Economy and Art
- Ian Ross Robertson (Editor) and Sir Andrew Macphail (Author)
The Master's Wife, Facsimile of 1939. Institute of Island Studies (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Brent MacLaine
The republication of The Master’s Wife in this handsome facsimile edition rescues a document of considerable literary and historical scope—and not least, charm. Chief among the virtues of MacPhail’s social history-cum-memoir of life in the small Prince Edward Island farming community of Orwell is the shrewdness of its judgment and the subtlety of its irony. Neither sentimental nor nostalgic, MacPhail moves deftly from finely observed details of landscape, home, church, and school to an analysis of the cultural and intellectual markers by which the pre- and post-colonial Scots guided their lives. However faded today, the patterns drawn in The Master’s Wife are still visible in Maritime communities, one notable one being MacPhail’s own outmigration—the bright, sensitive child lured by scholarship into the larger world, in his case, to medicine and belles-lettres at McGill.
The book’s intellectualism is disguised by a curiously simple language, a feature explained in part by one of the finest chapters, "The Economy of the House," in which MacPhail details his mother’s ingenious management of the farm’s precious stores, including the particulars of kitchen craft. According to MacPhail, economizing was not born only of necessity; it was an axiom of life with the widest cultural, aesthetic, and even religious implications.
The essence of art is economy, that nothing is wasted. To write as Mr. Kipling writes, to draw as Mr. Punch draws, to paint as Ver Meer paints, to live as we lived, is to practice economy, without waste, without meanness. The writer who wastes words becomes a journalist; the draughtsman who wastes lines, a fumbler searching blindly; the painter wasting colour a striver after impressions he has never felt.
Thus, MacPhail’s style results from an application to his own prose ofthat rigorous standard which he saw at work on the Orwell farm. Quite simply, he is practising in literary terms what his mother and what "The Master"—his schoolteacher father and Presbyterian elder—preached to him in practical and theological terms.
As the above passage shows, there is no apologetic distancing from the cultural capitals of the world. In this regard, The Master’s Wife is salutary for the ease with which it connects so-called provincial life with the larger world. Additionally, MacPhail’s organicism is evident from the fact that there is no disruption between the principles of nature and the worlds of art, science, religion, or education. These are mutually supportive spheres of interests, all of which can be developed on the small farm—including, apparently, sound character development, for a child’s "inner discipline arose from a systematic obedience to the laws imposed by nature . . . . By obedience to those inevitable laws he acquired a morality . . . " The Romantic causal connection between nature and the betterment of self is direct, and as is evident throughout the book, the doctrinal severity of a Calvinist heritage mixes with Romanticism without skipping a beat.
Impressive in its range, The Master’s Wife documents an age; it fascinates with the details of pioneer life while narrating, at the same time, a personal story of a son appreciative of the rural experience to which he felt indebted for his later success; it charts the politics of the time; it champions the values of culture and declares a value system for integrating self and society. For any reader interested in the transition from a pioneering to a viably developed society, The Master’s Wife remains one of the most thoughtful and readable documents in Canadian literature.
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MLA: MacLaine, Brent. Economy and Art. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #158 (Autumn 1998), New Directions. (pg. 157 - 157)
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