A World Apart and Kindred: M. Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time

In the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Curve of Time, published in 2011, Timothy Egan refers to Muriel Wylie Blanchet as “a wonderful ghost” (vii). His choice of words is perhaps more apt than he realized. Blanchet creates a poetic narrative of substance and depth. Through alternations between a “lyric” and a “domestic” construct of time, Blanchet integrates landscape and the natural world with her own lived experience, creating-with an unruffled, measured tone-a surprising world of beauty. Analogous to British water narratives such as Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series and Kenneth Grahame’sWind in the Willows, Blanchet’s pragmatic competence on water breeds a fearlessness and kinship with the natural world rather than a sense of wilderness as hostile threat, and imbues each scene with an otherworldly grace. In this, Blanchet’s narrative departs from those of many of her BC contemporaries, by creating a paean to the coastal landscape.

Situating the Narrative

In The Curve of Time, Blanchet gathers her young children and embarks on fifteen summers of cruising through Vancouver Island’s Inside Passage on a 25-foot boat, after her husband’s unsolved disappearance in 1927. Curve is one of a trilogy of books written by women on mid-century West Coast cruising life. Kathrene Pinkerton’s Three’s a Crew first appeared in 1940, and Beth Hill’s Upcoast Summers appeared in 1985. All three books are accounts of events that take place between 1924 and the outbreak of the Second World War. Curve first appeared in the United Kingdom with Blackwood & Sons in 1961, but its publication, due to poor publicity, went almost unnoticed in Canada (Campbell xiv). Blanchet died later the same year, while in the midst of a second book. Curve was first published in 1968 in a Canadian edition (which included the material from her new manuscript) with Gray’s Publishing (xv). The book was well received, has been reviewed several times, and was revisited by Cathy Converse’s biography of Blanchet, Following the Curve of Time: The Legendary M. Wylie Blanchet. However, Critical writing about The Curve of Time, however, aside from Nancy Pagh’s multi-author examination inAt Home Afloat: Women on the Waters of the Pacific Northwest (Pagh 2001), is nonexistent.

The Curve of Time is superior in style and sensibility to both Pinkerton and Hill’s narratives. Partially, this might be due to the cast of characters in each;Curve is distinctive in that it is essentially the journal of a single woman; no spousal relationship mediates her interactions. Blanchet obviously spends a great deal of time in her own head. Her children are not developed as significant personalities; rather, they seem to be part of the natural world she travels through and are often referred to as “somebody” (98). Thus, there is little to interrupt the relationship she fosters with landscape. This allows Blanchet’s natural world observations to shine, without long narratives on social matters to dilute the immediacy of the text. Pinkerton, conversely, spends much more of the narrative discussing her husband and daughter and describing their social encounters with other cruising folk. Landscape is background to her more humanity-centred vignettes. Hill’s Upcoast Summersis a compilation of the journals of Francis Barrow, which gives the account of his coastal boating with his wife Amy between 1933 and 1941, and thus reads more as a collage than a constructed narrative. Its reportage style lends itself much more to an account of the trials and successes of the islands’ European settlers.

Blanchet draws from the adventures of each summer on the water to create an episodic reverie; the permeability of each summer’s separation from the next is bolstered by the text’s first account: “[W]e thought of that year as the year we wrote down our dreams” (8). The descriptor suggests not only that each year had a dream-like quality, but also that she was, predominantly, too spellbound or occupied with life on the water to distinguish one year from another. In conjunction with Blanchet’s explanation of the title-an envisioning of time as a curve along which “our consciousness roves” (8)-the sense is of entering a different dimension, one made of mutable, tangled reveries, of bendable time; where the multiplicity of memory renders each scene that follows with a sense of otherworldliness and beguiling beauty. In thus beginning the narrative, a spell is cast; we learn to expect the unexpected, to expect shifts and change, very much like the tides and currents that affect this family on a daily basis. We are, she seems to hint, at the mercy of larger forces.

Lyric and Domestic Understanding

In the first chapter of Curve, Blanchet employs an interesting juxtaposition, skipping back and forth between passages of lyric and domestic experience in order to establish an alternative understanding of coastal life. She repeats this technique throughout the narrative. I take notions of lyric and domestic understanding from Jan Zwicky’s work in Lyric Philosophy. Lyric experience, for Zwicky, is experience set free from time; it is a direct, unhindered connection with the world, which occurs outside of mortal and bodily experience. Domestic experience, conversely, is life lived within the constraints of mortality, time, and relation. The domestic is our daily existence, the pedestrian, lovely sighs of a dog while one is reading on a sunlit afternoon in a warm room; lyric is our exceptional existence, the profound, shiver-inducing sense of timelessness upon hearing the varied thrush’s song in an otherwise silent forest. We cannot, argues Zwicky, live in lyric, but we can visit. The domestic is where we predominantly exist.

The effect of these shifts in attention between lyric and domestic time is one of mercurial wandering-wandering with deftness and awareness; Blanchet’s light touch and loose grip on her subjects heightens the complexity of landscape and her relationship to it. In Jervis Inlet, one of the long, narrow fjords that winds its way into the BC interior from the mainland coast, Blanchet lyrically describes a stream in which she fishes for trout, having left her children at the shore’s edge. Blanchet’s descriptors in this passage are mesmerizing: sunshine “drift[s]” through the alders; light “flicker[s] on the surface of the running water”; and “somewhere deeper in the forest,” beyond our understanding, a thrush calls its “single, abrupt liquid note” (9). “All [is] still,” as if time itself has stopped; Blanchet uses a huckleberry to bait her hook, employing what is at hand, as if she herself has become a part of the spell the forest casts (9).

With a deft turn, however, this lyric world is left behind with Blanchet’s sudden panic: she remembers her children are alone on the beach. Domestic time-with its necessities, pedestrian desires, and banal dangers-floods back in. The “man in black” (10) on the beach drops to all fours minutes after her return, and the family’s timeless world of gathering, fishing, exploring, and wandering is reduced to the frantic count of the seconds it takes them to return to the dinghy and the safety of water. Domestic experience-the real, the tangible-tumbles forward in the shape of a bear, who finding them unreachable, eats their fish while they gaze on from the safety of the Caprice (10).

Here, however, Blanchet sets up a pattern she will repeat again and again, and which will serve to strengthen rather than unhinge her connection with the natural world. Instead of dwelling on the adventure between human and animal, instead of positing the consequences of an encounter, or even detailing her or the children’s sense of fear and awe, Blanchet concludes the incident quickly, with an almost pre-emptive understanding. The narrative immediately turns from the beach, the bear, her cubs, and the retreating boat to focus on the surrounding landscape, Marlborough Heights, which rise above them and sink below them and “nobody knows how deep” (11). We are curtailed from fixating on the danger; Blanchet has better, more interesting, and it could be argued, more beautiful places to go.

Much of the commentary on Blanchet as a person centres on her pragmatic, no-nonsense attitude; good-humoured, she nevertheless does not suffer fools gladly and keeps her emotions in check (Converse 184). What this curtailing of emotional excess surprisingly allows, however, is a deeper connection with the world through which she sails. As the narrative unfolds, the juxtaposition of lyric and domestic experience continues. A domestic encounter ensues with an unfortunate red snapper and its exploded swim bladder (Blanchet 12); immediately afterward, we are returned to a lyric description of the Jervis Inlet winds-wind being another natural phenomenon that dictates their travels. Similarly, Captain Vancouver’s desire to locate the mythical northwest passage is countered with Blanchet’s own musings on what actually surrounds them: rather than focusing on the unattainable connection to the Atlantic seaway, she sees the mile-high cascades and notes Vancouver’s pedestrian dismissal of the entrance to Louisa Inlet (15). With a little less lyric blindness, she seems to hint Vancouver might have discovered something not sublime, but perhaps as valuable.

By minimizing her personal drama, Blanchet heightens the impact of lyric moments, until the resonance of these moments literally spills over the edges, allowing for an occasional integration of both lyric and domestic into a whole. The Caprice and the passage she passes through seem to “dash” toward one another, not with threat of catastrophe but “equally delighted” with one another, as though in love (16). In the final chapters, Blanchet’s home on Curteis Point is described using the body as metaphor: in the hollow between thumb and palm nestles “Little House” (249). The land is drawn and depicted on the self: self is world; lyric world is domestic self.

Messing about in Boats: A World Apart and Kindred

The juxtaposition of lyric and domestic experience creates a world apart in Blanchet’s narrative. Her story exists separate from urban society and the constraints of money and urbanity; no mention is made of the obligatory rental of Blanchet’s “Little House” during the summers she is cruising. A separate hierarchy of values also exists in this world. Highly valued are the personal qualities of perception, imagination (story-telling), inventiveness (jerry-rigging), humour, and independence. In this, Blanchet’s book is kindred to British water-based narratives from the turn of the century, including Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows and Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. All three texts employ the same magical combination of deep pragmatism and practicality on the world of water, combined with a spiritual acknowledgement of otherworldly elements. As Rat remarks dreamily to Mole in Wind in the Willows, “There is nothing . . . half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats” (Grahame 6). In Ransome’s books, characters pride themselves on preparing lanterns and matches before darkness falls (Ransome 202); they are teased, like Toad, for “splashing badly and rolling a great deal” while rowing (Grahame 14); and they want never to be idle, like Blanchet’s son, who disconsolately notices, “[E]verybody’s doing something but me” (90), while the family navigates Kingcome Inlet in the fog.

In keeping with the British literary tradition of Ransome and Grahame, and in opposition to many of Blanchet’s contemporaries-adventure narratives centering around the BC wilderness-Blanchet’s relationship to the natural world is not one of fear and incomprehension, but of respect and curiosity. Wilderness to her is not hostile; its power, including the strength of tides and wind and the suddenness of fog, is simply acknowledged. Travelling through each landscape, Blanchet regards herself as another creature, neither separate and unwanted, nor dominant and power-wielding. When a “straight wall of rock” (Blanchet 91) materializes out of the fog ten feet in front of the boat in Kingcome Inlet, Blanchet does not direct our emotions (through use of adjectives as Captain Vancouver employs, such as “frigid,” “gloomy,” or “dreary,” [13]) in order to pit explorers against nature. Instead, the relationship is closer to kindred: the wall of rock “rises out of the sea”; Blanchet does not cower, but “step[s] out on the after-deck to get a better look.” The wall, hundreds of feet high, contains nesting seabirds, who “[peer] below at the danger that [has] suddenly loomed up out of the fog” (91). Troubling the traditional understandings of wilderness as alien and dangerous, the unknown element in this scene, if anything, is their boat, not the wilderness. And yet the birds do not flee. Thus, the qualities of personality needed to survive on water-pragmatism, caution, level-headedness, and a spirit of flexible adventure-help reinforce this close-to-kindred relationship with what she encounters. Neither fear nor an attempt to dominate serve any useful purpose; Blanchet accordingly gives them little time.

Blanchet’s sense of landscape as kin also finds its echo in the physical setting. The world, like the notion of time she borrows from Maeterlinck (Blanchet 7), is something one moves through that contains eddies, whirlpools, calms, backwaters, and shoals. Blanchet’s infrequent moments of fear while travelling, as when she is waiting to traverse Nakwakto Rapids (96), are often sparked by stories of fellow sailors. Commenting on their safe passage, she reflects on her irrational fright: “just because we had seen a smashed-up boat, and heard a first-hand account from a worn-out man who had had a bad experience.” Her self-castigation recognizes how she has slipped from her usual aplomb: “[W]eren’t we sillies!” she comments to her son (99). The language she uses to describe the man is pejorative and stands in stark opposition to the adjectives she chooses when describing landscape, as when she is set loose after a tug takes its log boom in the middle of the night. She and the children are “left forsaken and drifting in the dark.” The next phrase begins self-pityingly-“[w]ith a boat full of sleeping children . . .”-but quickly subverts expectation. She solves the problem by moving the boat to a nearby piling, to which she can tie: “it is easier to tow the boat than start up the engine” (162). Only ill-prepared sailors who tell unnecessarily frightening stories breed fright of the water; in her own version, competence breeds calm and positive affiliation.

The practicality needed for life on the water comes paired with an openness to delight and caprice; Blanchet’s boat is appropriately named. Her ability to whistle a wild duck into her palm is unmatched (158); her midnight encounters with tugs who want their log booms back (159) are whimsical, light-footed adventures that harken to Toad’s mishaps in Wind in the Willows, where everything turns out right in the end. More than once, Blanchet’s children waken, unperturbed, to a different cove than the one they anchored in the previous night (109), or in a puddle surrounded by the reefs of Mistaken Island (204). Like Titty’s midnight theft and re-anchoring of the Amazons’ boat in the middle of the night (Ransome 205), competence breeds a fearless inventiveness: a situation that presents no true danger is an opportunity for open engagement with the world. Blanchet’s prose, in these moments, captures the intimate detail of “multitudinous phosphorescent specks of plankton,” the “luminous jewels” that drip off her hands as she tightens the anchor line, the “shining serpent” of the line itself and the “luminous glow” of the waves beyond the rocks (207). Her writing opens to embrace the natural landscape, as if these off-kilter adventures far from the city seal her pact with the world through which she travels.

The Problem of the Imaginary Indian

Despite Blanchet’s intimate engagement with the natural world, a problem exists in her narrative that cannot be ignored even in this short essay. The second section of Curve concerns Blanchet and her children’s travels north, specifically to see the “Indian villages” (73) that she and the children have studied the previous winter. What follows might have made Franz Boas cringe. Blanchet’s aims may be simple-to visit and explore “a past that will soon be gone forever” (74). Her beliefs and her actions, however, betray a tendency that Daniel Francis describes in The Imaginary Indian: an understanding of First Nations that “White Canadians manufactured, believed in, feared, despised, admired, taught their children” (5). As they move through the north coast islands, Blanchet describes a “peculiar atmosphere belonging to the Past”: “And the farther we penetrated into these waters the more we felt that we were living in a different age-had perhaps lived there before . . . perhaps dimly remembered it all” (75). Blanchet’s limited understanding of First Nations’ past or present societies cast a pall over her descriptions.

Blanchet records not a single instance of an encounter with a First Nations person during her travels; despite this omission, she suggests that not only is she able to visit their villages, but that she may have access to “the dim ones” themselves (83). During her explorations, Blanchet also enters longhouses even if they are boarded up with “no trespassing” signs (101), handles and spirits away objects and artefacts (82), helps her children disturb the dead (128), and removes jewellery from grave sites (84). Throughout, she takes a colonial archaeologist’s perspective, collecting objects and speculating on what the dead might be saying to her.

Bruce Braun, in his book The Intemperate Rainforest, offers an interpretation of adventure travel as a kind of nostalgia, which “produce[s] subjects who experience the present in terms of loss.” In Braun’s view, “what has been destroyed (primitive cultures, nature) comes to be eulogized by the very agents of its destruction” (111). Blanchet does not escape this indictment. In fact, many of the villages she visits are deserted only in the summers. Thus, she steals copper bracelets and spindles not just from the vanished peoples of the nostalgic past, but from a village’s current inhabitants, who, like her, are engaged in a nomadic existence where time takes a second seat to a history defined by place. For Braun, “adventure travel both imposes and locates an order in the unruly social and ecological spaces of the temperate rainforest” (112). A product of her time and upbringing, Blanchet does not learn about the living people, as opposed to Emily Carr, whose exposure to First Nations communities prepared the ground for a more enlightened engagement (Cole 161). Blanchet’s actions demonstrate reasoning that does not progress past cursory recognition of “a past Native culture” (Braun 118), and she makes no attempt to eschew nostalgia or to recognize or connect to present First Nations.

Blanchet’s narrative, despite its imperfections, still represents a living, resonant engagement with the BC Coast. As she alternates between the eddies of domestic and lyric time, her “history” coalesces around places, and her liberty to move between and around them without outside interference.Curve is one of the few books of its time to chart a woman’s experience through coastal waters while avoiding the time-worn trope of man against nature or the simplistic portrayal of an unforgiving and frightening landscape. Instead, Blanchet creates a paean to place; the waters she travels on grow luminous. In her nomadic journey, time is a curve on which she engages in myriad, complex interactions with the natural world.

Works Cited

  • Blanchet, M. Wylie. The Curve of Time. 50th ed. Vancouver: Whitecap, 2011. Print.
  • Campbell, Gray. Foreword. Blanchet xi-xvi. Print.
  • Cole, Douglas. “The Invented Indian/The Imagined Emily.” BC Studies125/126 (2000): 147-62. Print.
  • Converse, Cathy. Following the Curve of Time: The Legendary M. Wylie Blanchet. Victoria: TouchWood, 2008. Print.
  • Egan, Timothy. Foreword. Blanchet vii-x. Print.
  • Francis, Daniel. The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture, Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 1992. Print.
  • Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983. Print.
  • Hill, Beth. Upcoast Summers.Victoria: TouchWood, 1985. Print.
  • Pagh, Nancy. At Home Afloat: Women on the Waters of the Pacific Northwest. Calgary: U of Calgary P, 2001. Print.
  • Pinkerton, Kathrene. Three’s a Crew. Ganges: Horsdal & Schubart, 1991. Print.
  • Ransome, Arthur. Swallows and Amazons. Oxford: Alden, 1953. Print.
  • Zwicky, Jan. Lyric Philosophy. St. John’s: Gaspereau, 2011. Print.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.