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About the Author of A Marriage in China

Mrs Archibald Little (Alicia Bewicke)

Alicia Helen Neva Bewicke was born in Madeira in 1845. She spent her childhood abroad, later returning to England, where her first novel, Flirts and Flirts; or, A Season at Ryde (1868), was published when she was only 23. Its general tone - an entertaining send-up of the marriage market - suggests that Alicia Bewicke was more interested in the social round as the source of material for her novels than she was in finding a husband.

Alicia Bewicke, writing as A E N Bewicke, produced another nine novels over the next seventeen years, all of them centring around the theme of the position of women in a society where women’s work consisted chiefly of finding someone to marry them and men had little occupation other than simply being ‘gentlemen’. Even the slightest of these novels - all now out of print and largely forgotten - emphasises the importance of meaningful work for both men and women, and those of her characters who are not searching for this are destined to empty, meaningless existences.

Alicia Bewicke’s novels vary in complexity of plot and characterisation, but they are rarely the predictable tales of life and love that might be expected from a Victorian lady novelist. Often witty or sarcastic, they sometimes contain a surprisingly dark edge. Her works always neatly sidestep melodrama, offering instead romances that do not have a happy ending, tragedy that is all the more effective for being understated, and amusingly barbed commentaries on upper-class English social life. Many of the stories take place in foreign settings, suggesting that the author travelled a great deal.

The last of her novels from this period - Mother Darling (1885) - is the most polemical. It has sometimes been believed that the story of a young woman who loses her children when her husband absconds with his mistress was based on the experience of her eldest sister. This is extremely unlikely, however, as her sister married after the book's publication and did not have any children. The novel ends with a plea for a reform in the laws concerning the rights of married women, and a statement that ‘the story is true’.

In 1886, at the age of 41, Alicia Bewicke married Archibald Little (1838-1907), a long-term resident of China and a successful businessman. He was the first to navigate the Yangtze by steamship in 1898, and, like his wife, he was also to become a noted writer on China, with a number of non-fiction titles to his name, including Through the Yangste Gorges: Or Trade and Travel in Western China (1888).

When Alicia Little arrived in China in 1887, she was based at first in Chungking, in the far west of the country, and so did not lead the life of a typical expatriate wife in a large city. She studied Chinese, taught English, took up photography, and travelled extensively with her husband up and down the Yangtze river, visiting parts of the interior of China not normally accessible to foreign women other than missionaries. She also made the effort to get to know Chinese families, whose domestic lives interested her greatly, and made a study of the Chinese political and education systems.

She began publishing again in the mid-1890s, this time writing as Mrs Archibald Little. She produced ten books about China during her twenty-year stay in the country, three of them novels. The first, and best, of the novels was A Marriage in China (1896). It features two strongly drawn central protagonists - Lilian Grey and her missionary cousin, Mrs Betterton - and a large cast of memorable supporting characters, including a child prodigy; a silly but kind-hearted former missionary; a clutch of destructively spiteful ‘company wives’, slightly mad up-country consuls, and language-obsessed sinologues; and a host of government men, tea-tasters, horse racers, gamblers, and expatriate husband-hunters.

As in her earlier books, she uses the novel to explore women’s work, and also aims her barbed wit at expatriates who do not get to know the country in which they are guests. Most importantly, she looks at attitudes towards race, exposing in particular the hypocrisy displayed by expatriates towards the offspring of expatriate men and Chinese mothers, and the cruelty of the Eurasian schools in insisting that the children be separated from their mothers before they can be accepted for schooling. Only the most sincere missionaries escape her criticism, and even then she makes it fairly clear that she doubts they are actually doing any good.

This second phase of Alicia Little’s writing career coincided with a period in which she began to campaign vigorously against the Chinese custom of footbinding. In 1895, she and a group of other expatriate women founded the Tien Tsu Hui (pinyin: Tian Zu Hui), or Anti-Footbinding Society of China, with Mrs Little elected its first president. Until then, anti-footbinding had been largely a missionary effort, and Mrs Little was determined to establish an organisation that was not aligned with the Christian missions and would therefore be more widely influential.

The Society began by producing anti-footbinding tracts translated from English into Chinese. A number of Chinese officials immediately joined the cause, contributing tracts written in Chinese. Poems by Chinese women about their experiences of footbinding were also published, and the Society tried to gain the support of the Empress Dowager and the Emperor by sending them a petition, or memorial, in a silver casket. It is not known whether the Imperial family ever received this, but the Society was at least able to circulate copies of the petition amongst the public.

Mrs Little spoke all over the country to gatherings of Chinese officials and the general public, persuading a growing number of men to sign a pledge renouncing the custom. In 1900, she managed to enlist the support of the widely respected and influential Canton viceroy Li Hung-chang, which undoubtedly helped the cause.

The Society was handed over to a committee of Chinese women in 1908 and ceased to function shortly after that, its work at an end as the custom fell into widespread disfavour and was outlawed.

The Littles left China in 1907 and returned to Britain. Archibald Little died in Cornwall the following year, and his widow moved to London. She died on 31 July 1926, at the age of 81, after a full and active life as a writer, traveller, and social reformer.

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Click here to read about the Historical Background to A Marriage in China.

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Links
Anti-Footbinding
An article from the Shanghai Star [an English-language Shanghai newspaper] outlining the anti-footbinding campaign in China, in which Mrs Little’s contribution is mentioned.

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Books
Bewicke, Honoria. Tapestry of a Life. Devon: Merlin Books Ltd, 1992.

Cameron, Nigel. Barbarians and Mandarins. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Croll, Elisabeth. Wise Daughters from Foreign Lands: European Women Writers in China. London: Pandora, 1989.

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Alicia Little’s Publications

As A E N Bewicke:

Flirts and Flirts; or, A Season at Ryde. London: Richard Bentley, 1868.

Love me for my Love. London: Richard Bentley, 1869.

One Foot on Shore. London: Richard Bentley, 1869.

Lonely Carlotta. London: Bentley & Son, 1874.

Onwards! But Whither? A Life Story. London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1875.

Margery Travers. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1878.

Miss Standish; and By the Bay of Naples [published together in three volumes]. London: F V White & Co, 1883.

Mother Darling. London: Field and Tuer, The Leadenhall Press, 1885.

One further novel, The Last of the Jenninghames, was mentioned in Mrs Little’s obituary in the Times, but this is an error: the English Catalogue of Books for 1872-80 lists it as a two-volume work written by E H Bewicke and published by Skeet in 1873. There is no trace of this title in any library catalogue.

As Mrs Archibald Little:

My Diary in a Chinese Farm. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1894.

A Marriage in China. London: F V White, 1896.

Intimate China: The Chinese as I have Seen Them. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1899.

The Land of the Blue Gown. London: T Fisher Unwin, 1902.

Out in China. London: Anthony Treherne & Co, 1902.

Li Hung-chang: His Life and Times. London: Cassell & Co, 1903.

A Guide to Peking. Tientsin: Tientsin Press, 1904.

Round about my Peking Garden. London: T Fisher Unwin, 1905.

A Millionaire’s Courtship. London: T Fisher Unwin, 1906.

Fairy Foxes, a Chinese Legend [a recounting of a Chinese tale]. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, undated.


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