Mischief in Manchuria

The South China Morning Post has a feature length article about a sensational kidnapping that took place in late 1932 and captured the attention of, inter alia, Evelyn Waugh. The story by Paul French is entitled “How Chinese bandits’ kidnapping of a blonde British bride and her pet dogs became a global news story”. It opens with this:

As temperatures began to drop and the winter of 1932 approached, the world was obsessed with just one news story – the kidnapping in northern China of 19-year-old Muriel “Tinko” Pawley and her dogs: German shepherds, Whisky and Rolf, and a pointer pup called Squiffy. When news reached London that Chinese bandits had threatened to cut off Pawley’s ears if a phenomenal ransom was not paid, there was an outcry from concerned newspaper readers in China’s treaty ports, Hong Kong, Europe, North America and Australia. “Tinko” Pawley was suddenly a household name and great copy.

Then at the height of his fame, having recently published his acclaimed novel Black Mischief, Evelyn Waugh could think of nothing else. He could not get the image of poor young Tinko out of his head – suffering in the Manchurian cold, starving, filthy, verminous, her dogs distraught. He bought every newspaper, scouring them for information on Tinko’s fate. He was far from alone. Theatre critic James Agate recorded the unfolding events of Tinko’s ordeal in captivity in his diary. Waugh eventually wrote a short story based on the kidnapping.

Waugh’s story was entitled “Incident in Azania” and appeared about a year later in Windsor Magazine. As explained by Ann Pasternak Slater, Waugh took the setting and several characters from Black Mischief and wove a story from the kidnapping that took place in China:

Waugh registered everything: the journalists’ affectation and concern (“the safe receipt of a woolen sweater by the captives has given a grain of comfort here”); their titillatory evocation of cruelty (“they were bound by thin ropes that went round the tops of their necks and their arms…”; above all, the jaunty letters of the captives themselves […] All these details were seized on and rationalized in Waugh’s masterly version of the story, where it is only very gradually intimated, from [the heroine’s] letters, that her ordeal is not exactly life-threatening. Introduction, pp. xxv-xxvi The Complete Short Stories: Everyman’s Library (Ann Pasternak Slater, ed.).

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