Ernest Bramah (1867-1942) was an author whose biography is as mysterious as several of his books' characters. His real name is Ernest Bramah Smith. A farmer for many years, he gave it up and began writing for a local paper before moving to London and working for Jerome K Jerome on his magazine Today. After working on several other magazines, he starting writing books, his first popular endeavor being The Wallet of Kai Lung(1900), a collection of stories told by the character mentioned in the title. These stories, and those told in subsequent books became extremely popular at the time. Dorothy L Sayers often quotes from the books, and in Gaudy Nights even has her detective reading aloud from them while punting in Oxford. Short and overly elegant, these stories of a China that never was are easy diversions for a lazy day. Bramah was also famous for several collections of detective stories, featuring a blind detective, Max Carrados.
Bramah was so reclusive about personal information that where he lived is not known, nor who he married, or even the dates and place of his birth and death. While living, it was even thought he was an pseudomymous author. A futurist novel "The Secret of the League" (1907), gave the suggestion that he was a member of the Golden Dawn (also mentioned in the Kai Lung books), and he often used the study of coins in the detective stories, being a numismatist himself. Among obsessive book collectors, a signed copy of one of his novels is extremely sought after.
The Kai Lung stories contain many maxims, (The road to eminence lies through the cheap and exceedingly uninviting eating-houses.) and it has been suggested that the phrase "May you live in interesting times" originated in one of his stories.
- English Farming and Why I Turned It Up (1894)
- The Wallet of Kai Lung (1900)
- The Mirror of Kong Ho (1905)
- What Might Have Been: The Story of a Social War (1907)
- Secret Of The League (1907)
- Max Carrados (1914)
- Kai Lung's Golden Hours (1922)
- The Eyes of Max Carrados (1923)
- The Specimen Case (1924)
- Max Carrados Mysteries (1927)
- Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat (1928)
- A Guide to the Varieties and Rarity of English Regal Copper Coins, Charles II-Victoria, 1671-1860 (1929)
- A Little Flutter (1930) (regarding the last Patagonian Groo-Groo)
- The Moon of Much Gladness, Related by Kai Lung (1932)
- Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree (1940)
I first became interested in Bramah several months ago, when a note in The Guardian's Notes and Queries (a section wherein people ask questions and others attempt to answer them) mentioned that Bramah authored the ancient Chinese curse May you live in interesting times in The Wallet of Kai Lung. A search online brought up the gutenberg text of it, as well as many discussions about this phrase and its unknown origin. I am unhappy to report that in neither the first nor second of the Kai Lung series does the phrase appear. It could be thought that Bramah originated it because he was often making up similar maxims, proverbs and curses in his tales. In any case, The Wallet of Kai Lung has been Noded and linked here on E2 for your own reading pleasure.