“Old” is a curious word. In a culture where people try to convince themselves that sixty is the new forty, “old” can be problematic—harsher, say, than “senior” in “senior citizen.” “Ladies” I’ll save for later. “Editing” was once my livelihood. For fifteen years, as Managing Editor of Oxford University Press Canada, I searched for, commissioned, and edited a wide range of books, both trade and academic. And during that time I had the good fortune to edit some of Canada’s finest writers. I want to discuss only a few of them here—the poets Margaret Avison, P.K. Page, and Miriam Waddington, and prose writers Suzanne Rosenberg and Jane Jacobs—as well as some possible connections among them.
We’re often told by lifestyle journalists that older North American actresses have a difficult time finding appropriate roles and that women of a certain age dislike becoming invisible. Fortunately, women who write seem to be the exception to such limitations. They explore new subjects, publish the results of their efforts, win literary prizes, and continue on in the work of their lives. The writers I want to discuss were all around seventy years old when I first met them and were all born between 1915 and 1918, a short span of time during the First World War. A significant part of their identities, their early years, and educations were shaped by parents and teachers who had come to maturity in the decades before that war, a cataclysmic event that shaped the consciousness of the next generation at a time when women were finally obtaining the right to vote in Canada and the United States. While British novelist Virginia Woolf suggested that Western civilization changed dramatically in 1910, when she believed the modern age began, it probably took the First World War and women’s suffrage to make such a change clear to a population broader than Bloomsbury’s.
The management at Oxford University Press Canada kindly allowed me to spend a day in April 2011 looking over old files related to the writers I’ll discuss here. This was a great help in refreshing my memory and shaping it with greater accuracy. It was strange to read the thin pink-tissue copies of letters I’d sent, some more than thirty years ago, and there were a few surprises.
Margaret Avison (1918–2007)
Margaret Avison’s Selected Poems came to me in 1990, late in my career at Oxford, and the year before I left publishing to teach and concentrate on my own writing. Already familiar with her work, I was eager to meet the poet I considered to be Canada’s finest. For reasons I can’t recall, I expected her to be difficult. Something austere in her work—not the style but the vision behind it. We’d been in touch the year before when Avison had telephoned me about a young illustrator she admired, a woman named Karen Reczuch whom I’d hired to illustrate Jane Jacob’s children’s book. I’d asked about Avison’s future plans, we exchanged letters, and by April 1990 she had signed a contract with Oxford. In a letter of April 20th to the poetry editor at McClelland and Stewart, who objected to Avison’s signing with Oxford, she wrote that she liked the fact that I would make the selections for her book, include only the poems (no introduction), and ask her only to approve choices and omissions, “without any demanding PR from me.” She also noted that I had suggested the Selected before anyone else thought of it, that her experience at M&S had not been happy, and that when I heard about one of her former publishers’ interest in the book, I deferred to any prior rights it “may have established.”
Avison was anything but difficult. “Pure” is the right word, even if it’s oddly vague and unhelpful. Our meetings took place in her small apartment in Fellowship Towers, a high-rise building several blocks north of Toronto’s Bloor and Yonge intersection. Fellowship Towers is run by the Baptist church; its residents have access to on-call medical help, as well as a dining room for those who can’t, or won’t, cook their own meals. Avison had been suffering for some years from lupus, a chronic nerve disease, and she couldn’t always predict the state of her health. She explained this matter-of-factly, almost without interest, but I heard the subtext of her words, and understood that she wasn’t going to commit to much in the way of book promotion, which most of the writers I’d worked with had enjoyed. Her apartment on the twelfth floor was a spartan affair, simply furnished with low shelves of books along one wall, but it had a fine view looking east, over the Rosedale Valley ravine, which seemed to be Avison’s only luxury. She reminded me immediately of some of the older women teachers in my high school’s English Department, the kind of women once called “spinsters,” a word that no longer has legs. But there was nothing spinsterish about her.
We spoke almost at once about books—what we were reading, what we liked. She recommended a novel by an unfamiliar American writer, Jane Vandenburgh’s Failure to Zigzag. I read it eagerly, curious to understand her taste, and was surprised to find a story about a smart-mouthed teenage girl and her troubled mother—a mental patient and carnival ventriloquist. What had I expected? That she’d recommend something like Georges Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest? Avison’s Christianity informed her poetry, but she was not simply a religious poet, nor a mystic. She was, I came to understand, a truly worldly person, though in a way that alters the meaning of “worldly”—of the world, but not in it. Discussing the reception of her first book, The Dumbfounding (1966), she recalled hearing from Norton’s New York office that they were accepting her book. (It was, then, less common for Canadian poets to publish outside of Canada than it is today). “Like it or lump it,” she said, with a wry smile, “rec- ognition matters.”
Work on her book went smoothly. She considered my selections sound; we made a few additions, and that was that. (By then I’d already edited selected poems by Patrick Lane, Daryl Hine, and P.K. Page.) Avison agreed to include several splendid transla- tions of Hungarian poems that she’d made for a Canadian anthology published in 1963, and I was pleased because I’d been studying Hungarian for several years (it was the language of my grandparents, remembered from childhood). Most friends regarded these studies as an eccentricity—literary multiculturalism was only starting to catch on in the late-1980s—but Avison said she’d loved hearing the language, it reminded her of the Tagalog spoken by Filipino friends. I saw her book through its last stages of production and then left the press to begin teaching at the start of the 1991 academic year. When I first told people that I was striking out, most warned of the risks; not Avison. She called my idea a good one and agreed to let me interview her for a book I was planning about Hungarian culture. We also spoke of caring for aging parents; Avison had lived with, and looked after, her elderly mother, and I was increasingly drawn into my father’s health problems.
Avison’s translations for The Plough and the Pen, edited by Ilona Duczyńska and Karl Polanyi, let me know her better. The anthology, introduced by W.H. Auden, contains his much-quoted dictum that a writer’s only political duty is to translate the work of other writers. Avison enjoyed remembering her introduction to its editors by Marshall McLuhan, in the Chinese courtyard of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. She was drawn especially to Ilona, and working with the couple meant a great deal to Avison (I always called her Ms. Avison) in the years after the Hungarian uprising of 1956; she had passionate sympathies with oppressed people everywhere. Avison particularly liked the Hungarian poems for a quality she called “direct utterance,” though she never discussed this term, as if its meaning was self-evident. I’ve often thought about it since, and believe she was referring to poems where the mind and the heart (to use those almost old-fashioned terms) came together, especially in strong images. (I’ve written about the technicalities of her translations in an essay called “The Poet as Translator” that first appeared in Canadian Literature, and later in my book Hungarian Rhapsodies.)
When we spoke of Avison’s Hungarian translations, she mentioned that Bartók’s string quartets had, more than anything, keyed her to the rhythm she wanted to achieve in her versions. Avison is not often thought of as a particularly musical poet, so I was interested to find in Oxford’s files a photocopy of a letter to her from Glenn Gould, dated September 14, 1962. Gould wrote to thank her for a letter regarding a recent concert, and noted her approv- ing remarks about early Hindemith and William Walton. Most current classical-concert goers have yet to catch up with Avison’s sophisticated ear. (How did this letter get into Oxford’s file? In 1991 I was about to serve as the press’ editor for Glenn Gould’s selected letters, and I must have mentioned this to Avison, who probably let me copy the letter as a possible inclusion.) Today I still keep in my top desk drawer the tape recordings I made of those afternoon conversations with her.
In subsequent years, Avison kept in touch with notes about the books I’d written. I was initially surprised, and touched, that she took the time. But she remembered the encouragement she’d given me, and took it for granted that she would write. When she won the Griffin Poetry Prize for Concrete and Wild Carrot in 2003, I was on holiday in Maine, but as soon as I heard the news I sent a card with congratulations, and when I returned to Toronto she telephoned with her thanks. (Occasionally she phoned with publishing questions, or about a proposed biography that she didn’t want written.) “Direct utterance” is not a technique or style, it’s a way of seeing the world and relating to it. Not quite a vision, it comes from a particular slant or angle that can’t be faked. It has to do with life, not lifestyle, and the belief that words can trap us and free us, so they must be used with great care, but with- out study, without thought for anything but the truth. Direct utterance is what I mean by the word “pure” for Ms Avison.
P.K. Page (1916–2010)
P.K. Page told me that her poems came to her through the top of her head, as if they’d been dictated, and all she had to do was type them up. They were complete, whole, already themselves. This fascinated me, and made a kind of sense for a poet who had written a much-anthologized early poem called “The Stenographers.” I saw her poems only in their final typed form, and have no idea what the drafts looked like, or if there were any.
P.K. was introduced to me by a mutual friend, Rosemary Sullivan, a professor of English at the University of Toronto best known for her literary biographies. P.K. had just completed a new collection of poems, which became The Evening Dance of the Grey Flies; she was unhappy with her previous publisher. She liked the interest of a younger generation of readers, and after our first meeting her book was mine. There were enough poems for a short col- lection, perhaps a chapbook—not Oxford’s style—but I’d read Page’s futuristic short story about a woman and her dog, “Unless the Eye Catch Fire . . .” and suggested that she break the book into three parts and use the story at the centre, making a triptych. We debated—did the story seem too influenced by Doris Lessing?—and I pointed out that Elizabeth Bishop had included a prose memoir as the middle section of a recent collection. Page remembered Bishop from her time in Brazil as an ambassador’s wife, and my idea now appealed to her. Evening Dance came out in 1981, and she was pleased enough by its reception to make Oxford her future publisher.
Like most of the poets I’d worked with, P.K. enjoyed sharing books and ideas about art; she urged me to read Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot and Kathleen Raine’s won- derful essay “The Use of the Beautiful” in her Defending Ancient Springs (“It is nearly my bible,” she wrote to me on November 9, 1981), and I recommended something in return. We were both fascinated by Doris Lessing, though I had little interest in Sufism, or the version of it promulgated by Idries Shah. When Lessing came to Toronto to read at Harbourfront, P.K. had arranged to meet her (they’d corresponded, about Sufism), and I offered to drive P.K from Oxford to Lessing’s hotel. When she invited me to join them I was delighted, and amazed by her generosity, since Lessing had been one of my favourite writers for at least twenty years. We met her for tea in the hotel dining room. Lessing was tempted to order a fruit salad, but decided it was too expensive; she recommended several writers to me, including an Indian mystic named Sri Aurobindo; and I was in bliss. After half an hour I excused myself so that the two women might have a private talk. Later I realized that P.K. had actually been quite nervous about meeting Lessing, and I’d been a kind of ice-breaker—my good fortune. I began to sense P.K.’s insecurities.
We next worked on a new collection that was ultimately called The Glass Air: Selected Poems (1985). P.K. had already published a selected edition of her poems with McClelland & Stewart, in 1974, and there weren’t enough new poems to justify another book. I suggested that we make her new book into an event, and include two short essays by P.K. that had appeared in Canadian Literature: “Questions and Images” and “Traveller, Conjuror, Journeyman.” As well, during a visit to P.K.’s home in Victoria, I’d seen some of the draw- ings she’d done while living in Brazil, and suggested that we also include a selection of her Dufy-like work (we settled on nine images) and use one of her paintings on the cover. Several of her friends objected to her proposed title, The Glass House; she still wanted to keep the word “glass” so we dropped a poem called “The Glass Air” and used its more elusive title for the collection. The visual and prose additions gave the book a comprehensive quality that P.K., and the reviewers, appreciated.
P.K. loved the literary lifestyle (the public attention from readings, interviews, book promotion), though I doubt she would have admitted it. She also liked having an entourage, and seemed to need her courtiers—all women—for second and third opinions about everything that touched her career. She encouraged their romantic dreams with stories about the great love of her life, the married Frank Scott, and continued to lament his loss. After meeting P.K.’s husband, Arthur Irwin, and watch- ing her solicitous treatment of him, I was puzzled by the seeming disloyalty. Much of P.K.’s life (her travels, her start at painting, her elegant home and garden) came from Arthur, and if he was a stiff and conventional partner, she’d chosen him. There was a tension in P.K. between the former ambassador’s wife—the gracious lady—and the wild romantic or free spirit she was afraid to become, and I saw that this wasn’t the source of her poetry’s strength but of its exquisite limitation. P.K. needed to be courted. She was annoyed that her work was ignored in the United States, but she didn’t take the risk of submitting it and facing rejection. Her lack of confidence was almost touching. Since Rosemary and I were close friends, P.K.’s entourage was at first fine by me (Rosemary has good judg- ment), and I liked Arlene Lampert, but the list also included Connie Rooke. Connie insisted on being present when I made the initial mock-up of The Glass Air in my Oxford office, and though she had nothing to contribute, I knew she was P.K.’s envoy and had to be accommodated.
Our next books were P.K.’s fairytale, A Flask of Sea Water, and a revised edition of The Glass Air (1991). The long debates about an illustrator for her children’s book, and her dithering over the bright work of Laszlo Gal, one of Canada’s prominent illustrators, seemed unhelpful. I was also troubled by her notion of a natural aristoc- racy of “blue blood,” as she called it, in the fairytale. Perhaps there was something Sufi about this, but the idea reminded me of the unfortunate title of one of her poems, “The Yellow People in Metamorphosis,” which I’d previously questioned—the entourage thought it okay. When P.K. sent me a twenty-page sample of the manuscript that was to become Brazilian Journal, I was intrigued but not as enthusiastic as she might have wished. The marketing department, with more Page backlist in the warehouse than they liked, took against the project from the start; I had no choice but to reject it. Not long after, I left publishing. P.K. continued to send me her new books, and I brought her to York University for a campus reading, but our relations were never the same. When I edited The Exile Book of Canadian Dog Stories (2009), I was glad to include P.K.’s “Unless the Eye Catch Fire . . . ”—it was the last thing I could do for her. I wonder if she saw the book before she died.
Miriam Waddington (1917–2004)
Miriam Waddington appeared in Oxford’s lobby wearing a full-length dark mink coat, old jeans and black Reeboks. She’d just come from an afternoon swim and was glowing with enthusiasm for life—coupled with endless complaints—that made up her unique style. She was curious about everything on one hand, and frustrated on the other. I felt in complete sympathy with her, and said that she looked like a Broadway actress late for rehearsal. Miriam made perfect sense to me. Later we figured out that I shared a birthday with her eldest son (not only the day, but the year) and joked that we had a special connection because of that. Maybe it was true.
Miriam had been an Oxford author long before I got to know her. Bill Toye was her poetry editor, but as he concentrated more and more on reference books, she needed a new advocate. In 1987 I suggested that she bring together her essays for an Oxford ser- ies I was developing, Studies in Canadian Literature, which went on to include books by Adele Wiseman, Robert Kroetsch, Janice Kulyk Keefer, and Linda Hutcheon. Since Miriam lived not far from the office in Don Mills, in a mid-century split-level on Yewfield Crescent, I fell into the habit of almost weekly Friday lunches with her. The house was filled with books and magazines, art work gathered over her travels, some by old friends, like the wonderful Montreal painter Phillip Surrey, Danish modern furniture, and Mexican weavings and bibe- lots, all making a welcoming hodgepodge. There was usually a homemade soup, an Israeli salad, fresh challah. And endless talk—and gossip—about books and mov- ies, mutual friends, and Miriam’s old times: her childhood in Winnipeg and Montreal, the Depression, the coming of World War II, the growing years of Canadian literature, her various love affairs with some promin- ent men, including the art critic Harold Rosenburg, an early champion of Abstract Impressionism, and a few well-known macho writers. It was the old times that won me over.
I convinced Miriam to put down some of her stories, to write about the Yiddish circle of her childhood, her immigrant parents, her years as an undergraduate. At the same time, I read her published essays and news- paper articles—a portrait of the Yiddish Canadian poet Rochl Korn, reflections on A.M. Klein and John Sutherland, and accounts of her own writing. I even took several short review articles (on Anaĩs Nin, Violet Leduc, Hannah Arendt, and Simone de Beauvoir) and combined them into a longer essay. Miriam, who loved good talk, liked my editing, and the manuscript that became Apartment 7: Selected Essays grew out of those lunches. She would talk about her lovers, but I couldn’t convince her to write about them—a sentiment that seems almost antediluvian today. That her book received splendid reviews was a bonus.
Oxford was known for its literary antholo- gies, usually a sure money-maker, and I next urged Miriam to compile an anthology of short stories by Jewish Canadian writers. My only stipulation was a gender balance (it turned out to be twenty stories—ten by men, ten by women) and Miriam agreed at once. But she was hesitant about including a story from her own collection Summer at Lonely Beach (1982)—a rare modesty in anthologists, who are usually all too eager to include their own work—so I chose Miriam’s “Breaking Bread in Jerusalem.” While we worked on these collections, she read some of my own short stories and encouraged me to concentrate on my writing. She knew of my Hungarian studies, which didn’t seem odd to someone who was a gifted translator of Yiddish writers and very much interested in the act and art of translation. Her enthusiasm for Central and Eastern European writers was rare among my colleagues. Sensitive to the undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the Canadian literary world, and justly so, Miriam didn’t feel appreciated by the Toronto establishment (it rankled when she saw her work left out of college anthologies, while arty younger poets received attention), yet she gave a shrug to it all, and planned another of her trips. Some of the best advice she gave me about writing—advice I’ve since passed on to my own students—was this: “Just do your own work and hope that taste will improve, though it probably won’t.”
My final project with Miriam before leaving the press was her collection of poems The Last Landscape. It’s one of her best books, and when it was published in 1992 I was pleased to find that she had dedicated it to me. Of course I continued to see her after I changed my life—lunches now became dinners—and I still remember the sad day when she announced that she was selling her house and moving to Vancouver to be closer to family. Most of her friends objected to the decision, and I think we were right to believe that Miriam would feel cut off from a world she’d taken a lifetime to create. When I learned that one day she’d stopped eating, had in effect turned her back on life, I could only admire her courage while hearing her say softly, after one of our lunches, “My father’s spirit is always with me.” I remember helping her pack before her move. For an afternoon I sat on her basement floor and tore up boxes of old bills and cheques, some dating back to the 1960s (a time before shredders). Of course we spoke on the phone after her move, but that was no substitute for meals that could meander with a life of their own. I’m not sure if Miriam’s work is much read today—it deserves to be—but when I think of her, I miss those long lunches.
Suzanne Rosenberg (1915–1988)
One spring afternoon in 1987 I was staring out of my office window onto a large expanse of lawn when I noticed an elderly woman in a navy-blue dress, spotted with white polka dots, tentatively crossing the grass towards Oxford’s drive, as if she was lost. A few min- utes later my secretary came into my office with a manuscript, bound in string, which she set on the slush pile of unsolicited projects. The manuscript, it turned out, had just been dropped off by the woman in the polka-dot dress. Curious, I asked to see the manuscript. In no time I realized I had an important book in my hands.
Suzanne Rosenberg’s memoir A Soviet Odyssey, which Oxford went on to publish in 1988, is a horrific account of her life in a totalitarian state. The Canadian connection was her youth, in Montreal, where she’d settled with her immigrant parents, and brother, before her mother decided to return to Russia with her family, in 1931, to help make a Communist utopia. As if the Montreal childhood wasn’t enough Canadian content, along with the fact that Suzanne was a cousin of Mordecai Richler on the maternal side of her family, her first love, in high school, turned out to be the young Irving Layton (he wrote his own account of their bond in his memoir Waiting for the Messiah, 1985). But before accepting Suzanne’s manuscript, I sent it to Robert Conquest, one of the leading North American specialists in the Stalin years. He encouraged publication and also wrote this jacket endorsement: Suzanne Rosenberg’s book is one of the most remarkable autobiographies of our time. It covers the whole Soviet period, and at levels from the intellectual world to the labour camps. Above all, it is the most valuable perspective on the whole Soviet phenomenon ever to be published by some- one who can rightly be described as both an extraordinary and an ordinary woman.
When Suzanne submitted her manuscript, she was living in London, Ontario, and teaching Russian language classes as part-time faculty at the University of Western Ontario. My first visit there remains clear in my mind. It was a grey autumn day, and during the cab ride from the train station to her apartment, I spotted a florist’s, stopped the cab for a moment and went in to buy some flowers, a dozen long-stemmed red roses. Suzanne blushed when she saw them, and said it had been a very long time since a man had last brought her flowers. To refresh me after the trip she offered a glass of old Georgian brandy from a bottle that had belonged to her late husband—a good beginning. Her small, spare apartment had only a few mementos of Russia, but its bookcase with glass-doors had an old-world quality to it; the table where we worked, I recall, was a fold-up card table that sug- gested a temporary student dwelling. Suzanne’s manuscript needed little shap- ing, but as we talked, I encouraged her to develop several sections of it, and urged her to add more about the composer Prokofiev and other artists who had managed to con- tinue to create under appalling conditions.
Working with Suzanne was a rare experience. I brought to it a love of Russian literature, which I’d studied at university, and Suzanne had worked as an English translator in Russia, so we had some wonderful talks about books. She was particularly proud of her translation of the short stories of Vladimir Korolenko, a nine- teenth-century writer I didn’t know (she gave me a copy of her translation, published by Progress Books in Moscow). We shared a fondness for Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection, a novel unmarred by some of his ideological concerns. My upbringing and education had made me Eurocentric, and Suzanne was the kind of person whose history, intellect, and gracious manner appealed to my imagination. When I mentioned her to Miriam Waddington over lunch, she almost jumped. It turned out that Suzanne was a friend of hers but hadn’t mentioned submit- ting her manuscript to Oxford, although she must have heard my name from Miriam. Miriam suggested that she would have been glad to make an introduction; however, I already knew enough about Suzanne to understand that she would never trade on friendship, that she wanted her work to speak for itself. Which of course made me admire her all the more.
During her book’s production, Suzanne was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She lived to hold her book in her hands, but when I drove her to a bookstore launch in Toronto she had to stretch out across the back seat because of the pain. The reviews of A Soviet Odyssey, both internationally and in Canada, were everything I’d hoped for. Oxford sold the paperback rights to Penguin, a film was discussed (films were always being discussed), and I helped arrange for a Japanese translation with Iwanami Shoten of Tokyo—it’s the one book I own in Japanese.
In July 1988 I received a phone call from Suzanne’s daughter, Vicki, who was teaching economics at McGill University. Following the instructions of her mother’s will, she was about to mail a package to me. I wondered what it might contain, and after opening the parcel lifted out several jars of the finest Russian black caviar, which had been cold packed. That night I toasted Suzanne with vodka after vodka,
and enjoyed her lavish bequest. Of all the books I brought out in my Oxford years, I’m proudest of hers.
Jane Jacobs (1916–2006)
While at my desk one summer day in 1987 I received a telephone call from Jane Jacobs. She lived in Toronto’s Annex, next door to my friend Frieda Forman, a feminist researcher and also a Yiddish translator (Frieda had started up a small group of Yiddish translators who were all women, and it included Miriam Waddington—the world can sometimes seem like a small place). Jacobs was writing a children’s book and wanted to talk about it. Though I wasn’t a children’s editor, I had been responsible for several books associated with the genre (by Joy Kogawa and P.K. Page), so Frieda made the connection. When I mentioned Jacobs’ call to my colleagues they hoped that we might become her regular publisher, but I saw from the start that she was only interested in finding a home for her children’s project. Still, any book by Jane Jacobs . . .
Of course I’d seen Jane on the front porch beside my friend’s house, and knew that she presented as the neighborhood eccentric. Her unkept yard would have drawn complaints had she not been the local celebrity, and large old cardboard boxes and other such rubbish often graced the porch. Jacobs, however, didn’t cultivate eccentricity; it was something in her blood, almost genetic. A cult figure to city planners and environmentalists, she was admired for her influential study The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). She had immigrated to Toronto during the Vietnam War, settled in the Annex, a neighbourhood bordering on the University of Toronto, and, in her own way, held court. Stooped over, with a beaky hen’s face and short greyish hair that looked like someone had set a bowl on her head and trimmed around its edges, she resembled the archetypal granny in Hollywood movies about the Depression, someone out of The Grapes of Wrath. (By the way, my comment about her haircut isn’t an exaggeration. Apparently that’s how Jane’s son cut her hair.)
After several meetings I signed up Jane’s project. Intrigued by her persona, I enjoyed her stories about her background. The daughter of a well-off Yankee family—her father was a doctor—she exuded the self- assurance of someone who had long ago decided not to question her views about the world. As a child she remembered going along with her father on his house calls, and claimed that that was when she’d learned about life. Her parents had such faith in her that they left her alone. If she didn’t go to school one day, and no one in the family knew where she was, her parents assumed she’d gone to the library, and weren’t wor- ried. Not exactly patrician, she reminded me of a certain generation of women, like the actress Katharine Hepburn: if she had an opinion it had to be the only right one. Jane wasn’t one of the house-proud Annex types, and she had furnished her rooms with a funky style—against one wall of the dining room stood a real working telephone booth, glass doors and all, like something lifted off the street.
As usual, we talked about books other than Jane’s own. Yet she spent more time praising her neighbourhood, and seemed oblivious of the fact that people sometimes refer to its inhabitants as “Annex ethnics” because they can seem smugly insulated in their enclave from many of the stresses of urban life. In Jane’s case this insulation was intensified by early recognition, a long and loving marriage, and a happy family life, which harmonized with what appeared to be an essentially cheerful nature. Jane wasn’t caught up in her celebrity, just used to it; people were kind to her because of her fame, and in return she treated them kindly. After her death in 2006, the detached house she lived in was sold for well over a million dollars, and gutted for renovations.
Editing went smoothly. Jane knew that a children’s book by her might cause a stir, and she didn’t want any publicity until she was satisfied with the text and the illustrations. In August 1987 I asked Sheila Egoff (the Oxford author of The Republic of Childhood) for her general reaction to the manuscript, and she said that it suited “ages seven to ten.” On May 5, 1988, Jane wrote to me, saying that I might notify the Toronto press about her forthcoming book: “It’s all right now, as I’ve been in touch with everyone I wanted to let know personally, first.” And she was enthusiastic about Karen Reczuch’s illustrations, making only a minor suggestion about one of the characters, in a letter of November 12, 1988: “Slap looks a little too genial.” The book appeared on the spring list of 1989, ahead of schedule.
Whenever Jane’s books are mentioned, The Girl on the Hat is rarely included in the list. It’s a fifty-page novel about a girl named Ernestina who is so small she can fit inside a peanut shell. A Tom-Thumb-like fantasy, it is based on stories Jane made up to entertain her children who, when grown, urged her to set them down for her grand- children. Ernestina, who lives in a drawer, is nicknamed Peanutina, and called, for short, Tina. Her adventures lead her to find an identity working as a photographer, and the importance of the right work—that old Yankee ethic—is the crux of the book. It’s easy to see that the tall, gawky Jacobs, who may have felt like an outsider as a child, was, in part, writing about herself. Before showing the manuscript to me, she’d asked Frieda to read it for feminist content. At that time Jane had become interested in feminism, and wanted to know how her book accorded with feminist principles.
Jacobs’ name is often invoked by progressive politicians and think-tank aficionados, yet when I read their remarks I recall not only the best of her writing but also one of her last books, Dark Age Ahead (2004), a grim but familiar lament about the sad state our civilization has fallen into and the failure of the elite to do much about it. Jane almost seems to acknowledge some of the nonsense attributed to her, or done in her name, and the book is less hopeful than her previous work. She was eighty-eight when that book was published—an encouraging thought.
Why do I write about these five women? I’m not a feminist looking for ancestors. I knew them mainly as an editor, someone who acted in a courtly manner they enjoyed, who cared for something about their work, someone from a younger generation who had an eye on what kept them going, on the future. In my work I represented their interests to the press, my employer, and the press’ interests to them. I was a go-between, the editor’s tricky balancing act, but I think they knew that their interests were what mattered the most to me. Miriam I counted as a true friend, Suzanne as a model of the moral imagination. They were all “ladies” in a sense—women from another time, when their achievements cost in ways we barely understand today, no matter how we try. Yet their sense of themselves as women and as writers, at least as I saw it, was something they had learned to carry with grace—a grace I associate with the outmoded word “lady.”
Each one helped me understand some- thing about the nature of a writer’s life. Unlike the male writers I knew, who too often seemed, even as they aged, to con- centrate their energies on sex, alcohol, and sexual nostalgia—all invitations to bitter- ness and regret—these writers had a lively interest in the present. Their work, good or not, was partly about possibilities. Though I knew her last, Avison’s emphasis on direct utterance mattered the most to me, reinforcing my values about writing and what my work in publishing had taught me: the literary life gets in the way of creation, yet many writers who admit this are addicted to it. P.K. Page and Jane Jacobs were in their own ways committed to their personas, yet despite this, each continued to create new work. Miriam Waddington’s counsel to keep writing no matter what came from the deepest part of her sense of self, and is good advice to anyone in the arts, where disappointment is inevitable; while Suzanne Rosenberg’s courage, fortitude, and generosity of spirit before unimaginable suffering still amaze me, and have left me with the wish to show her my own books over some old Georgian brandy. Not long ago I read an interview with Doris Lessing where she remarked that she and her friends, all in their eighties, were learning Russian. The idea appeals to me because that’s the one language I would still like to be able to read. Maybe some day, I tell myself. Though too late to speak a few words to Suzanne in the language she loved.
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