Money and the scramble to get it are at the center of many of our best novels, and this is nowhere truer than in the work of Jane Austen. The financial security that Austen’s heroines are always chasing is so inextricably entangled with courtship, love and marriage that one can lose sight of the pound notes (not to mention the plantation slavery) behind the lilies, lace and wedding veils.
This is never the case with the world Eileen Chang presents in the tales that constitute “Love in a Fallen City.” Think of her as Jane Austen with the gloves off.
“Aloeswood Incense,” the first story in the collection, opens with “Ge Weilong, a very ordinary Shanghai girl,” arriving at the home of a wealthy aunt who, having been a rich man’s concubine, is estranged from her respectable family.
Weilong is wearing “the special uniform of Nanying Secondary School: a dark blue starched cotton tunic that reached to her knees, . . . but Weilong, like any girl, sought to be stylish, and she wore a small knitted vest on top of the tunic.”
Here Chang gives us, with masterly concision, the dilemma at the center of Weilong’s life: the prim school uniform versus the stylishness that might attract a well-heeled man. She has come to ask her aunt to make it possible for her to remain in Hong Kong so she can continue her education at Nanying Secondary rather than returning to Shanghai with her parents.
Her aunt invites her to move in, and thus begins for Weilong another kind of education. It’s not long before she is reflecting: “Go to school, then go out and get a job: perhaps this wasn’t the best path for someone like her — pretty, but without much ability.”
She chooses to emulate the life her aunt has led, and in deciding to do so there is not a trace of naivete. She knows exactly what she is doing and why.
At the end of the tale, walking with the man who will not marry her, she sees a group of prostitutes and asks: “But how am I any different from those girls?” Later she corrects herself: “How could there not be a difference? . . . They don’t have a choice — I do it willingly.” Austen herself may have been capable of such scathing honesty, but never her characters.
In the shorter “Sealed Off,” Chang almost convinces us she has left this harsh clarity behind. The Shanghai trams have stopped, and the unexpected lull in the course of the commuters’ day allows them to step out of their habitual reality. Each of the tram riders is exquisitely observed, but Chang’s eye lingers on “Lu Zongzhen, accountant for the Humao Bank” and “Wu Cuiyan, who looked very much a young Christian wife, even if she was unmarried.”
Zongzhen, a middle-aged family man unhappy in all the usual ways, begins to flirt with Cuiyan. Cuiyan is not the sort of woman who allows herself to be picked up on trams, but beginning with exchanges humorous in their banality (“My wife — she doesn’t understand me at all”), they move, improbably, toward love. Then, just before the tram starts up again, the real world intrudes.
“Of course,” Zongzhen reflects, “it always comes down to money,” and with that we are back in Chang’s world, a place where money always trumps love. “The whole city of Shanghai,” the narrator explains, “had dozed off and dreamed an unreasonable dream.” Readers able to relinquish such unreasonable dreams in favor of artfully presented truths will enjoy the tales gathered in “Love in a Fallen City.”