Persuasions #6, 1984 Page 35
THE HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN
Printed with permission, Daily Telegraph, August 18, 1984
Jane Austen, so far as I am aware, was no great authority on Japan. Probably she knew little or nothing about that country, though there may be scholars who will contradict me. Yet one feels that an author who takes no account of the Napoleonic wars raging across the Channel cannot have been massively preoccupied with Japan.
Times change. Among the 30,000 odd annual visitors to Jane Austen’s house at Chawton in Hampshire there are regular Japanese contingents. Evidently this quintessentially English writer is held in high regard in Japanese literary circles. Why should this be?
Is there perhaps some quite fortuitous characteristic in common between modern Japan and Jane Austen’s world – a sense of formality, perhaps, of strong social conventions? What on earth could the Japanese make of Mr. Bennet or Mrs. Norris or Lady Catherine de Bourgh? Which were their favourite novels? Why did they like Jane Austen?
These questions I turned over in my mind as I recently travelled down to Hampshire to intercept a group of English-speaking Japanese teachers who were booked to visit Jane Austen’s home.
This small, exquisitely pretty roadside house would have elicited nothing but pained condescension from Lady Catherine de Burgh, cries of anguish from Mrs. Elton. Even most of the Japanese teachers, unused to large houses, find it a good deal smaller, as well as less remote, than they had imagined. Some time before Jane came to live here with her mother and sister in 1809 the house had served as an inn. Emma’s unassuming friends the Westons would have perhaps been happy here.
Mr. John Coates, present curator of the house, married to a great-great-great-niece of Jane’s, and formerly an army officer, briefs me about our Japanese friends. There are to be 12 of them; all men. He offers the view that with their strong sense of family the Japanese feel naturally at home in Jane Austen’s domestic world. He shows me Prof. Seiji Fujita’s A Critical Biography of Jane Austen – clearly the key Japanese text.
Stony-faced and a little bemused, the Japanese teachers look more like a group of Sony executives gone astray than literary king-pins visiting a long-dreamt-of shrine. We assemble in the small dining room. On one wall hangs a handsome portrait of Edward, brother of Jane, who inherited the Chawton and Godmersham estates from distant cousins and took their name of Knight. Edward’s income from Chawton alone, Mr. Coates tells us, was a then pretty fabulous £10,000 a year. (The same as Mr. Darcy’s.) An Edward Knight still occupies the large house at Chawton. The level of Japanese interest remains restrained.
In this room Jane polished up or wrote all her novels except Northanger Abbey on the tiny table by the window which overlooked what was the high road to Winchester. She wrote furtively on tiny pieces of paper, fearful of being caught in the act. Our teachers receive these pieces of information phlegmatically, as though all authors, or at any rate all English ones, can be expected to behave as oddly.
As our group moves out of the dining room, I collar one of the more intellectual looking teachers. His name is Morio Nishakawa. Rather to my disappointment, linguistics rather than literature is his line of country at his university. Nevertheless, he has read all the novels. The same cannot be said of all our teachers. One or two admit that they have read the novels only in Japanese. Another has not yet embarked on any of them in either language, though he promises me that he will do so.
Morio reacts sternly to my suggestion that the differences between 19th-century England and modern Japan might make it difficult for a Japanese to grasp the full point of Jane Austen. There is “a universality of feeling.” For example, Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is “a common type.” (Perhaps we should all go to Japan.) Pride and Prejudice was the Jane Austen novel he liked best.
Pride and Prejudice was indeed the favourite novel of nearly all the teachers to whom I spoke but widely differing and somewhat vague explanations were offered. One teacher thought that it showed the darker side of human nature. (A bit hard on Mrs. Bennet?) Another admired the psychology. Oddest of all, Morio found in the novel a “strong religious background,” by which he appeared to mean a love or celebration of nature.
Jane Austen as a Wordsworthian: here was an unusual thought. “She lived in the countryside,” pointed out one teacher who refused to give his name, possibly out of a concern that his literary views might not find great favour back home, especially with the great Prof. Seiji Fujita himself. “She lived with nature, with flowers, with grass seeds (sic) and birds. She could feel sympathetic with nature.”
On the other hand, the teacher went on, he did not find Jane Austen at all religious in a specifically Christian sense. That was what made her so accessible to the Japanese, who did not usually have strong religious feelings, Was she even a Christian?
It is a great task to transfer Jane Austen all the way from Chawton to Japanese soil. It appears that much good work remains to be done. The Jane Austen revealed by our teachers was not entirely the English version, and that is perhaps as it must be. Something a little odd has happened to her on her long voyage to the Far East.