Reclaiming the Lost
- Carole Gerson (Author)
Canadian Women in Print, 1750-1918. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by J. A. Weingarten
Carole Gerson’s assiduous study of writers, publishers, editors, and journalists provides a panorama of predominantly nineteenth-century Canadian women. Her book joins a growing list of print-culture studies that have emerged recently, most notably Dean Irvine’s Editing Modernity: Women and Little-Magazine Cultures in Canada, 1916-1956 (2008) and Janice Fiamengo’s The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada (2008). Although groundbreaking, such studies cover far fewer years (and figures) than Gerson’s text, which effectively narrates over 150 years of women’s history and thoughtfully frames major female literary figures. With admirable frankness, Gerson argues that
it is not possible to alter the historical record and claim that female poets or fiction writers outnumbered or outperformed men, [but] it is possible to reconfigure the literary field so that the arenas in which women achieved a presence receive greater acknowledgement. In order to achieve this goal, she focuses on
the context in which writers worked, rather than detailed analysis of their words. Yet, as a text meant to
reclaim the lost—to borrow a line from Andrew Suknaski’s The Ghosts Call You Poor—and to challenge
the cultural authority of literary canons, Gerson’s study could only have benefited from representative critical readings. While it is regrettable that Gerson decided against this approach, she nevertheless offers the proverbial open door on which feminist scholars can lean.
Conceived of as a response to recent criticism that demands the recognition of
the varied historical roles that women have played in the world of the book, Gerson’s text develops a
progressive and celebratory narrative through two integrated lenses: women’s oppression under patriarchy and their personal agency in
the public and private spheres available to them. This hybrid approach permits a broad outline of women’s professions and the challenges faced in each one. Mapping this territory, Gerson tends to resist employing cultural or literary theory, though some familiar critics (such as Misao Dean, Linda Hutcheon, and Elaine Showalter) appear throughout the study. Instead, Gerson’s approach is predominantly historical; she seeks to
reconstruct [women’s] engagement with print within the terms of their lived experience. The chiefly historical frame keeps the text readable, because Gerson rarely adopts complex theoretical idioms; her language is consistently straightforward and clear. Though few, her occasional theoretical invocations are somewhat distracting, if only because they are not well situated: Gerson casually invokes
Linda Hutcheon’s querying of national models of literary history and
what Elaine Showalter terms ˜ad feminam’ criticism without providing much in the way of definition. While footnotes accompany such allusions, some clarification would be more useful in the body of the study itself.
The range of Gerson’s study is vast. She divides Canadian Women in Print into three parts: 1) a broad introduction to women’s print culture, 2) various writers and publishers until 1875, and 3) the publishing, non-fiction, and creative writing of the New Woman’s era. Each section contains subcategories that address one aspect (an arena, a historical movement, et cetera) of print culture, which are further divided in various ways: regions (such as Montreal, New York, or London), genres (including
the woman’s preface, the diary, and others), historical figures (to name only a few of many: Susanna Moodie, Nellie McClung, Agnes Maule Machar, and Madge Macbeth), and numerous literary contexts (such as canons, celebrity, professionalism, domestic education, temperance, and racialism). Such sectioning occurs quite often, but it rarely feels detrimental to Gerson’s flow. In fact, more often than not, her numerous headings keep the study’s pace consistent and its emphases focused, both of which are necessary in a study of such an expansive era. That being said, Gerson’s narrative is meticulous and impressive. Through statistical data, a plethora of explanatory footnotes, and well-supported historical evidence, she succeeds in reconstructing a percipient vision of this pre-1918 epoch. She also includes photos of nearly every major figure in her study, which symbolically puts faces to the names. And despite her study’s quick pace, little seems sidestepped or too briefly considered, with the exception of a formal approach to the poetry and fiction itself.
In that regard, the absence of formal analysis in Gerson’s study marks its major limitation. The vague defense of this conscious omission is ultimately unconvincing, especially when one considers how critics such as D. M. R. Bentley, Dean Irvine, Stephanie McKenzie, and Brian Trehearne have similarly sought to reclaim unacknowledged writers in their scholarship: they provide ample historical context to frame their close readings. I stress this point because Gerson is (rightfully) quite critical of androcentric canons; she laments that most of her selected writers
are relatively obscure and . . . still quite uncanonical. But to maintain that Deborah How Cottnam was
Canada’s first notable woman poet, that Mary Ann Shadd Gary was
Canada’s first significant Black woman writer, or that Madge Macbeth was a
consummate professional woman author without any suggestion of their talent is problematic. The text could easily accommodate even a few representative examples of these writers’ virtuosity: two separate anecdotes about Susanna Moodie and Gabrielle Roy are repeated almost verbatim in different chapters, and the multiple photos of Mina Hubbard could have been reduced to one. Moreover, the actual number of creative writers in the study is quite small; Gerson more typically chronicles the lives of journalists and editorial figures. In other words, some strategic editing would have left ample space for a few succinct analyses to demonstrate the calibre of Gerson’s relatively small number of novelists and poets.
Even if such absences seem glaring, Gerson’s primary goal, to broaden the frame of literary history and to make known the women that populate this enlarged scope, is certainly well realized. This achievement is due partly to the confident, clear style of Canadian Women in Print; its conversational tone would seem inviting to any audience. Gerson’s historical anecdotes, especially in her section on women’s prefaces, prove similarly captivating, as well as illustrative. Moreover, the text is erudite, yet skillfully distilled to only its most significant conclusions. As such, the critic’s wealth of knowledge never overwhelms the page or the reader, but her bibliography still provides a myriad of other historical, literary, or critical resources to aid scholars. Despite its aversion to alternative and equally helpful critical approaches, Gerson’s project is fundamentally accomplished and instructive. It reclaims many lost figures and offers a foundation for future studies of a gradually enlarging historical lens focused on Canadian women in print.
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MLA: Weingarten, J. A. Reclaiming the Lost. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #212 (Spring 2012), General Issue. (pg. 153 - 154)
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