites that in China her European blood was her disgrace. In his kinder moments her young husband would overlook this. 'Your blood is Chinese, blood comes from the father, the mother is only a receptacle.' More often, he struck the face which was not adequately egg- like and submissive, and when they met his fellow officers or officials she was under orders not to speak, not even to agree, since he had a reputation to keep up and a career to make.

They met in 1938, returning to China on the same boat, she a medical student, he an army cadet, and as it then seemed to them to serve a China which at last held a promise of fight- ing back the Japanese invasion. The promise was Chiang Kai-shek, a leader, a spellbinder. Like his European counterpart, even to having Shirts (Chiang's were Blue), he was a fervent Nationalist. China must be saved, not by force of arms or private negotiations but by a mass return to Confucian ethics, a sacred pyramid of subserviences, of people knowing their places and paying their taxes, where from base to summit a woman's place was to be a receptacle. When Wuhan (placarded with Wuhan Must

Be Defended to the Last) was unobtrusively evacuated by the General Staff, the young couple went on to Chungking. Here there was ample time for the military cadet to polish his loyalty and climb his ladder; for his wife to practise calligraphy (calligraphy, for those who could write, was a national duty), to play mahjong with other wives, to whiten her husband's

gloves (white gloves were a military obligation) and to meditate (meditation' was in vogue: com- manders went off to meditate in temples) on the filth and starvation of that crowded strong- hold, the avarice and intrigue and fatuity of the official camp-followers who creamed it, and on the conscript troops roped together and driven on with whips to another inattentive defeat.

Two things saved her reason: visits to her uncle's house in Chengtu, traditional in cere- monials, family pieties, concubines; and spells of working as a midwife in the Chengtu Mis- sionary Hospital, untraditional in its en- deavours to save unwanted female babies froth being thrown away, ended with a mallet-blow, preserved long enough to be saleable as a slavey or a prostitute. 'Before this pitiless, pitiful un- ending story of suffering, my own dwindled into nothingness.'