In July 1905 a remarkable short story appeared in Temple Bar Magazine. Its author, Harold Fielding Hall, was well known for his book on Burmese society and religion, The Soul of a People, which was on the way to achieving almost cult status among Edwardian readers. It’s still in print – and still worth reading – more than 100 years later. He’s remembered now as the most sympathetic of the European observers of the Burmese.
He wrote several short stories, but ‘His Daughter’ is by far the most memorable. It concerns a middle-aged, former colonial civil servant, who goes in search of his illegitimate, mixed race daughter. The topic would have been challenging enough for his bourgeois readership, but the timing of its appearance is extraordinary.
In July, the month it was published, Harold Fielding Hall came back to England on the SS Staffordshire from Rangoon; he was planning to marry Margaret Evelyn Smith. He had served for twenty years as a colonial civil officer in Burma. Given the timing, publishing an account of a man’s desperate search for his missing child was not exactly tactful. What did she make of it? Did he persuade her, by changing the dates around, that it was something he’d heard from a colleague, nothing at all to do with him? ‘His Daughter’ was fiction, for sure, but she must have known that his fiction was almost always a way to deal with things that were troubling him. Like an abandoned daughter.
All his life he fulminated against society’s hypocrisy around what he called ‘the flesh and the devil’, and advocated a more generous and realistic attitude to sexual arrangements. In the last years of his life he was still jotting down notes that reflected his obsession such as, ‘Almost all fathers adore their illegitimate children. If they abandon them it is because of the shame society attaches to it. If there was no shame the children would have a father and a name’.
‘His Daughter’, the most vivid and heartfelt of all his stories, is surely based his own story.
It begins with an evocative description of a bleak winter evening in London. ‘It rained a fine thin rain that floated in the air like mist. It hung upon the houses and closed in each street with dreary indistinctness, the lamps made red halos round them and dwindled in the distance to dim stars. The horses slipped on thee greasy roadway and those in the rank stood beneath their waterproofs with drooped heads.’
A man called simply Masterton turns with relief into the warmth of his club. ‘There was a feeling of ease, of comfort, of asylum that soothed him after the homeless desolation of the streets.’ The first friend he approaches is on his way to take ‘my girls’ to the theatre. Another who might have made up a rubber – four players were needed for a game of whist – is probably kept at home by his wife on account of the weather. ‘We aren’t all free men like you, Masterton,’ the friend says cheerfully. A young man he meets on the stairs and tries to persuade to stay with an offer of ‘fizz’ apologises, but he has just got engaged and is off to meet his fiancee. ‘Don’t wait talking to a stupid old man like me,’ Masterton tells him. ‘Run off, my boy. I am very glad. Good luck.’
Masterton finds two friends dining there and the three men talk over their meal ‘in the large room hung with pictures of soldiers and administrators famous in the East in their day’. The world they have left behind. ‘All the talk, all the names, all the stories were of the East where they had lived. Of the great city in which they had dined, of their own country, of Europe, there was never a word. It seemed as if they had ceased to live, and were only memories.’
One by one his companions leave him, but Masterton remains. ‘His rooms were near by, but of what use to go there? If one has to sit and smoke it is less lonely to do so by the fire in the club than in furnished chambers.’ Gloomily he imagines what the future might hold, how he might die with only a doctor and a nurse to keep him company, how news of his death might be received by his friends in the East, ‘Poor old Masterton! Not so old, either, only forty-eight!’ (In 1905 Harold Fielding Hall was 46.)
‘And out of the fire rose memories of that other life where he had work, had friends, had an interest. Then he had a future. Now he had only a past.’
When he was working in the East he had mocked the men who married out there. It was no place for a wife, and most young wives left swiftly so married couples lived apart for years. But at least they had children. As Masterton reflects, ‘That was what man lived for, to have children – a daughter!’
At this thought, Masterton comes to a decision. He leaves the club, telling the porter he is going away, and doesn’t know when he will return. The scene now shifts abruptly to a town in Burma. Fielding Hall is unsparing as he describes Masterton’s response to the town he used to know so well. ‘The palms, the bamboo clumps, the thatched cottages, the brown people. He knew them all. At one time they had all spoken to him in a tongue he knew. Now they spoke no more. He even wondered if he did not hate them.’
He enters a convent; the Mother Superior and another nun receive him coolly. He has come about a girl who was given into their care, but the Mother Superior says she cannot give out information to just anyone. ‘I am her father,’ he tells her. Her response: She ‘bowed in cold acquiescence.’ All these years he has supported the girl, who goes by the name of Miss Jane Grey, anonymously, through a firm of solicitors. Now he wants to take her with him to England. He explains, ‘I have lived all my life out here, and there in England – it is lonely. My daughter will be someone to keep me company – even though her mother was Burmese.’
The nuns are surprised. He has come too late. The girl was eight when she came to the convent, but she had left three years before, when she was seventeen. For a while she had worked as a teacher. But at eighteen she married. A Burman. One final barb. The nun says:
‘She never knew who her father was. You are late coming for her.’
‘Too late,’ says Masterton.
‘She often dreamed of her father,’ said the other sister. ‘She was my favourite. Poor little Jane.’
Masterton leaves with the name of his daughter’s husband, a clerk in a government office, and after several false attempts he finds someone who can direct him to her home. He goes down a lane which is bordered by hedges of oleander and hibiscus. On either side are neat houses in gardens gay with tropic flowers. Outside one house, ‘in the dust of the road were two naked babies who laughed and rolled’.
‘But when they saw Masterton they ceased. They stared, and with a sudden puckering of little mouths they burst into a cry, and rising to their legs they staggered towards the gate. Warned by the cry, a woman came out of the house. She seemed like any other Burmese woman, somewhat untidy, bright, self-confident. Running to her babies she caught them in her arms. And as Masterton stood and watched he heard her soothing them and talking.
‘ “ Tut, tut! Don’t cry. See, the ugly foreigner will go. Let’s hide.” And with a laugh Masterton’s daughter ran away from him with his grandchildren.
‘He turned away. As he went there came upon him a despair, a loathing of himself, his life, of all about him. The setting glow in the sky, the great stars, the dusty streets, the houses, the people, the smells and sounds filled him with disgust. They were not his. He had given his life to them and he hated them. And the children hooted at him as he went.’
‘His Daughter’ has a raw honesty unmatched in any of his other fiction. The evocation of the desperate loneliness of the man who has spent all his life in a distant culture and who, as his career draws to a close, returns ‘home’ only to discover that he belongs nowhere. The anguish of glimpsing his daughter, and the longed-for grandchildren – ‘that was what man lived for, to have children’ – only to find that he is now ‘the ugly foreigner’ and the gulf dividing them can never be bridged.
In 1905 Harold Fielding Hall must have thought he had escaped Masterton’s fate by marrying Margaret Evelyn. Perhaps his circumstances appeared so different that he was able to persuade his wife there was no resonance with his experience. They returned to Burma together. They had two children. He was at the peak of his career, both as a civil servant, and as a writer.
The marriage was not a success. He died estranged from wife and children – his English children.
And what of his Burmese family?
That is what I’ve been trying to discover.