12 October is the anniversary of the release of the 1932 version of ‘Rain’ – starring Joan Crawford – and based on the story by Somerset Maugham. The notion of the ‘reform’ of ‘fallen women’ is central to the film, and Maugham’s cynicism about conventional morality influenced Lorraine’s great friend and mentor Emily Hahn.
Crawford plays the prostitute Sadie Thompson who is preached at, and then raped, by the sanctimonious missionary Davidson. Earlier on, Davidson is mocked as a ‘reformer’ whose speciality is ‘redeeming fallen women’. And this notion of ‘reform’ was a key one in the relationship between Lorraine Murray – the heroine of my book ‘Shanghai Demimondaine’ (Earnshaw Books) – and her great friend and mentor the American writer Emily Hahn. Just as Davidson urged Sadie Thompson to ‘reform’, Emily urged Lorraine to give up transactional sex, but that’s where the parallel ended. Because unlike Davidson’s hypocritical evangelism, Emily’s counsel was secular, non-patriarchal, and appealed to Lorraine’s feminist self-respect. The two women were steeped in Somerset Maugham’s works, both in print and the many screen versions (Emily actually called him ‘the maestro’) and the progress of Lorraine’s ‘reform’ remained a sort of running joke between the friends for some years.
In Shanghai Demimondaine, in the chapter titled ‘The Making of Miss Jill’ I examine this concept of ‘reform’ in more depth:
‘A story of salvation and sin’: this blurb on the cover of one paperback edition of Miss Jill invoked the idea that fallen women could be ‘reformed’ by repenting and beginning a new and virtuous life. This was a key tenet of evangelical Christianity, and one vigorously promoted by powerful lobby groups in America, Britain and Australia. Even wicked Shanghai had a Moral Welfare League, which had had enough influence in the 1920s to obtain a ban on brothels in the International Settlement—though as Madam Louise’s thriving establishment on Connaught Road showed, this had little practical effect.
Though she had constantly urged Lorraine to make a new and more worthwhile life for herself, Emily was deeply sceptical about the evangelical baggage of the idea of ‘reform’. And so, when she uses ‘reform’ in the context of their relationship—for example, in her account of Jean, or in her letters to Lorraine— she does so in an ironic, subversive way. But when it came to writing Miss Jill, she found it necessary to defer to the prevailing Christian morality.
The conventional, evangelical idea of reform was enshrined in the works of the 19th century novelists so beloved by Lorraine and Emily. In Miss Jill, Emily quotes from an episode in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, the scene where the hero comes across the ‘fallen’ Martha Endell bewailing her degradation on the banks of the foetid Thames:
‘Oh, the river! … I know it’s like me! … It comes from country places, and it creeps through the dismal streets, defiled and miserable—and it goes away, like my life, to a great sea, that is always troubled … I am bad, I am lost. I have no hope at all’ …
This was a classic expression of the shame that ‘fallen’ women were expected to feel, and Jill identifies so strongly with Martha that she bursts into tears. And as it turns out, Copperfield has turned up just in time to prevent Martha from throwing herself into the river. He puts her on the path to reform, and she will eventually be rewarded by marriage—although as penance she has to go and live in Australia.
The feminist in Emily ridiculed these attitudes. In China to Me, she mocks the Copperfields of the day, the ‘earnest young men’ who regularly tried to persuade Lorraine to take up the life of a virtuous and marriageable (if low-paid) stenographer. But as an author Emily (and her publisher) was aiming at a prospective audience for Miss Jill, Middle America, which was deeply conventional. She rewrote the manuscript so that, unlike the ‘grim’ ending of the earlier version, Jill ‘reforms’, and does so under the guidance of a male saviour, the Catholic priest Father Sullivan.
To the extent that there was a David Copperfield in Lorraine’s life it was Emily herself. But the publication of Miss Jill marked the definitive end of the first phase of their relationship. Previously there had been an imbalance between the insecure former sex worker and the assured and successful writer, between the ‘flibbertigibbet’ and the mentor. From now on, their friendship would more and more be one between equals.