It is, I think, fairly uncommon (though I haven’t researched the topic in detail!) for a husband to appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography only as an adjunct of his wife. (Reverse examples are of course innumerable.) However, as the Foreword to Archibald Little’s posthumous collection of essays, Gleanings from Fifty Years in China, observes: ‘Official recognition and distinctions have often been awarded for achievements and services less than Archibald Little was able to render . . . But he lived and died without any such mark of honour. His friends may in some sense regret the omission; but no man needed or coveted titles or decorations less.’
Archibald John Little was born in 1838, the son of a doctor who came to specialise in congenital disorders of the feet – his own deep concern about the Chinese practice of foot-binding may perhaps have its origin here? It is frustratingly difficult to find any reliable biographical information except from his own writings: some sources, for example, claim that he was an ‘ex-missionary’, whereas in fact he first went to China in 1859 as a tea-taster for a German merchant house (having been sent to Germany to learn the language at the age of sixteen), and his views on missionaries and their influence in China, though more tactfully expressed than those of Reginald Johnston a generation later, were far from positive. All agree that he was fluent in Chinese, both spoken and written, but, again frustratingly, there is no detail on how he became so.
It is known that he prospered as a merchant, but he may, one suspects, never have become famous as a Western pioneer in China or as writer if he had not married Alicia: the dedication of his first book, Through the Yang-tse Gorges, Or, Trade and Travel in Western China (1888), reads: ‘To my wife, to whose loving aid and encouragement this small literary venture owes its execution, I dedicate this work’.
Alicia Ellen Neve (or Neva, as it appears in many of her books) Bewicke (1845–1926), later Mrs Archibald Little, had been a published author since her twenties: she wrote novels which are now largely forgotten, with titles (which do them no favours today) like Flirts and Flirts, or, A Season at Ryde (1868); Lonely Carlotta: “A Crimson Bud of a Rose” (1874); or Onwards! But Whither? Miss Standish (1883) was apparently her best-seller, but her concern at social issues was revealed in Mother Darling! (1885), which described the plight of a married woman after separation or divorce: even if the husband was the guilty party, he would normally have complete control of any children, and could refuse their mother all access.
One of the other things it is frustrating not to know is how Alicia met Archibald. Had she gone to China – she is described in the ODNB as having travelled widely – or did they meet in England when Archibald was on home leave? Either way, they married on 2 November 1886, when Archibald was 48 and Alicia 41, and seemed to have been blissfully happy thereafter. They settled in the far west of China, at Chungking (Chongqing), ‘1500 miles from the sea, 500 miles beyond the reach of steamers’, as Alicia wrote in My Diary in a Chinese Farm (1898).
She wrote another three novels, one called A Marriage in China (1896), but most of her publications from China were non-fiction, describing the life of a Western woman in a remote area where she was the object of huge and not always friendly curiosity. She and Archibald travelled together, and she took the photographs which appear in both their books.
It was Archibald’s ambition to open up western China to trade (and hence, he firmly believed, to greater employment opportunities and greater prosperity for the Chinese), by introducing steam boats to the rivers, which were then navigated by means of junks, either rowed, poled or even towed in back-breaking toil by the poorest of the poor. He makes the very interesting point that, except in north China, wheeled carts were not much used for transport – the great medieval roads had deteriorated, and in mountainous regions all goods were carried by trains of ‘coolies’ balancing burdens on two end of a flexible bamboo pole. (By a happy coincidence, this could be seen in action (sort of) in a recent BBC 4 programme about Chinese porcelain, where ceramics expert Lars Tharp was seen recreating the journey taken by export porcelain from the manufactories of Jingdezhen to the port of Canton (Guangzhou), a distance of about 500 miles, partly by boat on lakes and rivers, and partly up and down slippery mountains tracks where any breakages were deducted from the carrier’s pay.)
Archibald’s dream meant a great deal of travel, in exploration and surveying, and a great deal of frustration at the slow pace of Chinese life. But alongside the Littles’ interest in and huge sympathy for the Chinese people – whom they saw as being the victims of an inert and corrupt government in which all decisions were taken on the basis of a thousand-year-old ‘tradition’ irrelevant to the nineteenth century – was horror at the effects of the customary foot-binding which crippled women in pursuit of the ideal of tiny feet. Archibald had already noted that its effect was to force women to kneel to carry out agricultural labour, because they could not stand; and women who could barely walk were often forced to haul junks and barges.
With Archibald’s encouragement, Alicia organised expatriate women into the Tien Tsu Hui – the Anti-Footbinding Association of China. She lectured, displaying medical diagrams and the new X-ray images which graphically showed the damage done, and she published a journal which contained both anti-binding articles and also accounts, in both prose and verse, by Chinese women who had suffered this fate. At first, she was preaching to the converted – Westerners, and liberal, West-looking Chinese – but she began to travel round the country, addressing Chinese audiences, and signing up young men who pledged to refuse to marry girls with bound feet. Emphasising that nothing in Chinese historical tradition or religious belief required feet to be bound, and deliberately keeping her distance from the Christian missionary movements which linked the abandonment of the practice to conversion, she eventually persuaded enough important people of the damage foot-binding was doing, not only to Chinese women but to China’s reputation in the world, that it became officially frowned upon, and then outlawed. Alicia’s efforts are regarded as having been crucial to this reform: she herself credited success to the ordinary Chinese women who had the courage to speak out.
Archibald’s health broke down in his early sixties, and the couple returned to England, where he died in 1908, at the age of seventy. Alicia lived on until 1926, editing her husband’s previously unpublished works, and continuing to write herself. The list below gives the books we have reissued: taken together, they give a remarkable picture of a country and people then almost completely unknown in the West, and of an equally remarkable couple.
By Alicia Little: My Diary in a Chinese Farm (1898); Intimate China (1899); The Land of the Blue Gown (1902); Li Hung-Chang (1903: a biography of the great Chinese statesman, whom Alicia had known personally and who supported the anti-foot-binding movement).