Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Empress Letters

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The Empress Letters

Cormorant Books, 2007

In a series of letters written while on board the Empress of Asia, en route from Victoria to Shanghai, Poppy von Stronheim Mandeville explains the secret history of her family to her daughter, Precious. From the activities of her opium and rum smuggling mother, to the truth behind Precious’ conception, Poppy must unravel the secrets that her mother kept from her, and that Poppy has until now kept from Precious. A world of lies, etiquette and whispers, The Empress Letters shows both the fantasy and dark reality of Victoria in the early 20th century.


From The Empress Letters:

Letter to Herself by Poppy von Stronheim Mandeville, mailed from the Empress of Asia, May 12, 1929:

Once, when I was at a dinner party at a posh London Club, I went to the marble and gold ladies powder room and found a baby in the toilet. It was a foetus curled up like those dried medicinal seahorses they sell at Mah Leung in Chinatown, a little sea creature with its thumb in its mouth. I stood there, forgetting I had to pee. I didn’t know whether to flush the nacreous flesh or fish it out. The toilet was running, perhaps broken. Was the porcelain head clearing its throat, preparing to sing its wet requiem for aborted foetuses? What if the abalone child plugged the drain and the water closet with a seat shaped like a seashell overflowed? Where would I hide the tiny body if I removed it?

I couldn’t touch the curled flesh, flush it or pee on it. It hurt to look. I decided to leave the little creature. The gentleman’s room was empty. I ducked in and locked the door, my heart racing. When I turned on the tap water and sat down, I couldn’t go. I felt faint, leaned forward with my head in my hands. My nose started to bleed. I had to do something. My long absence from the dinner table would be noticed. If another guest found the foetus, she would assume it was mine. When my nosebleed stopped, I washed my face with cold water, dried myself with a towel, put on fresh lip rouge, went back to the ladies and flushed.

The dear little thing went down. I watched the foetus begin its journey back to the sea, where it no doubt encountered other babies from all different parts of the city.

There were twenty of us at dinner in the private dining room. I sat down, remembering to lift my skirt carefully, so I didn’t harm the silk pleats, and looked around the table, a blaze of candlelight and diamonds and melting ice. The future king was there and I think he knew the sky was falling, or had already fallen with those of our generation who killed or were killed in the poppy fields of France.

Where I come from, most of the servants are Chinese, with sadness written in every expression and gesture we Occidentals call “inscrutable.” I too have striven for inscrutability, and invisibility. My mother’s secrets are planted in her garden. My secrets are hidden in the gardens I paint. But, like the foetus in the toilet, they are there to be seen by the right people.

Read more about The Empress Letters at Linda's website.