09 August 2009

Beauty Neglected

From time to time, by which I mean every other day, I receive emails from various online book marketplaces pushing titles that they somehow think I'll be wanting to buy. Most are ignored, but I usually have time for the folks at AbeBooks, who seem alone in recognizing my interests. Their latest – subject line: '30 Beautiful Old Books We'd Buy For the Cover Alone' – points to a visual feast comprised of titles published from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th. Who would've thought that a volume titled The Book of Bugs could look so attractive?

Among the other beauties is A Japanese Blossom, the 1906 novel by Winnifred Eaton, published under her nom de plume Onoto Watanna. I've written a good deal on Eaton in print, and don't really want to repeat myself here, but I continue to be mystified by the lack of recognition she's received in this fair Dominion. Eaton's story is remarkable on so very many levels, beginning with her birth in 1875 Montreal to an English silk merchant turned landscape painter and his Chinese wife, herself the orphaned child of circus performers. One of fourteen children, Winnifred grew up near poverty, yet managed to become one of the wealthiest Canadian writers of her day. No doubt some inspiration was derived from her older sister Edith, who in recent years has been described repeatedly as the 'mother of Asian American literature'. Winnifred's own literary career began at the age of fourteen with the sale of a short story to Montreal's Metropolitan Magazine. By the fin de siècle she'd embraced Japonisme and, as Onoto Watanna, arrived in New York, where she presented herself as the daughter of an Englishman and a Nagasaki noblewoman. Her second novel, A Japanese Nightingale (1901), sold over 200,000 copies, was adapted to the Broadway stage and inspired a silent picture.

There is a great deal more to Eaton's story, including a career in Hollywood and her return to Canada as the wife of a wealthy Alberta rancher, but it's unlikely that you'll find any trace at your local public library. The Canadian Encyclopedia has no entry on Eaton, nor does she figure in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. However, she is the subject of a very fine biography, Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton (2001), written by her granddaughter. There's also a biography of her sister, Sui Sin Far / Edith Maude Eaton (1995). Both published by the University of Illinois Press, they're part of an a revival that has seen number of Watanna books reprinted in the United States. To these I recommend the University of Virginia Library's Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive, which features a growing number of her fiction and non-fiction writings. The biographical sketch provided by the site makes no mention of Canada. Perhaps we deserve nothing more.

A good many ugly-looking books have been featured in this blog; consider this small sampling of Watanna titles an attempt at redressing the balance.

A Japanese Nightingale
New York: Harper & Bros., 1901.

The Heart of the Hyacinth
New York: Harper & Bros., 1903.

Daughters of Nijo
New York: Macmillan, 1904.

New York: Harper & Bros., 1910.

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