Family Romance

Reviewed by Janice Fiamengo

These two books address Canadian family relations, one by analyzing poetic representations of the father-daughter bond and the other by examining popular ideas about courtship. Tanis MacDonald’s The Daughter’s Way is an investigation of female elegies for dead or dying fathers. Emphasizing that the elegy has traditionally been a homosocial literary form, in which men pay tribute to other men as a way of claiming status as literary successors, MacDonald asks how twentieth-century writers, including Dorothy Livesay, P.K. Page, Jay Macpherson, and Margaret Atwood, rework the genre for their own purposes—both to address a figure of (lost, weakened, or threatening) male power and to explore what it means to be a grieving daughter.

Beginning from the premise that daughters have traditionally claimed identity through expressions of filial obedience and self-sacrifice (which may explain the preference in much feminist scholarship for mother figures), MacDonald asks how female poets transform elegiac conventions. Her poets take up various postures—ranging from the cool melancholia of P.K. Page through the haunted Gothic of Jay Macpherson to the bereft fury of Erin Mouré—in relation to dead or dying fathers. The poets are by turns grateful, defiant, abject, and exhilarated. Biblical archetypes, Egyptian mythology, pilgrimage motifs, and imagery of apocalypse and war structure these daughters’ elegiac quests. Using Freudian psychoanalytic notions of appropriate mourning vs. unresolved melancholia (to fail to express sufficient grief is to be un-filial; to express excessive grief is to be deviant), MacDonald considers what a feminist engagement with the father’s loss can yield.

The chapters are brief, but substantial and authoritative. The opening consideration of Dorothy Livesay’s poetic oeuvre, including paternal elegies written over the course of three decades, is an exemplary reading of a much-reworked encounter between a grieving daughter and her absent, yet ever-present, father. MacDonald shows how Livesay’s poetic elegies begin with encomia tinged with rebellion and extend to dialogues that claim continued father-daughter intimacy both as an intellectual legacy and as an invitation to questioning and resistance. At the centre of the study is an astute exploration of Margaret Atwood’s paternal elegies in Morning in the Burned House, a volume that extends an already powerfully elegiac impulse in Atwood’s work. Later in the volume, considerations of the experimental poetics of Lola Lemire Tostevin and Erin Mouré analyze their melancholic engagement with the western inheritance.

Throughout, MacDonald provides sensitive readings of individual poems as well as effective discussions of form and interpretative approach. At times, the density of the theoretical framework may limit the book’s readership—some of the difficult language might have been pruned without sacrifice of intellectual depth—but nonetheless The Daughter’s Way, in its originality and insights, makes a long-overdue contribution to Canadian women’s poetry.

A different but equally valuable contribution is made by Dan Azoulay’s Hearts and Minds, a work of bottom-up social history that constructs a portrait of heterosexual courtship practices from 1900-1930. To find out how ordinary Canadians understood their romantic lives, Azoulay drew on two collections of letters from newspaper correspondence columns, about 20,000 printed letters in all, which show what Canadians sought in a mate. The period covered encompasses the transition from Victorian to modern gender norms, including the shattering impact of the First World War. Having discovered a treasure trove of documents, Azoulay aims to let them speak for themselves, allowing us to hear Canadians in their own words talking about the search for love.

In the first two, substantial, chapters, Azoulay outlines what male and female letter writers said they were looking for in a life partner. These are perhaps the most fascinating chapters, presenting detailed accounts—with substantial quotation—of post-Victorian idealizations of gendered virtue. It seems that both men and women gave serious thought to love matches based on high moral character and shared values. Men sought women who would be good housekeepers as well as ladylike partners, contented in the domestic role, modest, refined, and intelligent. Most revealed that good looks were not at all important in comparison to kindness, loyalty, and morality.

In turn, women wanted hard-working, decent, and clean men who, while not necessarily prosperous, could provide them with a home, did not expect them to be drudges, and, above all, were sincere and trustworthy. Men and women seemed equally committed to an exalted conception of the marital state. As revealed in the third chapter, the rules of courtship were strict, particularly for women—one wrong move could tarnish a reputation permanently—and men chafed under the necessity to make the first move and behave with strictest propriety. Yet most Canadians accepted the rules of romance and sought to live within them. A fourth chapter on the hardships of courtship, especially in the isolated prairie west, where bachelors had to pursue helpmates by long distance, provides fascinating insight into the hopes and heartaches of the frontier era.

The Great War strained (and destroyed) many relationships, and also precipitated a transformation of social mores that in turn shaped 1920s dating culture, in which men and women paid far less attention to character and habits than to leisure activities and automobile ownership. The Modern Girl was athletic and fun-loving; no longer was it necessary for women to be ’ladies,’ and even the advice columnists concurred with the loosening of constraints. Chaperonage and strict rules about physical intimacy were overturned as romantic interactions became far less formal. Canadians were increasingly accepting of pre-marital sex and less romantic in their tastes, no longer caring so much whether a prospective mate lived up to ideals of morality and chastity. Although small-town and rural areas remained more conservative than cities, many new possibilities for male-female relationships were being established.

Azoulay’s study is historically contextualized and clearly written. Historians indebted to feminist and race-based frameworks may not be fully satisfied with his pared-down approach (others will find it an advantage), and some discussion of the limitations of the data—whether the letters are as transparent as the author assumes—would have been helpful. The result, however, is readable and informative, offering rich glimpses into Canadians’ romantic expectations and experiences in the early years of the last century.

This review “Family Romance” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 169-71.

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