- Sara Jeannette Duncan (Author)
The Pool in the Desert. Broadview Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Janice Fiamengo
The Pool in the Desert, originally published in 1903, is a collection of four stories that illustrates the blend of sympathy and ironic detachment with which Sara Jeannette Duncan portrayed the British presence in India. A new edition by Broadview Press restores the original order of the stories and includes appendices with contemporary reviews and excerpts from Duncan’s non- fictional writing on India. The appearance of this beautiful soft-cover volume is cause for delighted re-reading and some criticisms of the press’s editorial decisions.
Broadview has a reputation for producing handsome scholarly editions of canonical classics as well as lesser-known works, aimed primarily at the student market. In 1996, Duncan’s Set in Authority (1906) was ably edited by Germaine Warkentin, making available an important novel that had long been out of print; its publication signaled the press’s commitment not only to rescuing early Canadian books from oblivion but also to providing the appropriate scholarly apparatus—critical introductions, explanatory notes, and appendices—to make them accessible in the undergraduate classroom. The Pool in the Desert is an excellent companion text to Sei in Authority. Its reading pleasures are considerable and it yields important insights into turn-of-the-century feminist and colonial politics. Duncan’s major themes—loyalty, social taboo, the idealism that enables self-sacrifice, the challenge of holding to ideals in the face of passion or need—are pre- sented with her characteristic relish for subtle distinctions of meaning, witty social analysis, and character development. Moreover, the stories are exemplary for their complex narrative perspectives and finely conceived moral ambiguity: the first-person narrators in three of the stories wish to believe themselves detached from the dramas they observe but are all to some extent emotionally compromised; their ambiguous proximity creates a fascinating blend of irony and engagement. Despite the occasional flaws in the writing, such as a tendency to coyness, the ethical deliberations of the characters consistently hold our attention and arouse our sympathies.
However, the edition itself is disappointing. One expects a Broadview text to contain a substantial critical introduction and full explanatory notes. But rather than commissioning a new introduction for the edition, Broadview has reprinted, with very minor changes, Rosemary Sullivan’s introductory essay from the 1984 Penguin reprint of The Pool, which had changed the order of the stories (Sullivan discusses them in the order they appeared in the Penguin edition). The fact that Sullivan wrote the introduction seventeen years prior to its reprinting explains the inaccuracy of her second-paragraph assertion that, aside from The Imperialist, "no other books by Duncan are generally available." Given that Broadview itself recently published Set in Authority, this seems egregiously sloppy editorial practice and rather poor promotion for Broadview. Peculiarly, the status of Sullivan’s introduction as a reprint is not anywhere acknowledged, leading the uninitiated reader to assume that it appears here for the first time.
Sullivan’s introduction is more appropriate for a general audience than for students. Although her comments on the stories have stood the test of time, remaining persuasive and highly readable (if brief), they do not provide the sort of detailed and contextualized background that one expects in a Broadview edition. We learn nothing, for instance, about the conditions of the book’s publication, its critical reception, or its subsequent publishing history. Nor does Sullivan make any attempt to situate The Pool in relation to Anglo-Indian fiction of the period or, indeed, in relation to Duncan’s own later Anglo-Indian books such as Set in Authority or The Burnt Offering (1909). In these novels, Duncan explores the ethical and practical problems of British rule in India, complicating Sullivan’s statement that Duncan "had no difficulty with the lot of the Indians and the ethics of imperialism." Compounding the non-scholarliness of the introduction, Sullivan does not footnote any of her sources, making it impossible for a student to follow up her assessments of Duncan’s personal life. I wondered, for instance, on what authority she concludes that Everard Cotes, Duncan’s husband, "proved to be an admirable man," but I had no means of tracing her evidence.
A further disappointment are the notes to the text, by Gillian Siddall, which for the most part are brief and not particularly helpful, consisting frequently of short phrase definitions from the OED. We learn, for instance, that glanders is a "horse disease," that the Champ de Mars is "a park in Paris," and that a sepoy is "an Indian soldier under British rule." Designed to provide only very specific information, they do not offer insights into the social and political situation of Anglo-Indian society at the turn of the century or explain the sources and contexts for Duncan’s creative process. For example, when reading "An Impossible Ideal," students and teachers might well want to know more about Aucassin and Nicolette, which is given a significant symbolic role in the story, than that it is "a thirteenth-century romance written in prose and verse." When, in the same story, a painting is said to bear a resemblance to "an incident in one of Mrs. Steel’s novels," the reader might benefit from knowing more about Flora Annie Steel than that she was "a writer of popular Anglo-Indian romances." In confining herself to the most limited notes, Siddall misses an opportunity to introduce students to the complexity of these stories’ social, historical, and literary contexts.
Broadview has provided instructors with a welcome opportunity to teach this splendid collection but has not produced a first-rate volume.
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MLA: Fiamengo, Janice. Thirst Unquenched. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #178 (Autumn 2003), Archives and History. (pg. 124 - 126)
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