LONDON – An expert has unearthed a turn-of-the-century photograph that shows for the first time the two London sisters who influenced famous Japanese writer Natsume Soseki.
The picture, taken in 1903, shows sisters Priscilla and Eliza Leale, who looked after Soseki while he lived in the British capital, as well as the famous painter Kanzen Shimomura.
Sammy Tsunematsu, who was given the photo by one of the sisters’ relatives, said the English women were important because it was largely through them that Soseki interpreted his time in Britain. Later in his career, he wrote a number of works influenced by his stay in London.
Tsunematsu, curator of the Soseki Museum in London, said: “Soseki did not have many friends while he was in London, and so the sisters’ influence was very important.”
The works of Soseki (1867-1916) are celebrated in Japan, with some of the most famous, including “Wagahai Wa Neko de Aru” (“I Am a Cat”), and “Botchan” (“Little Master”). He is considered a literary icon, and his portrait appears on the 1,000 yen bill.
The author was sent to Britain in 1900 to study English and English literature and lived there for two years and two months. Soseki experts say his later works, such as “Bungakuron” (“Literary Theory”) and “Rondon-To” (“The Tower of London”) were products of his time in London.
Despite providing inspiration for his later works, Soseki failed to enjoy his first eight months in London, during which he stayed at four separate lodgings — complaining each time that his landlords were not intellectually stimulating enough and their rents too high.
“I led a most miserable life among the English and felt like a dog thrown into the company of wolves,” the author once said. After deciding to move from his fourth lodgings, he put an advertisement in a newspaper and the Leale sisters answered it.
It appears that Soseki did find “sanctuary” at his fifth lodgings, The Chase, in Clapham, south London, where he stayed with the Leale sisters, who shared his interest in literature.
He stayed at the Leales’ home for 15 months and the sisters cared for him when he suffered some sort of mental illness. His actual condition remains unclear to this day.
Experts say he enjoyed his time at the house and even started to ride a bicycle, highly fashionable at the turn of the century. Experts say the sisters were influential for Soseki because he spent a lot of time at his lodgings. His only two other friends in England were his personal tutor and a fellow Japanese academic.
“While he was with the sisters, Soseki felt very comfortable because he was given three meals a day and enjoyed life with them,” Tsunematsu said. “I think that his impression of London changed in a more positive way because of the sisters.”
The museum curator said he was delighted when he realized the importance of his discovery. “When I first saw the picture of the sisters, I thought that somebody else must have found such a photograph already. But I have looked through all the other material on Soseki and cannot find anything,” he said.
The photograph was taken in the garden of the Leales’ house after Soseki had returned to Japan, and includes two unidentified Japanese men as well as painter Shimomura, who was also studying in London. It is believed that Shimomura had come to visit one of the men who was lodging with the sisters.
oday, the Leales’ home is still standing and in a house opposite is the Soseki Museum — a shrine to everything related to Soseki and his brief stay in London.
The museum is presently busy preparing to mark the 100th anniversary on Oct. 28 of Soseki’s arrival in England and members of Britain’s Japan Society will gather at the museum to celebrate the event with a speech by Tsunematsu.
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