The Usurper: an Episode of Japanese History by Judith Gautier (1875)

I first learned of Judith Gautier earlier this year, when Lyn and her 19th century book group read this book. I loved the sound of it, and when I read more about the author I was intrigued.

She was the daughter of a writer and a ballerina; she was the lover of a noted composer; she was a student of the Orient; a poet, novelist and dramatist; and a member of the Académie Goncourt. Clearly she was a very accomplished lady, and I’m so pleased that some of her work is available in translation.

‘The Usurper’ is set in seventeenth century Japan, and it’s a wonderful story, full of action and intrigue, drama and romance, and informed by the authors love and understanding of the world where it is set.

When I found this book, on Project Gutenberg, I was captivated by the start by lovely, descriptive prose.

“Night was nearly gone. All slept in the beautiful bright city of Osaka. The harsh cry of the sentinels, calling one to another on the ramparts, broke the silence, unruffled otherwise save for the distant murmur of the sea as it swept into the bay.

Above the great dark mass formed by the palace and gardens of the Shogun a star was fading slowly. Dawn trembled in the air, and the tree-tops were more plainly outlined against the sky, which grew bluer every moment. Soon a pale glimmer touched the highest branches, slipped between the boughs and their leaves, and filtered downward to the ground. Then, in the gardens of the Prince, alleys thick with brambles displayed their dim perspective; the grass resumed its emerald hue; a tuft of poppies renewed the splendor of its sumptuous flowers, and a snowy flight of steps was faintly visible through the mist, down a distant avenue.

At last, suddenly, the sky grew purple; arrows of light athwart the bushes made every drop of water on the leaves sparkle. A pheasant alighted heavily; a crane shook her white wings, and with a long cry flew slowly upwards; while the earth smoked like a caldron, and the birds loudly hailed the rising sun.

As soon as the divine luminary rose from the horizon, the sound of a gong was heard. It was struck with a monotonous rhythm of overpowering melancholy,—four heavy strokes, four light strokes; four heavy strokes, and so on. It was the salute to the coming day, and the call to morning prayers.

A hearty youthful peal of laughter, which broke forth suddenly, drowned these pious sounds for an instant; and two men appeared, dark against the clear sky, at the top of the snowy staircase. They paused a moment, on the uppermost step, to admire the lovely mass of brambles, ferns, and flowering shrubs which wreathed the balustrade of the staircase. Then they descended slowly through the fantastic shadows cast across the steps by the branches. Reaching the foot of the stairs, they moved quickly aside, that they might not upset a tortoise creeping leisurely along the last step. This tortoise’s shell had been gilded, but the gilding was somewhat tarnished by the dampness of the grass ….”

Those two men are Fide-Yori, a young Shogun who had been supported by a Regent, but was now ready for the Regent to step aside, and Iwakura, Prince of Nagato, his closest friend and counsellor They knew that  Hieyas, who was an ambitious, older man, would be unwilling to let go of the power he loved.

They were right. Hieyas believed that he should have the Shogun’s position, and that Nagato had undermined him. He began to plot and scheme against them. He believed that right was on his side, he drew others to his cause, and soon Japan was at war.

This story, full of action, drama and heroism, is entangled with love stories.

GautierUsurperNagato loved the Kisaki, the highest ranking of the Mikado’s wives. She return that love, but she knew that their relationship was doomed. She arranged for him to be betrothed to Fatkoura, one of her ladies who she knew loved him dearly. He obeyed, but he could not love her as she loved him.

That left Fatkoura vulnerable, and she abducted by one of Hieyas’ allies, the Prince of Tosa. He fell in love with her, he tried to court her, but she was contemptuous, even though her situation and her feelings for Nagato left her close to despair.

And the Shogun was smitten with Omiti, a young woman who had brought him a warning of plot against Nagato’s life. He wanted to make her his wife, but she had disappeared and he had no idea where she had come from or where she had gone.

Those are the broad strokes of the stories, and there is much more that brings the story together.

There was action! There was drama! There was romance!

There were plot twists aplenty, and a wealth of lovely details.

The characters were quite simply drawn, but I found it easy to understand their situations and their feelings, and why they spoke and acted as they did. It took me a while to sort out the different names and titles at the start, but once I’d done that I was fine.

I saw echoes of other stories in this one; some older stories and myths and some literature from closer to the authors own era. And though the setting is seventeenth century Japan there is much in her story that is timeless and universal. This is a very human story; a little predictable in places but well thought out and constructed.

I have to say though that the story was secondary to the world and the culture that the author wanted to illuminate. My own background in her subject is minimal, but I felt that she used her knowledge well, and that it must have been quite wonderful for her contemporaries, who didn’t have the possibilities for travelling and acquiring knowledge that we are blessed with now, to learn of history and culture on the other side if the world like this.

The wonderfully descriptive prose really pulled me into the world, and I loved seeing it; I couldn’t quite feel that I was part of the story, but I was a fascinated spectator, very close to the action.

The action scenes were well done, the romance was just a little overblown, but where the writing really shone was in the set pieces. There’s a picnic early in the story, where tales are told, and more than one person recognised the significance of the stories; I could read those particular pages over and over again. And I’m going to finish with the beginning of a dramatic scene in a theatre, towards the end of the book.

This isn’t a book for everyone, but of you like the sound of it, and if you like this kind of writing, I would recommend it as a wonderful, escapist entertainment

“Soon the favored portion of the public, who were able to engage their seats in advance, arrived from all sides. Across the two bridges arching the canal to right and left of the theatre came norimonos and cangos, their bearers advancing with measured pace, and following one after the other in infinite succession; from every street appeared countless palanquins. The black lacquer glittered in the sun, the dresses of the women, in haste to enter, had the fresh tints of newly opened flowers. Some young men arrived on horseback; they threw the bridle to the groom, who ran before them, and mounted the stairs to the theatre hurriedly. Under the shade of broad parasols came various families on foot. Upon the canal a throng of boats besieged the landing-stage; the rowers exchanged hard words; the women stepped on shore with little shrieks of alarm. They were followed by maid-servants carrying magnificent boxes of carved ivory, mother-of-pearl, or sandal-wood. The hall was soon filled, and the doors were closed.

The interior of the theatre was rectangular in shape, the parquet divided into square spaces separated by partitions about ten inches high. Two aisles led from the back of the house to the stage, which latter was not divided by any practical boundary from the body of the house, both being upon the same level. These aisles seemed intended rather for occasional exits and entrances of the actors, than for the accommodation of visitors, the partitions between the boxes being sufficiently broad to allow the spectators to reach the places reserved for them. The journey, however, was not without peril, and was accomplished amid screams and bursts of laughter. The women, hampered by their handsome dresses, advanced cautiously, stumbling occasionally. The men offered their arms, to help them into the boxes; but some preferred to sit upon the edge and slide gracefully down. Each compartment held eight persons, who squatted upon the matted floor; and as soon as they were seated, a servant, attached to the theatre, brought them tea and saki on a lacquer tray, with pipes and a brazier.

Raised above the parquet on three sides of the hall was a double row of boxes, the fourth side being occupied by the stage. These boxes, very richly decorated on a background of red or black lacquer, were the most select part of the play-house, especially those in the upper stage. There the most elegant coquettes displayed their magnificent toilets. The aspect of the theatre was delightful; most of the women were beautiful, with their dead-white skins, their glossy hair and dusky eyes. The rustle of silk, the shimmer of satin, the bright colors and the embroideries, formed a splendid spectacle. The married women were easily recognized by their teeth blackened with a mixture of iron filings and saki, by their plucked eyebrows, and by their sash tied in an enormous knot directly in front. The young girls made the knot at the back, and left their teeth to their natural whiteness. They also dressed their hair differently. Instead of letting it hang in a long twist, or gathered in a heavy mass on the top of the head, they combed it over the forehead, arranged it in wings on either side of the face, and fashioned it into an elaborate and voluminous chignon. Some might substitute, for the tortoise-shell pins generally used, others of similar length, but made of filagree gold; their neighbors might prefer to adorn their hair with nothing but flowers and silk cords.

The men were no less fond of dress; crape, brocade, and velvet not being forbidden for their wear. Some had an embroidered scarf on one shoulder, one end hanging forward; the longer the scarf was, the higher the social rank of the wearer. When he saluted a superior he must bend until the scarf touched the ground. Therefore the longer it was, the less he had to bend. A party of nobles appearing incognito, their faces hidden by black crape hoods, showing nothing but their eyes, filled the lower row of boxes. But one of these, very near the stage, remained empty; it was suddenly thrown open, and a woman appeared ….”

And there’s one last thing that I must say: the text that I read was translated from French by Abby Langdon Alger.

* * * * * * *

14 thoughts on “The Usurper: an Episode of Japanese History by Judith Gautier (1875)

  1. You make such a great point: that this would have been a wonderful story for her contemporaries who couldn’t travel. Judging from your quotes, this is something I would have to be in the mood for reading, but I will make a note of it. It sounds intriguing.

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    1. The descriptions are wonderful – they fall into the background when that drama is at it’s height but there’s always enough there to draw you into the world. It’s amazing what you find when you start looking for older works by women in translation.

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  2. Lovely review Jane, and the book sounds fascinating. The quotes are gorgeous and I may well look out for this one!

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  3. What an interesting book, and author! There is so much detail in what you quoted – I can feel how much she wanted her readers to see (and learn) about Japan.

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  4. I’ve read about this period before, in Shogun by James Clavell, but this book sounds quite different. I’ll definitely think about reading it – the quotes you’ve included are beautiful!

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