The Adventures of Her Serene Limpness, the Moon-faced Princess, Dulcet and Debonaire was written in 1888 by English author Frederica St. John Orlebar. The book tells the story of a young princess of Japan, the daughter of a Japanese prince and a shipwrecked Englishwoman. She accidentally boards a boat to England, finds her long-lost English family, and enchants the British nobility with her childlike nature. The book and its illustrations reflect the ways that Europeans thought about Japan in the 19th century.
Japan’s government had pursued a policy of isolationism since the early 1600s. Until the mid-19th century, it had limited contact with Western nations. In 1853, Japanese ports finally opened for business with the West. Imported art and objects reached western Europe and inspired a craze for all things Japanese in England and France. Woodcuts by famous Japanese artists like Hiroshige were particularly popular. Japanese art influenced the work of Impressionist painters such as Monet and Degas. Fans, kimonos, and lacquered or enameled ware were also prized by European collectors. The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera about the Japanese court, was a hit with the public when it premiered in 1885. Frederica Orlebar published her book at the height of this “Japonisme.” Her audience craved fashionable Japanese culture but knew very little about it.
The illustrations in The Adventures of Her Serene Limpness are inspired by the asymmetrical, understated style of Japanese woodcuts. This illustration shows the princess with a guitar, smiling serenely. The author remarks that the princess’ face “was cast in the Asiatic mold (but without the slightest cunning).” She appears small and childlike, with a round face and large, almond-shaped eyes. This depiction is consistent with her characterization as simple-minded, innocent, and trusting. However, it is also typical of racist attitudes toward Asians at the time. In the first part of the book, Orlebar paints a picture of naïve and unsophisticated Japanese characters living in an undeveloped and ‘backward’ society. These themes reflect contemporary colonial attitudes toward Asia. Asian women in particular were often stereotyped as childish and submissive. Europeans saw Asian people as inscrutable, mysterious, and often sinister, but not sophisticated. Rationality and reason were thought to belong to Western nations. Even as Europeans consumed East Asian goods and art, they felt a sense of cultural superiority.
The princess wears a formless, shift-like dress rather than a traditional kimono (still worn in Japan until the late 19th century). It is clear that the author was not overly familiar with Japanese dress and culture. She likely based her work on European interpretations of Japan such as The Mikado. The world of the novel is more of a fantasy than an image of the real culture and history of Japan. The country merely provides an exotic background for the action.
The Adventures of Her Serene Limpness is not a literary classic, but it is a fascinating cultural artifact. It shows the distortion and misrepresentation of Japanese culture in colonial thought. Many of these attitudes toward Asian cultures and people (especially women) have survived in popular culture.