Books: Con Mandarin

HERMIT OF PEKING: THE HIDDEN LIFE OF SIR

EDMUND BACKHOUSE

by HUGH TREVOR-ROPER

316 pages. Knopf. $ 10.

Oscar Wilde sometimes complained of historians who had fallen into "careless habits of accuracy." He would have relished the work of the British recluse Edmund Backhouse, celebrated in his day (1873-1944) for his translations from the Chinese and his vast Sinological contributions to Oxford's Bodleian Library. The Backhouse oeuvre is filled with an amalgam of profound insight, scholarship and, it now appears, pornography; all it lacks is a single component: truth.

That ingredient can be found throughout...

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