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The Lady of the Decoration by Frances Little

The Lady of the Decoration (1906)

by Frances Little

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This 1907 best-seller is a story of Japan as told by a young American, newly widowed after a short but miserable marriage, who has been packed off by her family in the wake (we gather) of some scandal; though whether she is guilty merely of being an overtly "merry widow" or of a more serious transgression, we never do find out. Reluctantly accepting a four-year post as a kindergarten teacher attached to a Christian mission, our unnamed narrator records in her letters both her own moral and emotional struggles, and her impressions of Japan. It was the latter that sent The Lady Of The Decoration to the top of the best-seller lists, and understandably so: at the time Japan was almost a complete mystery to most Americans, and this glimpse into an unknown land held enormous appeal. Moreover, this novel also offers contemporary impressions of Russia, China and Korea, which were also of great interest at the time, and indeed still are. For the modern reader, however, this short novel presents a number of formidable challenges. Firstly, the narrator herself is insufficiently interesting as a character, and though her loneliness and homesickness are believably conveyed, her constant wailing about her own human shortcomings gets tiresome, particularly when (despite what she claims) she shows no real sign of change as a result of her experiences; in fact, that she is not changed at all is graphically illustrated by this book's climax when, in a wonderful piece of unintended self-exposure, she simply brushes off the preceding four years. Her one real positive quality, to my way of thinking, is her eagerness for new experiences, and her willingness to suffer physical hardship in pursuit of them (such as being literally dragged up a volcano); while the most positive quality of the book itself is the way it captures the physical beauty of Japan, so different from the narrator's home, yet so striking. It is with her more general attitude towards Japan and the Japanese that our troubles really start, as she evinces that peculiar Caucasian ability to express genuine admiration for a people, while at the same time being completely and offensively patronising: we thus hear a great deal about "the little yellow people" and their strange and funny ways. The bottom line, however, is that the historical disconnect between the time of time book and now is just too great and too jolting for the novel to survive it---although at times this very quality does make it weirdly compelling. I can sum up what I mean by simply pointing out that the narrator's school is situated in Hiroshima; that she takes side-trips to Nagasaki; and likes to holiday in...Siberia. The second half of the book covers the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, and while again the glimpse into history of fascinating, it is hard to know how to react to our young American narrator's enthusiastic embrace of the Japanese cause, and her constant extolling of the Japanese military: its discipline, its self-sacrifice, its blind devotion to the Emperor...

If I didn't get away from it all once in a while, I don't believe I could stand it. Yesterday was the Emperor's birthday and we had a holiday. I took several of the girls and went for a long ramble in the country. The fields were a brilliant yellow, rich and heavy with unharvested grain. The mountains were deeply purple, and the sky so tenderly blue, that the whole world seemed a place to be glad and happy in. Fall in Japan does not suggest death and decay, but rather the drifting into a beautiful rest, where dreams can be dreamed and the world forgot. Such a spirit of peace enveloped the whole scene, that it was hard to realise that the long line of black objects on the distant road were stretchers bearing the sick and wounded from the transports to the hospitals...
  lyzard | Jan 22, 2016 |
A fairly straightforward narrative of how a couple British SOE agents with the help of Cretan natives captured a German general from the island during the midst of the war while the island was completely under German occupation. The books is actually the diary of Moss written while the events were happening. They ended up spending a lot of time hiding in caves in the mountains giving him the time to record their exploits.

The Folio Society edition is really beautifully done. And, my copy actually was shipped to me from a seller in Crete. ( )
  Chris_El | Mar 19, 2015 |
I was pleasantly surprised by The Lady of the Decoration by Frances Little. I didn’t have very high expectations for this book, which I purchased mainly as it completed a year in my Century of Reading List.

This is the story of a young American widow who goes to Japan in 1901 to teach kindergarten under the auspices of a missionary society. Told in the form of letters written to her cousin, the story is interesting, informative, and although slightly dated with a few racial references, her descriptions of Japan and the Japanese people were interesting and insightful.. Through her letters a picture of young woman who made a few wrong choices, including that of her deceased husband, comes to life. Not trusting herself to choose the right path for herself, she signed a contract to teach in Japan for five years.

She was in Japan for the build up to and the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. The Lady of the Decoration was published in 1906, but her comments about the Japanese people and their blind faith in their emperor along with the soldiers robot-like manner and their dedication to fighting to the death gives one a glance of the future Japan of the 1940’s.

A refreshing and engaging story both of a young woman finding herself and a country that is just beginning to emerge as a power in Asia. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Sep 7, 2013 |
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Set in Japan from 1901 to 1905, The Lady of the Decoration is a novel in the form of letters written by a young missionary schoolteacher who travels to Vladivostok, Russia, as a result of the Russo-Japanese War. The novel captured the imagination of the American public, who knew very little about Japan at the time.… (more)

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