Nick Hordern


Covering Miss Jill

Four editions of Emily Hahn’s novel based on the life of Lorraine Murray

You can’t judge a book but its cover, but a cover can tell you something about a book’s readers. And its publishers.

Miss Jill is the original title of Emily Hahn’s novel about an Australian sex worker in China in the 1930s and 1940s. It was first published in 1947 and partly based on the life of Lorraine Murray, who was Emily’s housemate in Shanghai in 1938, and who became her lifelong friend. I say ‘partly’ based because while Jill’s psychology accurately reflects Lorraine’s state of mind, the dates and places in the story of Jill sometimes differ from those of Lorraine’s real life trajectory.

I first read Miss Jill on Kindle, and the text of this e-book edition was the same as that of the earliest print editions – I explain why this is significant further down.

E-books have many virtues: they are cheap, portable and easy to search – but their appearance, both device and text, is remorselessly monotonous. Hard-copy books, on the other hand, are more like people: expensive, hard to house, and they tend to grow tatty with age. But they have personality.

Miss Jill was first published in New York by Doubleday & Company in 1947. Emily Hahn had completed a first draft of the novel nine years previously, but her publisher had been deterred by her frank treatment of prostitution, and she had reworked the manuscript to make it more acceptable to the middle American reading public. My book Shanghai Demimondaine discusses the development of the text in more detail. 

Miss Jill - first US edition, 1947
First US edition, 1947

The first US hardback edition is a pleasure to hold and read. Produced at the tail end of what has been dubbed ‘the Golden Age of American Publishing’ (1920-1940), my copy of the Doubleday edition is still intact – nay, robust – after nearly eighty years. The image on the front cover is a pen and wash watercolour of Jill sitting demurely in a rickshaw, in an orientalising setting. Unlike later covers, it doesn’t proclaim her profession as a prostitute. 

The same text was published the following year in the UK by Jonathan Cape. During the war the British government had introduced a Book Production War Economy Standard which limited the amount of scarce resources available to the publishing industry. As a result, books published in Britain during WWII have a distinctly down market feel to them. The constraints of wartime austerity lingered far longer in Britain than they did in the United States, and it shows in the Jonathan Cape edition, which is a less attractive production than its American cousin. The paper is of lower quality, the print is smaller and there is no image on the dust jacket. One feature of this UK edition, however, stands out: in the book description printed on the inside cover of the dust jacket, Jill is described as being of ‘Anglo-Indian’ origin.  According to the peculiarly British prejudices of the day, Anglo–Indian women tended to be moral imbeciles, inherently promiscuous and thus well-suited to prostitution. As a matter of fact, Hahn does not give Jill an Anglo-Indian background (not that it would mean anything in reality if she had) – and so this implied racial predisposition to sex work is simply a gloss added by a lazy and racist editor. And one that lazy and racist reviewers in Australia would parrot.

Miss Jill - UK Edition
First UK edition, 1948

Despite its austere appearance the Jonathan Cape edition sold well. It went through at least three impressions before it came to the attention of the London lawyers acting for the Sultan of Johore.

At one point in the novel, the madam of the brothel where she works suggests to Jill that she should take a break from Shanghai and go and ply her trade somewhere else in Asia. They mull over the possibilities—Tientsin (now Tianjin), Hong Kong, Honolulu, and Singapore—and then the madam says ‘There’s always the Sultan of Johore’.

Like that of any celebrity, the Sultan’s private life was tabloid fodder. In 1938, he had divorced his Scottish wife in order to make way for the English cabaret dancer Cissie Hill. In 1940, Hill was killed when a stray German bomb hit a luxury furrier’s shop in Kent; less than a month later the Sultan married her successor, a Rumanian forty-two years younger than him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the Sultan’s London lawyers learnt of the reference in Miss Jill to their esteemed client they took legal action which halted the book’s distribution in the UK. 

The next edition was the American Avon paperback edition of 1950. It has been pointed out that while the Golden Age of American Publishing maintained high editorial and production standards, not a lot of people bought books. It was the paperback revolution that brought Miss Jill to a mass audience – and the Avon paperback was clearly aimed at just such a readership. The cover sports a portrait of a pulchritudinous blonde Jill looking back, as if reflecting on her steps to ruin; her lips are scarlet and she wears a scarlet bloom in her hair. If these visual clues weren’t enough, the expanded title and blurb spell the message out: she is now Miss Jill from Shanghai (Shanghai at this time being synonymous with sex, at least in the West) and the book tells ‘A beautiful girl’s story of salvation and sin in the Orient’. 

Miss Jill - First paperback (revised) edition, 1950
First paperback (revised) edition, 1950

But if the Avon cover was more explicit that those of its hardback predecessors, the text had actually been toned down. All mention of the Sultan of Johore has been removed; so too has a reference to the bisexuality of the character of ‘Botchan’ – the Japanese ‘plutocrat’ who had been Jill’s first lover. This may well have been because ‘Botchan’ was loosely based – very loosely – on the real-life diplomat and statesman Tokugawa Iemasa, an eminent member of the establishment in the new democratic Japan – and who happened to be the uncle-by-marriage of the Empress.

That might have been the end of Jill’s career in print, but in 1957 the English author Richard Mason published his novel The World of Suzie Wong, about a prostitute in Hong Kong. It was a phenomenal success, so much so that the following year another American paperback edition of Miss Jill was published, this time by the Crest Books company, in the hope of piggybacking on the success of Mason’s novel. Again, the marketing strategy was spelt out on the cover; the book was re-titled House in Shanghai and the blurb ran ‘Meet Miss Jill – An innocent young lady of easy virtue who, like the enchanting heroine of The World of Suzie Wong, found sanctuary in a temple of sin.’ 

Miss Jill - Second paperback edition, 1958
Second paperback edition, 1958

In a hint of relaxing moral standards, the cover portrait is far more explicit than in the Avon edition – Jill sits naked next to a rumpled bed, shrouded by a sheet precariously draped over one shoulder, with the light from a Chinese lantern shining on her hair, styled in a fashionable ‘Italian’ cut, as adopted by Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. She is gazing sorrowfully down, and there is no doubt what had just happened in that bedroom.

The interesting thing about the text of this 1958 edition is that while the Sultan of Johore remains absent from the text, the references to Botchan’s bisexuality are back in. One wonders why; at this point both the Sultan and Tokugawa Iemasa were still alive to object. This is one of the mysteries of the editorial history of Miss Jill.

And then the e-book version (which, irritatingly, contains no date of publication) reverted to the original 1947 text.