Small Shen will be released December 1, and some of the characters featured in it are real historical figures. Here’s some details of the people you’ll meet in Small Shen:
Robert Fortune (1812-1880)
After working in the Edinburgh Botanic Garden straight out of school, Robert Fortune moved to the Horticultural Society’s garden in Chiswick, London. From there he applied for the position of the Horticultural Society’s Collector in China, and went there for the first time in 1843.
He learned Chinese, shaved his head, adopted local dress and wandered the nation disguised as a local, slipping through the legal boundaries at the time by capitalizing of the turmoil of the Opium Wars. He experienced the killer mobs, pirate attacks, and wild storms, keeping a record of his adventures as he travelled the country.
He spent three years there and collected plants from all over China, which he shipped back to England in Dr Nathanial Ward’s new invention, the Wardian Case, which is similar in design to a modern terrarium and allowed plants to remain alive with minimal care on the long journey back to the UK.
He published his journals upon his return in the book ‘Three Years’ Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China’ (1847), which was hugely popular.
The British East India Company, one of the main players in the tea/opium trade, employed him to travel back to China somewhere between 1848 and 1851, in secret, to perform one of the world’s earliest operations of industrial espionage – to steal China’s tea. He shipped more than 20,000 plants and seedlings in Wardian cases to the Himalayas, together with vital information on how the tea was grown, picked and processed, and the tea industry in India was established as a result.
Fortune returned to China in 1853 and again in 1858, and travelled to Japan in 1860, and is responsible for the introduction of more than 120 species of East Asian plants in Western gardens.
He lived comfortably on the proceeds of his book sales and enjoyed a long retirement.
Mary Robinson (1757-1800)
Mary’s father was a sea captain who deserted the family for a mistress when she was still a child. Her mother supported the family by opening a school for girls, but her father returned from one of his voyages, closed the school, took all the money, and left again.
Encouraged by her mother, and against her own better judgement, Mary accepted the proposal of an articled clerk called Thomas Robinson, who claimed to have a large inheritance. Thomas had multiple affairs that he made no attempt to hide, and didn’t have any inheritance, so Mary took to the theatre as a way to earn a living for the family. He ended up in prison for debt, and she was under house arrest. During this time she was patronised by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who sponsored the publication of Mary’s first volume of poems.
On her husband’s release, Mary returned to the theatre where she was popular in the part of Perdita in a play called ‘Florizel and Perdita’. She attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) who offered her twenty thousand pounds to become his mistress. After much soul-searching she eventually left her husband to be with the Prince, and it is believed that they were married in secret. In 1781 the Prince ended the affair and Parliament dissolved the marriage as she was a commoner. She was never paid the promised amount and found herself alone and destitute, unable to return to the stage because of public backlash about her affair with the Prince.
In 1783 she suffered a mysterious illness that left her partially paralysed. She had a number of affairs, but never remarried. In the late 1780 she became well-known for her poetry and was known as ‘The English Sappho’. She wrote six novels, two plays, a feminist treatise, and an unfinished autobiographical manuscript. She died in 1800 in poverty at the age of 42.