There is a longish section in Grace E Lavery’s Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan on Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado and which asks, among other things, whether the operetta is really about Japan. Spoiler alert: it might be, or might not be, depending whom you ask and exactly what you ask.
The same question might be asked about Lavery’s book itself, with much the same answer.
Lavery herself asks, roughly, what “Japan” meant to the Victorians, a term which here includes both British and Americans, and which extends beyond 1901 almost until the Second World War. What Japan meant, or was seen to mean, didn’t—it appears—always have a lot to do with what Japan was, nor did the observers or recipients of this new aesthetic always seem to care very much about whether the original was being portrayed or understood correctly.
Lavery notes that things Japanese—the terms “quaint” and “exquisite” appeared enough that Lavery has adopted them—came
to signal to Western observers an aesthetic universality—the feeling that everyone in the world should and would find this object beautiful…
(italics in the original). She explores how this came to be, but the notion itself is of course interesting: this is on the one hand somewhat hard to square with an otherwise prevailing view of Western imperial and colonial superiority, but yet this was also not the first time that Western opinion held up an Asian culture as in many ways superior to its own. Not only did Chinese goods rule the roost in the two or three centuries prior, but Chinese social and political practice, or at least what was perceived to be Chinese practice, was often held in high regard by such writers as Voltaire.
Lavery’s approach to her subject, I think it is fair to say, may not appeal to everyone. She dips in and out of a great multitude of writers, and moves between texts, physical objects and performances in a style that some might find conversational, while perhaps rambling to others (she begins the final section of her conclusion with “At some point, though, one has to stop”). There is a great deal on what writers were saying to each other, somewhat narrow subjects like the development of English-language haiku, how the various subjects intersect with western philosophy, notably Kant, and very little on how Japanese objects d’art, for example, penetrated the consumer markets of the time or affected public rather than elite taste. Some of this ground, such the influence of Japanese art on the Impressionists, has of course been well-trod; Lavery, however, goes off in some unexpected directions.
One is to focus, in an extended—and interesting—passage on the “Madame Chrysanthème/Butterfly” trope, not on the Puccini opera (nor, indeed, on the Pierre Loti semi-autobiographical novel that started it all), but rather on John Luther Long’s 1998 short story which introduced the character and was the source for the David Belasco play that was the proximate source for the opera. Long’s story is rarely given much literary cred; Lavery makes a good case that it is underappreciated. She devotes several passages to a work whose “structural cruelty” which “proves almost unbearable”. She credits a scene with “subtle homosocial sadism whose complexity … has been underestimated by Long’s critics.”
Lavery advances the case that Butterfly might not in fact have died, a conceit, interestingly enough, picked up (coincidentally, one imagines) in Lee Langley’s 2010 novel Butterfly’s Shadow. She also—unexpectedly, I think, to anyone who knows much about Long’s “Madame Butterfly”—compares the story not to anything to anything that might show direct Asian influence, but rather to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” published six years earlier.
From here she pivots, not entirely obviously, to Onoto Watanna, the pseudo-Japanese pen-name of the Anglo-Chinese Canadian writer Winnifred Eaton, who was active in the first couple decades of the 20th century. Eaton published a number of “Japanese” works, starting with Miss Numè of Japan (Lavery has the accent the other way around) in 1899. Eaton’s sister Edith wrote novels of the Chinese immigrant experience under the pseudonym Sui Sin Far. I must to admit to having been entirely unaware of this pair of Eurasian female authors who apparently wrote commercially successful Asian-American novels two generations or so before Amy Tan. Lavery intertwines biography and literary criticism to show a complex relationship between Winnifred Eaton, her Asian heritage and her adopted Japanese persona. The point is that neither Long nor Eaton had Japanese heritage.
Lavery extends the influence she sees up to the present, through the film “Kill Bill” and the 2018 stop-motion animation Isle of Dogs. Quaint, Exquisite appears a very personal book; Lavery’s voice and personal (and rather eclectic) interests are evident on every page. She assumes that her readers are on close terms with Kant, Pound, Foucault, Barthes, Rosetti, Fenollosa, Tarantino, Hegel, to name only a few.
Whether or not one is able to namedrop to that extent, the book nevertheless provides evidence of a time when the anglophone world was willing to engage deeply and seriously (if not necessarily accurately) with an Asian culture. This seems somewhat unimaginable today.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.