Pictures, Life, Opinion
- Basil King (Author)
In the Garden of Charity. Tecumseh Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Marilyn J. Davis (Editor) and Nellie McClung (Author)
Stories Subversive: Through the Field with Gloves Off. Short Fiction by Nellie L. McClung. University of Ottawa Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Richard C. Davis (Author)
The Haliburton Bi-centenary Chaplet. Gaspereau Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sara Jeannette Duncan (Author)
The Imperialist. Tecumseh Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Klay Dyer
One observation that can be made with confidence about Tecumseh Press’s new Canadian Critical Edition series is that this is a project clearly being built upon a foundation of familiar names and comfortable titles. Nothing impudent in the decision to
reissue Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush; no bold canon-busting stroke in expanding to include Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Under less sure guidance such selections might prompt a raised brow (do we really need another edition of either book?) but, as general editors of the CCE, John Moss and Gerald Lynch have neatly skirted the most obvious pitfalls associated with such choices; by no means flawless in either design or implementation, there is much to be proud of in the scope, rigour, and production values of the CCE editions. The addition to the catalogue of Sara Jeannette Duncan’s The Imperialist , edited by Thomas E. Tausky, provides a valuable study of both the strengths and potential weaknesses of this new series.
While technology has guaranteed a stellar production quality to this reissue, Tausky, a critic eminently familiar with Duncan’s life and writing, has not been quite so successful in utilizing the Norton-esque format of this series to the fullest advantage of a novel that Duncan thought offered an accurate "picture of life and opinion" in small-town, turn-of-the-century Ontario. Following the incorporation of a meticulous textual appendix and well-organized set of explanatory notes, Tausky prudently dedicates most of a "Backgrounds and Contexts" section to full-text reprints of Duncan’s own letters pertaining to the novel as well as an assortment of contemporary and not always laudatory reviews. Less satisfying, though, is the mishandling in this section of excerpts from two books (CarlBerger’s The Sense of Power and Carole Gerson’s A Purer Taste)that speak directly to many of the key cultural tensions raised in the novel. Granting even the strictures of reprint permissions, the brevity of these extracts will render them of little use in all but the most basic undergraduate survey course.
The penultimate section, "Critical Interpretations," suffers from an even more pronounced and troubling unevenness. Opening strongly with a series of reprinted critical essays, including well-known discussions by Clara Thomas (on social mythologies), Peter Allen (narrative uncertainty), and Ajay Heble (Duncan and the imperial idea), the section is rounded out, quite curiously, with five "new" essays commissioned specifically for this edition: one each by Terrence L. Craig (on imperialism and morality), Frank Davey (narrative poli- tics), Teresa Hubel (erasure of the working class), Elisabeth KÃ¶ster (romantic heroines), and Tausky himself (audience). Solid though unspectacular in their reconsiderations of Duncan’s novel, this commissioned quintet prompts more a questioning of editorial process than of critical acuity. Why the departure in this volume from the more rigorous CCE practice of reprinting only previously published works? And why requisition contributions at all when vetted essays by such critics as Gerson (in lieu of the excerpt perhaps), Misao Dean, and Carrie MacMillan are noted in the bibliography to the volume but not included here?
As Tausky himself observes in his preface, "the past twenty years . . . has seen the publication of over two dozen essays" on The Imperialist , surely one or two more of these were suitable for inclusion here. Alternatively, why not replace these commissioned pieces with reprints of some of Duncan’s more eclectic writing, her "Saunterings" from The Week, for instance, or, better still, her too frequently overlooked editorials and book reviews from The Indian Daily News. Her reflections on literary realism or her irony-tinged comments on Graeme Mercer Adam and Ethelwyn Wetherald’s An Algonquin Maiden would prove especially valuable to scholars and students alike.
So would some attention to the very (read, far too) selective and generally mismanaged bibliography that concludes the volume. One representative and particularly glaring blunder: the aforementioned critique of Adam and Wetherald is referenced to Tausky’s own volume of Duncan’s selected journalism rather than to its original publication in the pages of The Week. Enough said. Major and minor reservations about this volume aside, the CCE series should prove a welcome addition to many course syllabi. Basil King’s In the Garden of Charity (1903) is, like The Imperialist , the only book in its author’s impressive body of writing (twenty-two novels, seven books on religion and philosophy, a handful of short fictions, and two screenplays) to draw primarily on a Canadian landscape. Set in Nova Scotia (King was born on Prince Edward Island) the novel explores the life of Charity Pennland, wife of a bigamous local man whose death moves her to resolve to help his other wife raise their child. Like Duncan’s novel, this book has been reissued by Tecumseh Press, albeit as part of their more general catalogue. It is never a good sign when the cover of a reissue boasts an incorrect title: King wrote In the Garden of Charity not The Garden of Charity. Similar irritants abound in this volume. Despite an engaging, though on occasion too precious, introduction by John Coldwell Adams, an adequate set of "Notes of [sic] the Text" (another pesky preposition), a balanced selection of reviews, and a detailed bibliography, this book is forced to bear a double burden. With its less-than-careful preparation and high retail price, it seems destined to lose the battle for syllabus space against the more affordable and better-known New Canadian Library titles from the same period.
One anecdote that Adams recounts in his introduction is of an evening in 1921 when King and fellow Prince Edward Islander Lucy Maud Montgomery were seated together at a dinner held for Nellie McClung. Both King and McClung gave after-dinner speeches, which occasioned Montgomery to note, with marked displeasure, that "Nellie . . . made a speech full of obvious platitudes and amusing little stories which made everyone laugh and deluded us into thinking it was a quite fine thing—until we began to think it over." To encourage a "thinking over" of McClung’s stories is the overt aim of Stories Subversive: Through the Field with Gloves Off, an anthology of thirteen representative stories selected primarily from two of McClung’s four books of short fiction: The Black Creek Stopping-House (1912) and All We Like Sheep (1921).
Released as volume twenty in the University of Ottawa Press’s Canadian Short Story Library, Stories Subversive suffers from none of the problems hampering the King reissue; this is a well-designed and carefully constructed book. More impor- tantly, it provides a broad enough range of stories to serve as a useful introduction to (or reminder of) an aspect of McClung’s life and writing that is often ignored. Although editor Marilyn I. Davis’s claim that McClung can at times rival Leacock as a humorist is debatable, there are well-controlled ironies deployed in a number of the stronger stories collected here, notably "The Live Wire" and "Banking in London." On other occasions, McClung’s penchant for overwriting is painfully apparent, especially in her search for the happy endings that she considered to be "nearer to the truth" of life than "error and sorrow and failure." Such determined optimism weighs heavily upon a story like "The Neutral Fuse," which begins as an almost Sinclair Ross-like evocation of one woman’s losing battle against the prairie winds before dissipating into a lengthy, narrative-numbing example of what Davis calls McClung’s "consciousness-raising" fiction.
Ironically, McClung is in the most control of her prose in those stories in which her female protagonists struggle hopelessly under the crushing weight of "winter-killed" lives, social injustices, and isolation. Overcoming a tetchy opening section in which Davis seems determined to distribute blame for the paucity of critical commentary on McClung’s stories, the introduction to Stories Subversive provides the solid biographical and sociocultural contexts necessary to begin what I tend to agree will be a timely and useful reappraisal of these stories.
Gloves of another sort come off in The Haliburton Bi-centenary Chaplet, a collection of essays drawn from papers presented at the 1996 Thomas Raddall Symposium. This is a book, editor Richard A. Davies promises, that will serve as a reminder of the "two views of" that grandest of provincial Tories "competing for hegemony today": the perspective offered by those supposedly dedicated, as Ruth Panofsky states in her contribution, to "revisit[ing] his work in light of such contemporary concerns as misogyny or racism" and the view of those critics apparently content to reflect with the utmost respect and diligence upon the subtleties of individual works and archival resources. Not surprisingly, both sides of this (imagined? constructed?) binary show themselves in these essays to be capable of both insightful, elegant readings and moments of pure bombast. While I admit to finding George Elliott Clarke’s "incendiary" and freewheeling essay on Haliburton’s "eccentric devotion to neo-feudal social ideals, his advocacy of slavery, and his noxious racial caricatures" to be the most engaging and engaged essay in the collection, I find it, by equal distinction, the most frustrating. The certainty with which Clarke equates Haliburton’s views with those of his most (in)famous creation, Sam Slick, or with which he declares his subject "English Canada’s grand, definitive writer of the nineteenth century" calls to mind not a few instances of Slick’s own "soft sawder."
While some pleasant surprises do surface in this collection, notably essays by Gerald C. Boudreau and Naomi Griffiths on Haliburton’s relationship with the Acadians and Gwendolyn Davies on Haliburton’s Windsor, the lasting impression is one of a certain staginess to the whole affair, an ethos of theatricality from which these papers seem to emerge. Although this pitting of oppositional approaches is not without potential to stimulate discussion or to inspire controversy and debate, this volume ultimately fails to deliver the exactness of thought or elegance of prose that such provocations demand. Too many of these essays fail to negotiate gracefully the translation from stage to page. While Panofsky’s "confession" that she has "always felt ill at ease with The Clockmaker series" might work well in oral presentation, it seems trite and outof place in an essay that promises a discerning reconsideration of Haliburton’s "denigration of women." Similarly, Allen Penney’s carefully detailed architectural interpretation of Haliburton’s house, Clifton Grove, could easily have delivered its critical punch in half the length. Finally, given both Tausky and Davies’s decisions to include their own essays in their respective volumes (the former, in fact, includes two), I move that a moratorium be declared on editor self-selection. To bend the words of Addison slightly, the role of the editor is to direct the storm not add to it.
- Home Free? by Joanne Saul
Books reviewed: Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo and Writing Home: A PEN Canada Anthology by Constance Rooke
- Unrelenting Genealogies by Marilyn Iwama
Books reviewed: Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan by Takashi Fujitani, Picture Bride by Yoshiko Uchida, and Lake and Other Stories by Gerry Shikatani
- Writing through Terror by Douglas Barbour
Books reviewed: Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
- Comic Bildungsromans by Evan Munday
Books reviewed: Fishing for Bacon by Michael Davie, Lemon by Cordelia Strube, and Stripmalling by Jon Paul Fiorentino and Evan Munday
- Why Family Matters by Eva-Marie Kröller
Books reviewed: Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
MLA: Dyer, Klay. Pictures, Life, Opinion. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #161-162 (Summer/Autumn 1999), On Thomas King. (pg. 194 - 197)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.