Friday, February 23, 2018

Mrs. Spring Fragrance

Edith Maude Eaton (1865–1914)
From Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing

Left: Undated photograph of Edith Maude Eaton.
Right: First edition of Mrs. Spring Fragrance, published by A. C. McClurg & Co., Chicago, 1912.
The second of fourteen children (and the oldest daughter), Edith Maude Eaton emigrated with her family from England to Montreal, via a brief stay in Hudson, NY, in the early 1870s. Her mother, Grace “Lotus Blossom” Trefusis, had been adopted and raised by English missionaries in Shanghai, where she met and married the English merchant Edward Eaton. After moving to England, the Eatons apparently suffered a series of financial misfortunes that prompted them to try their luck in the New World.

When the family’s finances continued to worsen in Montreal, Edith dropped out of school and went door to door selling miscellaneous goods, including pieces of lacework she made herself. She continued her education at home, however, and as a teenager began writing, eventually publishing articles about Montreal’s Chinese population in local English-language newspapers. She later recalled in the short memoir “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” that when she began reporting on the city’s immigrant community she found herself “often called upon to fight their battles in the papers.”

In 1897 Eaton went to spend a year in Jamaica, where (she writes) “it begins to be whispered about the place that I am not all white.” She was soon propositioned by an American naval officer who assumed that, as a well-dressed Chinese woman staying in a hotel, she must be a prostitute. The following year, now thirty-three years old, Eaton moved to San Francisco and eventually settled in Seattle. As a journalist on the West Coast, she confronted a new problem:
I find that the Chinese merchants and people generally are inclined to regard me with suspicion. They have been imposed upon so many times by unscrupulous white people. Another drawback—save for a few phrases, I am unacquainted with my mother tongue. How, then, can I expect these people to accept me as their own countrywoman? The Americanized Chinamen actually laugh in my face when I tell them that I am of their race. However, they are not all “doubting Thomases.” Some little women discover that I have Chinese hair, color of eyes and complexion, also that I love rice and tea. This settles the matter for them—and for their husbands.
During the decade Eaton spent on the West Coast, she adopted the pen name Sui Sin Far (meaning “water lily” in Cantonese) and published many of the stories that established her as the first American of Chinese descent to write and publish fiction about Chinese American life. Some of her new literary friends encouraged her to take advantage of stereotyped views of her ethnicity: “If I wish to succeed in literature in America I should dress in Chinese costume, carry a fan in my hand, wear a pair of scarlet beaded slippers, live in New York, and come of high birth.” And above all, she mocks, they advised her to sprinkle her talk with the one thing every white American knew from Chinese heritage: “Confucius, Confucius, how great is Confucius. Before Confucius, there never was Confucius. After Confucius, there never came Confucius.” Charles Fletcher Summis, the editor of The Land of Sunshine, the magazine that published her early writings, understood her better and said of her stories: “They are simple, unstudied, but dramatic and intensely human. . . . They are all of Chinese characters in California or on the Pacific Coast; and they have an insight and sympathy which is probably unique. To others the alien Celestial is at best mere ‘literary material’; in these stories he (or she) is a human being.”

Edith was not the only literary prodigy in her family. Her sister Winnifred, ten years younger, also began writing and publishing stories and eventually moved to Chicago in 1896. In 1899, adopting the Japanese-sounding pen name Onoto Watanna, she began publishing fiction with notable commercial success. During the next quarter century she wrote at least one hundred stories and a total of fourteen novels (including two thinly disguised autobiographical books), and during the 1920s she worked in New York and Hollywood as a moderately successful screenwriter. Although she reverted to her married name, Winifred Eaton Reeve, for her screen credits and for her last two novels (written in the mid-1920s and set in rural Alberta), she publicly disowned her faux Japanese heritage—and the books she wrote as Onoto Watanna—on the outbreak of World War II. She died at the age of 78 in Montana, en route to her home in Alberta after vacationing in California.

Although Edith enjoyed a brief period of literary success, she ultimately did not fare as well as her younger sister. In 1909 or 1910 she moved from Seattle to Boston and over the next three years published at least two dozen stories in New England Magazine, Youth Companion, Good Housekeeping, and other publications with national audiences. The collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance appeared in 1912 and included the title story we present as our Story of the Week selection, followed by sixteen additional interconnected stories and twenty “Tales of Chinese Children.” During all her years of traveling Eaton was often devastatingly ill, suffering from rheumatic fever that reduced her to eight-four pounds by the time she had reached San Francisco. As her literary fortunes improved, her health continued to decline and she returned to Montreal, where she died two years after the publication of her only book.

Notes: The two lines of poetry at the center of the story are from “In Memoriam,” a requiem by British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam.

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When Mrs. Spring Fragrance first arrived in Seattle, she was unacquainted with even one word of the American language. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.