Kate Furnivall

Sweeping romance. Sumptuous settings. Unforgettable adventure.

Historical Notes

Kate Furnivall on her Research Process

I am a fanatical note-taker! My problem is that I love doing the research too much. Once I get started, I can’t stop. I make hundreds of pages of notes, most of which I will never use, but they fill my head with the time and place I intend to write about. For The White Pearl I had to be so familiar with Malaya in 1941 that I could move with ease through the world I was going to create for Connie.

I devour everything I can lay my hands on that will expand my knowledge of the period, some fiction but mainly non-fiction. I adore memoirs. They are a rich vein of information because they provide the kind of intimate details that no historian would bother to record. These personal accounts are wonderful for helping me build the daily life of my characters. I get excited about discovering facts about a whole new subject – like the planting and milking of rubber trees. Nigel’s passion for them in the book was a reflection of my own. The temptation is to include too much research material, but I always keep in the forefront of my mind that the characters and plot have to come first.

I thank the Internet, Amazon and Google Books from the bottom of my heart. They give me access to facts and accounts that it would otherwise take me a lifetime to track down. Whatever the subject – the flying snakes of Malaya, the sail configuration of native trading boats, the placement of guns in Singapore or the address of General Percival’s headquarters – there is always someone out there who has written about it. I thank them all.

Where possible I also spend time in the country I am writing about, but I am cautious about doing so, because I can’t bear to see McDonald’s and Coca-Cola signs eclipsing the 1930s world I have conjured up in my head. But this is where old film footage and old photographs are invaluable. Often a photograph, curling at the edges, will tell me more than any number of books.

One of the problems of living with research notes is that the facts and places become so fixed in my own mind that it is easy to forget how much the reader does – or doesn’t – know about the period. The city of Darwin in Australia is a case in point. I refer to it at the end of The White Pearl, because, as a strategic military port, it was savagely bombed sixty times between February 1942 and November 1943, causing great devastation and killing many inhabitants. A dangerous time for everyone.

Excuse me now. Time to burrow in to Howard Carter’s account of his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen.


INTERVIEW WITH KATE FURNIVALL about the history and family background of her novel


Interview by Elke Kreil 

Kate Furnivall, you are English but your mother came from White Russia. When she was 2-years old she had to flee after the communist revolution in 1917. She escaped to China. When did the idea arise of writing a novel inspired by her childhood experiences?

It was when my mother died in 2000 that I wrote down the story of my mother’s life for the rest of my family. I have three brothers and sisters and we all remembered different tales she’d told about her childhood, so I wanted to gather them all together for the family to enjoy. It was such a great story, I just couldn’t walk away from it. Initially I intended to follow her path to India as well, but I quickly realised that I would be cramming too much into one book and losing the tension. So I decided to keep the story in China. But I must emphasise that though the setting is real, the story is complete fiction. The Lydia in the book is not my mother.

Did your mother like talking about her experiences in China?

My mother was much younger than the fictional Lydia when she lived in China (aged 2 – 8 years old), so her memories of the country were less clear than her later memories of India. But she used to talk with enthusiasm about the markets, the acrobats, the noise, the buddhist priests with their bells and especially about the wonderful songbirds everywhere in tiny bamboo cages. But even at that young age she was very aware of the segregation between the Western and Chinese peoples. They did not mix socially, never invited a Chinese person into a Western home or a Western person into a Chinese home. Any socialising that was required for trading or political purposes was done in clubs and bars, on neutral territory.


Kate's grandmother: Valentina

What did the country mean to her?

The main emotion my mother felt towards China was one of gratitude. It gave a safe haven to her mother and herself when they were refugees, homeless and stateless. And she never lost her great love of Chinese artefacts, the porcelain and the carved ivory.

Central to your book is the love story between between 16-year old Danish-Russian Lydia and 19-year old Chinese Chang An Lo. Are there any models in your mother’s life for the love story between Lydia and Chang?

No, there are no models for the love story between Lydia and Chang An Lo. It is pure fiction. But I was always aware that my mother felt an outsider in Britain, not having grown up here, and so I saw at first-hand a person trying to bridge a gap, and the emotional cost of it.

Where exactly is Junchow the setting of your novel situated?

Junchow is a fictionalised version of Tientsin (now Tianjin) in northern China. Originally I tried to use Tientsin itself and did a lot of research on the city, but eventually I decided to create a town of my own. It would be safer – no one to dispute or object to the events that take place in Junchow.

In Junchow there is an International Settlement where British, French, Russian and other foreigners live – separated into national districts. Could you tell us more about these International Settlements in China?

The International Settlements were a thorn in China’s side. They were forced on China by the Western powers. Early trade with China was so profitable to the Western powers that they wished to expand it, but China refused. Great Britain was determined to increase commerce, so provoked the First Opium War (1839-1842) which gave Britain the opportunity to enforce a punitive treaty on China, The Treaty of Nanjing, after their gunboats and army had subdued China’s resistance. The treaty opened up 5 Treaty Ports to trade, in which zones were established for foreign residence that enjoyed extraterritoriality – which was the right to be subject to the laws of their home nation rather than the laws of China. Also the Europeans demanded 21 million dollars in compensation!

But the Western powers were greedy and wanted more, so this led to the Second Opium War (1856-1860) which the West again won and again imposed a severe treaty, The Treaty of Tientsin and The Convention of Peking. These conceded 11 more ports and forced China to open up its country to greater Western access. All this began a long history of bitter Chinese resentment which led eventually to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 that brought even more batallions of British and other foreign troops to Chinese soil.

The International Settlements varied in size, with Shanghai being the largest. They were quite small but had a large impact. They had their own consulates, offices of business, courts, police forces, fire-services, administration and military security. Larger Settlements like Tientsin had race courses, expensive clubs, public parks and well-kept streets, a sharp contrast to the Chinese cities where these things were rarely available. Settlements were run by Municipal Councils made up of numerous national representatives from countries such as Austria-Hungary, Belgium, France, Great Britain, Italy, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, the United States, Russia and Japan.

But the ‘Foreign Devils’, as they were called, made up only a small percentage of the residents of an International Settlement. Shops, restaurants, businesses, servants and lowly officials in the administration and police force were all manned by Chinese who often lived in the Settlement. But they were regarded very much as lower class citizens, not allowed in European clubs and parks, and could be evicted at any time. One of the reasons the Communists found followers so readily was that they swore to kick the hated foreigners out of China. And who can blame them?

In your novel trading is enormously important. Again and again people bargain over goods and services and conduct, and even over lives. In your eyes what makes a good trade and what makes a bad trade?

In the volatile world of China in 1928 you took what you could in order to survive. Lydia, Valentina, Chang, Theo and Feng all enter into trading agreements that they believe will gain them what they want. But always at a cost. But it’s a cost they are willing to pay at the time. Valentina and Theo make the most ill-thought out trade agreements with Mason and Feng, trades that threaten to ruin their lives.

To some extent we all trade each day in our daily lives. We compromise. We accept one thing in exchange for another: a job for a salary, a debt for a house or a car, a partner for loss of freedom, a cream cake for an extra kilo on the hips. Each day we are all mini versions of young Lydia bargaining with Mr Liu!

Chinese people are masters at trading and their code of honour binds them to the bargain. How did the Europeans behave?

When it came to trading, the Europeans had strong conventions and expectations of behaviour, especially the British who possessed a very rigid moral outlook on what was ‘decent’ and what was not. A ‘decent’ person did not ‘welsh’ on a bet, his ‘word was his bond’, if he shook hands on a deal, it was as good as a written contract. If a man broke these conventions he was shunned by society.

But this did not apply when dealing with ‘natives’. The British regarded the Chinese as terrible liars who could not be trusted. But what the British didn’t understand was that lying to you was part of the Chinese way of helping you to save ‘face’. When you ordered something in a shop or arranged for a man to come to do a job for you, if you said, ‘I want it on Monday’, the tradesman would smile and say, ‘Yes,’ even though he knew it wouldn’t be possible until the following Friday. To say ‘No’ to you would be rude because it would make you lose face. So what the English saw as lying, the Chinese saw as politeness. This kind of misunderstanding was common in their dealings with each other.

Lydia likes trading as well. For her it is part of surviving, like stealing and lying. How does Valentina influence Lydia´s dubious strategies of survival?

Valentina’s own lifestyle, though not in any way illegal, is dissolute and offers Lydia no role model for making her way in life with hard work and a regular, if boring, job. Her selfishness and laziness lay a heavy burden on her daughter’s shoulders which encourages her to thieve out of desperation.

Is Valentina a good mother?

No, Valentina is a terrible mother. She sets a bad example in behaviour and gives her daughter nothing to see her through the agonies of poverty and teenagehood and the bewildering sense of being an outsider. She does not attempt to initiate the girl into the correct nuances of behaviour in a rigid society. She handicaps her by refusing to teach her Russian and bans her from seeing the Russian family who could introduce her to her country’s past glories, which might give the pride in herself she so sorely lacks.

But at the same time she adores Lydia. She introduces her to the one thing she cares about – her music and piano-playing, letting the girl inside her own private world. Despite the poverty she tries to make their home a whirl of vibrancy and colour, so that Lydia will not find life dull and boring, the ultimate sin in Valentina’s eyes. To open up the future for Lydia, she destroys her own present. And when she finally marries Alfred, it is as much for her daughter as herself. So yes, she is a terrible mother in the conventional sense. But the love she gives her child is extraordinary. And it prepares Lydia’s young heart for the equally extraordinary love when she meets Chang An Lo.

Kate's grandmother, mother and grandfather: Valentina, Lily and Jens

Kate's grandmother, mother and grandfather: Valentina, Lily and Jens

When Valentina decides to marry Alfred Parker, a British journalist, the tensions sharpen between Lydia and her mother. Would you agree that these tensions are typical of a conflict between generations?

The relationship between Valentina and Lydia is very intense. They only have each other in the whole world. For Lydia to lose Valentina to Alfred is like losing part of herself and abandoning her dream that she would be the one who would one day rescue her mother from her misery. She also views the marriage as the ultimate rejection of her father, Jens Friis.

What role does Chang An Lo play in the development of Lydia´s personality?

Chang An Lo’s influence on Lydia is overwhelming. Until her involvement with him, she had scrabbled to survive at a basic subsistance level of both mind and body. But Chang An Lo opens up a whole new world to her. The world of ideas and ideals. He shows her how to believe in more than just yourself, and in doing so, she starts to grow and mature, to look around at society with new eyes. He also convinces her that one person can make a difference, however great the opposition, and through this understanding she acquires a self-respect she has never before possessed, as well as a greater respect for others.

After getting to know Chang An Lo and his political conviction Lydia calls her white rabbit Sun Yatsen – in memory of the so-called ‘father of nation’. Which political idea does the name symbolise for Chang?

Chang An Lo sees Sun Yat-sen as the saviour of China, in the same way Alfred Parker worships and emulates Jesus Christ. Sun Yat-sen stood for the introduction of justice in society, greater rights for peasants to prevent exploitation by landlords and greater equality for workers in towns. The Republic, led by Sun Yat-sen, banned the position of mandarins who were all-powerful mini-gods in each district, and started the negotiations to rid China of the hated Foreign Devils and the iniquity of International Settlements. To Chang he was an inspired and inspiring leader but after his death in 1925 when Chiang Kai Shek took over as leader of the Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang, the high ideals were betrayed. Therefore it was to the Communists that Chang An Lo turned for ideals. It was Mao Tse Tung who was holding high the flame of truth and justice that Sun Yat-Sen had lit, and it was to Mao that Chang committed his soul.

In your novel there is a clash of cultures and civilisations. Some people are rigid representatives of strictly defined values and life-forms, others however are trying to act as intermediary and are searching for adjustment. Theo Willoughby for example tries to impart tolerance and a knowledge of Chinese history and mentality to his pupils. But ultra conservative Christopher Mason is putting enormous pressure on Theo Willoughby. What makes Theo so interesting for you, that he became one of the most important minor characters for the plot?

Most of the story is told through the eyes of Lydia and Chang, but I wanted a cooler, older pair of eyes which would give a more mature outlook on the events that were unfolding. He also is able, with a foot in both camps, to present to the reader the world of the British colonials – their Club, their gatherings, their ambitions, attitudes and exploitations. But he also, through Li Mei and her father, Feng, gives an insight into the true life of China, its customs and rules, its opulence and its poverty, and above all, its power-plays and secret societies. Theo is the spy in both camps, and both camps regard him with suspicion because his loyalty is to neither.

He, like Lydia, is isolated. But the difference is that he has deliberately chosen that position in an attempt to flee the history of his own family, whereas Lydia had it forced on her by the actions of others. But by choosing Chang An Lo, she is perpetuating her situation of ‘outcast’, just as Theo did by chosing Li Mei. Theo sees himself as a force for good, for peace, for greater tolerance and understanding. Yet in his own way he is actually deepening the antagonism between the races. He angers the powerful figure of Feng and his son Po Chu, making them hate the foreigners even more intensely. And by becoming involved in the opium trade he is contributing to the downfall of the country he loves.

It was this level of complexity and contradiction in Theo Willoughby, that drew me to him as a character.

Valentina deeply hates the communists and glamourises the tsardom. After her flight she neglects everything that is Russian, she does not even teach Lydia her mothertongue. How did your mother deal with her Russian heritage?

This is the astonishing part. We grew up with the stories of China and India, of the desertion by her Danish father and her mother’s remarriage to an Englishman, but what she omitted to mention was that her mother was Russian. So we knew nothing of the flight from Russia or the fear and isolation they suffered. As my mother spoke with a perfect English accent, we naturally assumed she was English and that her parents had travelled to China for business reasons.

But there were clues. Looking back, I can see odd indications. She could count in Russian and taught us to do so as children. She could sing a Russian lullaby, and while the rest of the world was painting Russia as the demon threat to world peace, she would always sigh at the mention of the Soviet Union and say, ‘Poor Russia’, the way you would for a wayward child you loved. Then when I was a teenager I decided out of the blue to learn Russian in an evening class at Cardiff University because I loved languages. To my surprise my mother chose to join me in it. This was extraordinary behaviour, as she was not academic, and yet her ability to get her tongue round the unfamiliar words was the best in the class. Still none of us thought it strange. We were used to unconventional behaviour from her. It was not until 1988 when she was 73 that she told me the truth. I was going through her old photographs with her, writing the names and dates on the back of them, so that future generations would know who they were, and as I wrote ‘Valentina and Lily’ on the back of one, she said, ‘I used to be called Lydia at that time’. Then the truth about her Russian ancestry came tumbling out. She had been so ashamed of the fact that she and her mother were penniless refugees in China that she hugged her secret close in the dark where no one could see it. When she found that the family was fascinated by this remarkable discovery, she talked a lot about her Russian past, about the flight on the trans-Siberian railway through Omsk and Irkutz. It was as if a wound had at last healed.

Kate's grandmother and mother: Valentina and Lily

Kate's grandmother and mother: Valentina and Lily

How important was it for your sense of your own identity to write The Russian Concubine?

When I began to write the book I had known for 15 years that I was part-Russian, but it was only when through my research I learnt much more about Russia and its people that I understood a little of what it means to be Russian. We define ourselves by what we have come from. I like to think I have inherited my passion for life from my Russian forbears, and my survival instincts from Lily and Valentina. And the thought of my great-grandparents waltzing in the exquisite salons of St Petersburg or walking under the chandeliers of the Hermitage and the Winter Palace gives me a thrill and a sense of belonging to a much wider world.

Would your mother like the idea of a novel inspired by her life?

I think not. She was always generous and would have been overjoyed at giving me a story that has proved such a success. But she would have been shy of having it public knowledge that the story was based on her life. The fact that Lydia in the book is such a devious character would have upset her. Lily, my mother, was always ‘honourable’, whereas Lydia is not. So why have I done it? Because I am proud of my mother, of her Russian heritage, of how she coped with adversity and what she achieved in her life. Also it must be remembered that The Russian Concubine is a work of fiction. It is not the story of Lily’s life.

‘You have to survive for a reason’, Lydia says at the end of The Russian Concubine. What did your mother use to help her survive, and what could be a ‘reason’ for you in a comparably desperate situation?

Though my mother was a quiet, shy person, from an early age in the hated convent in Calcutta she learnt to grit her teeth in the face of adversity and just keep going. There was a determined stubbornness in her soul that refused to be beaten. And the love of her mother burned like a beacon in her heart. But also stories, music and art were her refuge from loneliness throughout her life. When she found herself an outsider, first in China, then in India and finally in England, she turned to anything beautiful for comfort. She instilled in all her children the importance of courage and self-respect, so that these qualities are now a deep and integral part of my sense of self. Moral or physical cowardice was always to be despised. I can’t imagine ever reaching a point where I could let go of that belief. It would always keep me fighting to survive.

But love is also a fundamental reason for survival. Love of someone, of one’s family. Or of an ideal. It is like girders round the soul; it gives you strength. But also love of life. That is what I wanted to show with Lydia and Chang An Lo in The Russian Concubine.