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Edith Maude Eaton, Mrs Spring Fragrance

February 5, 2010

This week’s Library of America short story offering is “Mrs Spring Fragrance” by Chinese American author Edith Maude Eaton (1865-1914) who wrote under the pen name of Sui Sin Far. She had an American father and a Chinese mother and, according to the notes which accompany the story, was apparently the first person of Chinese descent to write in the US about Chinese-American life.

“Mrs Spring Fragrance” was published in a collection in 1912. Its concerns are not new to us, reading it nearly a century later and familiar with literature about the challenges of living cross-culturally, but at the time it was apparently rather exotic. The subject of the story is marriage, and the conflict between traditional Chinese arranged marriage and westernised marriage in which young people choose their marriage partner. The main characters are a happily married Chinese couple who live in America, the Spring Fragrances. Their marriage was arranged but as we are told early in the story, both are quite “Americanised”. Mrs Spring Fragrance, we learn, is sympathetic to the plight of their young neighbour who has been promised in marriage but who wants to marry her chosen love.

The plot turns on that old conceit of eavesdropping – of things heard out of context which threaten to derail the “real” situation. (Interestingly, there is a book published by Cambridge University Press titled Eavesdropping in the novel from Austen to Proust, which explores the concept of eavesdropping in nineteenth century English and French novels.) Anyhow, back to the Spring Fragrances. In this story, the eavesdropping is complicated by cultural confusion and the result is … Well, I’m not going to give it away as you can read it yourself using the link above.

I will say, though, that what is eavesdropped is Tennyson’s statement:

‘Tis better to have loved and lost,
Than never to have loved at all.

Surely, says Mr Spring Fragrance, expressing a Chinese perspective despite his “Americanisation”:

Is it not better to have what you do not love than to love what you do not have?

It is a straightforward story, but told nicely and with a light touch. She shows how difficult it is to truly “change” cultures: through such comments as those above and Mrs Spring Fragrance’s unconscious error when she refers to the “loved and lost” poem as the “beautiful American poem written by a noble American named Tennyson”! You have to laugh – but not cruelly, as these are appealing characters, earnest in their desire to do the right thing.

This is not a must-read story, unless you are interested in the history of Chinese-American literature, but it is an enjoyable one nonetheless.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2010 5:34 am

    I actually read this (and others by the author) at UVA – I remember not being blown away, but finding some of the concepts and cultural dissonances interesting. But for a fun quick read, I’d probably still opt for your previously-posted Alexander McCall Smith novels 🙂

    • February 6, 2010 9:35 am

      Oh did you? Yes, I agree with you … nice story, but perhaps more interesting for its era than absolutely. So I guess it depends on why you might read it or Alexander McCall Smith?

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