A Question of Representation
- Barbara Meadowcroft (Author)
Gwethalyn Graham: A Liberated Woman in a Conventional Age. Women's Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Branko Gorjup (Editor)
Margaret Atwood: Essays on Her Works. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sarah Galletly
The question of critical under- (and even over-) representation is often a thorny one. The reasons why one author will be immortalized in multiple biographies, essays collections, and critical studies, while another slips into obscurity are multiple and often hard to justify, making the process of critical "recovery" contentious. Are we right to believe scholars who argue that certain authors deserve to be rescued from relative obscurity, or do we need to be more-not less-discerning in choosing who we metaphorically bring back from the dead?
In a new biography, Barbara Meadowcroft makes a convincing case for the need to focus more critical attention on Gwethalyn Graham-a key literary celebrity of the 1930s and 40s. Graham won two Governor-General's Awards, her most famous novel Earth and High Heaven (1944) even making it to number one on the New York Times bestseller list, yet she still remains relatively obscure in contemporary Canadian literary scholarship. In this biography Meadowcroft attempts to reposition Graham not only as a significant feminist author of the inter-war years, but also as one of several writers-among them Hugh MacLennan and Gabrielle Roy-who brought Montreal into the Canadian literary imagination in the 1940s. In addition, the biography highlights Graham's importance as a commentator on anti-Semitic tensions in French Canada.
In her research, Meadowcroft was forced to rely heavily on the recollections of family and friends of Graham, many of whom had conflicting perceptions of her character, and who might have been reluctant to acknowledge her faults. For example, Graham's role as a neglectful mother is largely glossed over in the biography, presumably to avoid losing reader sympathy. While these factors may lead us to be cautious of fully accepting the portrait offered, they do not detract from the impressiveness of Meadowcroft's achievement in reconstructing the life of such an elusive figure.
The extensive discussion of Graham's literary output is both the volume's great strength and its weakness. I challenge anyone to finish the biography without a strong urge to seek out Graham's own books, since Meadowcroft reveals the quality of her writing and encourages critical investigation of it. She makes especially strong cases for re-evaluation of lesser known works-Swiss Sonata (1938) and Dear Enemies (co-written with Solange Chaput-Rolland, 1963)-both of which encapsulate the cultural moments of their conception. However, there is a tendency in earlier sections of the biography to depend too much on the semi-autobiographical manuscript "West Wind." While containing many parallels with Graham's childhood, it is far from straight autobiography, and thus cannot be seen as reliable evidence of her early experiences.
Regardless of the reader's interest in, or awareness of, Graham's literary output, this biography presents a touching portrait of the burden of literary celebrity. With the success of Earth and High Heaven, Graham felt stifled and constricted, and she lacked the support of a female writing community, something which became increasingly valuable to authors in the 1960s. Experiencing the stigma of single-motherhood in the 1940s, Graham discovered the freedom to write, but during the fifties, having become a faculty wife, her literary output declined significantly.
If Gwethalyn Graham has been starved of critical attention, Margaret Atwood suffers from a surfeit. The sheer volume of Atwood criticism produced over the last four decades has led many critics to succumb to "Atwood fatigue," and has created a daunting environment for anyone wishing to contribute to this already bloated critical corpus. Are we reaching a point where anything of critical or literary value has already been mined from Atwood's back catalogue? Or are there still new avenues to be explored and new approaches to be implemented?
If Branko Gorjup's recent collection is anything to go by, this search might indeed be coming to an end. Serving almost as a compilation or "best of" of Atwood criticism, Margaret Atwood: Essays on Her Works contains ten essays-only one of which is not a reprint-and an interview with Atwood. It includes contributions by several key figures in Atwood scholarship such as Barbara Hill Rigby, Coral Ann Howells and Lorna Irvine, many of which are hard to locate or out of print. This said, the structure of the collection, which focuses chronologically on Atwood's novels from The Edible Woman (1969) to The Blind Assassin (2000), assigning one essay for each, leaves little room for comparison between and among the novels or for assessment of the development of ideas and styles across the Atwood canon.
Rigney's essay, "'The Roar of the Boneyard': Life Before Man," is an obvious exception, skilfully referring to other Atwood novels and poems of the period to reinforce the argument. Irvine's "The Here and Now of Bodily Harm" is also worth noting due to her weaving of Northrop Frye's infamous statement "Where is here?" into her larger discussion of chronology and the split between first- and third-person narrative in the novel. However, the decision to focus the collection solely on Atwood's novels restricts its scope. Since the main aim of the volume is to provide a broad overview of "Her Works," the absence of any discussion of her poetry, short stories, or work in other media is disappointing.
This collection seems well-suited for libraries in need of a staple collection of Atwood criticism, but for any academic with a serious interest in Atwood, many of these essays will already be familiar, which will limit the book's appeal.
- Drab Little Nothings by Michelle Ariss
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- Women's Writing in Québec: Then & Now by Valerie Raoul
Books reviewed: Le nom de la mère: mères, filles et écriture dans la litterature québécoise au féminin by Lori Saint-Martin and Trois écrivaines de l'entre-deux-guerres: Alice Lemieux, Eva Senécal et Simone Routier by Marie-Claire Brosseau
- Evolutionary Visions by Angela Spreng
Books reviewed: Embryo Words: Margaret Laurence's Early Writings by Nora Foster Stovel and Challenging Territory: The Writing of Margaret Laurence by Christian Riegel
- Canada: Migration and Exile by Suzanne Marshall
Books reviewed: Fluid Exile: Jewish Exile Writers in Canada 1940-2006 by Eugen Banauch and Migration and Fiction: Narratives of Migration in Contemporary Canadian Literature by Maria Löschnigg and Martin Loschnigg
- Reviewing the Reviewer by George Parker
Books reviewed: Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature by Philip Marchand
MLA: Galletly, Sarah. A Question of Representation. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #203 (Winter 2009), Home, Memory, Self. (pg. 179 - 180)
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