Christmas is a time for love, but sometimes the path of true love does not run smooth…
When my friend doth speak,
I hear the echo ever,
Of a mountain peak
Whose rocks and snows together
Utter a might silence
This poem graces the pages at beginning of a volume entitled ‘Love-Letters of a Japanese’, published in 1911 and edited by one G.N. Mortlake. It consists entirely of the love-letters exchanged over the course of two years and three Christmases between a young geologist called Mertyl Meredith and her Japanese paramour Kenrio Watanabe, also a geologist, whom she had met previously in Munich.
Their first Christmas finds them in the formal, early, stages of romance, with both of them in London and exchanging gifts. Watanabe is keen to impress, but is unsure of gift-giving etiquette. He is reassured by Mertyl.
London, December 26th
“…it was quite right that you should have sent some gift, though it was not necessary that you should send anything so costly as…mine must have been. The sword-ring pleases me greatly – I am delighted with it and thank you heartily. We meet at the picnic in the woods on Wednesday”
Clearly a mild Christmas. Over the next year, Watanabe has had to return to Tokyo. It has also become apparent there is something that Watanbe hasn’t been completely honest about. He is already married. However he is seeking divorce and he has proposed to Mertyl pending the outcome of proceedings. Mertyl in turn, is planning a trip to Japan. The combination of separation and the depth of their love has lead to a much longer, and considerably more impassioned Christmas exchange.
Mertyl Meredith, London, December 24th
“…I am glad that you are saving all your kisses for me when I come. By that time I shall be starving for kisses – so terribly hungry that you must kiss me very gently at first, or I will die – as a too hungry man must be fed very little at first.”
and later in the same letter,
“Dear, if you were to prove yourself less than I think you, I should kill you. But – you are what I think you are, and I am living with you in thought and loving you.”
Kenrio contemplates her letter while walking along the seashore at twilight. He replies with a letter including philosophical discussion on the Buddhist concept of enlightenment, the nature of love in both the higher and lower worlds, and the symbolism of rings. He begins:
“Heart of my heart – I am sitting on pebbles by the sea shore three hours from Tokio. My feet are only a yard or two away from the maximum reach of the sea waves. Yonder I see beautiful clouds, pink, white, bright and dark, over the sea and behind the mountains. The brightest red rose clouds are just shining from the setting sun, while will shine upon you very in soon in the English morn and greet you with my deep red love, and with the pure white of flashing waves. The waves approach me and retire; when it approaches it brings their sweet message from you, and when it retires it brings my message to you.”
After returning from the shoreline, he adds
“…I saw Venus, which gave me the sweetest recollection of the wood which is closely associated with our love. A big moth is flying against my window; I never thought before that any lepidoptera can live in winter and be active… This shows the climate is mild here”
Ever the scientist. Over the next year, Watanabe’s preoccupation with work and a mysterious illness began to lower the frequency of his letters to the frustration of Mertyl. His divorce has yet to be finalised. Mertyl had yet to make her trip to Japan.
London, November 20th
“Sweet, your last letter reached me nearly a month ago! It is cruel of you, and I am angry, and this morning I nearly decided to break our betrothal.”
Kenrio is oblivious.
Tokio, December 10th
“I just got your pleasing question about the magazine editor. Here also is several things to say. But just now I cannot write any details, as I am so awfully occupied day and night.”
Mertyl puts her foot down.
“To-day I am going away for Christmas. I have received no letters from you since last October, but one short card. Until I get a satisfactory explanation of this, it is impossible for me to write”
G.N. Mortlake adds helpfully that Mr. Watanabe wrote a short letter at this point which has been apparently lost.
London, January 5th
“Your note told me some of the things I wanted to know – but I really am displeased that you are so busy. You know, dear, that your health is the first and most important thing for our future. I am sorry there have been so many things to trouble you – and awfully glad that your house did not catch fire. I thought you had told me it was surrounded by a garden?
All the same, it is a thing which is impossible for me to understand that you could have been too busy to send me more than one postcard in two months. Do you not eat? Could you not write me a card while you were eating, or riding in a tramcar?
It is a slight which I do not forgive, and it has hurt me too deeply for words, that you were so careless of me and of our sacred love.
Ah, foolish, foolish lover!”
Later that year, Mertyl finally made it to Japan, but Watanabe refused to see her citing his mysterious illness which would not let him leave the house. And so the infatuation died with Mertyl failing to find her echo, and Watanabe uttering his mighty silence.
All is not as it seems however. Although these letters are real, G.N. Mortlake does not exist. Kenrio Watanabe is really Kenjiro Fujii from the Imperial University of Tokyo while the give-away to the identity of the young infatuated Mertyl is that foreward to the book is written by Marie Stopes, geologist, Fellow of the Geological Society and discoverer in Japan of some of the earliest fossilised angiosperms – the first flowering plants. She found these in the coal-faces at the bottom of some of the deepest mines in Hokkaido. She explored the mines herself, descending in a nimbus of skirts much to the astonishment of the local Japanese miners.
Marie met Kenjiro in Munich in 1904 and fell deeply in love. This was a highly unconventional relationship, conducted in secret over the following three years, until it ended just as Marie had managed to convince the Royal Society to fund her trip to Japan in search of angiosperm fossils and to discover the beginnings of floral life on Earth. Initially this trip was intended for her to be with Kenjiro who had promised to divorce his wife and marry her. As the letters show, he’d gotten cold feet. In fact in order to avoid seeing her when she travelled from the UK, he went to the lengths of pretending he had leprosy, a disease Marie had said horrified her. Marie was heart-broken.
To get her revenge, it was Marie herself who published their love-letters under the thin disguise of Mertyl and Watanabe. A second edition was published ten years later after the publication of Stopes’s ‘Married Love’, ‘The Truth About Venereal Disease’ and ‘On the Four Visible Ingredients in Banded Bituminous Coal’ had made her a household name. Later in her life she turned her attentions to play-writing and poetry, as well as her more well known works on contraception and eugenics. She did in the end find love, as well as her own place of peace on a coastline, in the Old Hightower Lighthouse on the Isle of Portland. From there she could watch the waves break on the shore, and attract the attention of passing moths.