The Virile Pen

Reviewed by Valerie Legge

Patricia Demers is one very lucky researcher; very few of Canada’s pioneer women journalists left easily identifiable paper trails relating to their personal or professional lives. According to Barbara M. Freeman, journalist Kathleen Blake Coleman (“Kit”) often instructed her “Woman’s Kingdom” readers to burn their letters and diaries. Those pioneering journalists who did preserve their papers made critical decisions regarding which documents to keep and which to destroy. In doing so, they garnered some control over the possible narratives that future researchers would construct regarding their lives and times.

In the Preface to Travels and Tales of Miriam Green Ellis: Pioneer Journalist of the Canadian West, Demers tells us that she “discovered” the journalist “serendipitously about five years ago” while searching for information about Oblate missionary Émile Grouard. Demers stumbled upon a photograph that Ellis had taken of Grouard at the Edmonton train station in 1922 when they were both setting out on their Northern journeys. That timely discovery led Demers to 21 boxes of print material which thankfully Ellis had the foresight to bequeath to the University of Alberta.

There are several ironies associated with Demers’ “serendipitous discovery”: as lady “travellers in skirts” or as modern women in breeches, a number of journalists (including Elizabeth R. Taylor, Emma Shaw Colcleugh, Emily Murphy, Agnes Deans Cameron, and Miriam Green Ellis) helped document and memorialize the travels and accomplishments of male missionaries in the Canadian North, yet the travels, tales, and professional accomplishments of these pioneering journalists were not so assiduously documented by themselves or by others. I suspect that Ellis would be amused to know that the “discovery” of her papers was sparked by what Agnes Deans Cameron and her contemporaries would have described as a “kodaking” moment. By 1910, the term kodaking, used as verb and modifier, had entered the public lexicon. With her Kodak camera, Ellis captured a visual image of a man who, at that time, was already a well-recognized and thoroughly-valorized figure. Nearly a century later, Ellis and many of her contemporaries are only now beginning to emerge from the shadows of history.

In 1892, having been inspired in childhood by Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “The Two Stream,” Elizabeth Taylor, equipped with camera and notebook, set out on a trip that took her from France to Athabasca and the Arctic Circle. Today we know very little about this intrepid young woman whose northern adventure began in the Latin Quarter of Paris and ended at a little hotel in Edmonton where she arrived months later, her Parisian skirts “dripping wet and splashed with mud.”

Three years later, gypsy journalist Emma Shaw Colcleugh headed North, trailing in Taylor’s wake. A decade later, journalist and colonization agent Agnes Deans Cameron made the pilgrimage North. While recognizing the impact that economic and religious colonization had and was continuing to have on a northern way of life, these three women were, in different ways, propagandists for companies, institutions, and individuals exploiting the North. And all three were unabashedly enthusiastic in heralding the accomplishments of male missionaries such as Bishop Grouard, Bishop Grandin and Bishop Breynat. Taylor, Shaw and Cameron acknowledged the presence of the Gray Nuns in the North but, as vanguards of religious colonization, these black-robed women were definitely not given the kind of attention paid to their male counterparts. In Seeds of Pine (1922) Emily Murphy (Janey Canuck) devoted an entire chapter to the 50th anniversary of Bishop Grouard’s consecration, an event celebrated by people from all walks of western life: nuns, priests, journalists, government officials, ranchers, traders, doctors, and bankers.

In a letter to her friend and colleague William Arthur Deacon, dated August 1922, Murphy suggested that Canadian culture (and especially eastern Canadian culture) was not always receptive to the points of view presented by women scribes: “I doubt,” Murphy wrote, “some male literary agents like western women…we are to [sic] ’breachy’ to suit certain standards prevailing by the Sea of Ontario.” It is tempting to think that Murphy’s comment was a veiled reference to Ellis and her friend E. Cora Hind. Surely there was something suspect about women who, unchaperoned or in the close company of other women, roamed around an “uncharted and unmapped country” in search of copy. And if a woman journalist chose to dress in breeches and tweeds and pack a Winchester rifle (as Ellis did on her trip North), then she was sure to draw additional suspicion and criticism.

What was it about these scribbling women with their “virile pens” that generated anxiety in so many readers, reviewers, and publishers? While praised for their “pluck,” their literary skill, and their sense of adventure, women who chose to write about more than plum puddings and pink teas were often castigated for their “racy” or “cheeky” language, for their unconventional dress (knickers, short skirts, breeches) and what were seen as manly manners. Perhaps readers were quick to recognize that women with pens possessed no small measure of power; unlike women whose work was restricted to domestic spaces, roving women reporters were in positions to influence and shape public perception.

In a collection of essays titled Working in Women’s Archives, Helen M. Buss and Marlene Kadar identify some of the “challenges and opportunities that arise from encounters with female archival subjects” (2). As Marion Beyea, Carrie MacMillan, Carole Gerson and others have noted, the first problem in researching our early women writers is locating women subjects for study. And when these women, once lost, are recovered “from the anonymity of history,” contemporary scholars have to decide how to read and how to “re/deconstruct” (to use Gwen Davies’ term) the historical records and archival materials associated with them.

In the Preface to Travels and Tales, Demers sets the stage for her own “re/deconstruction” of Miriam Green Ellis, a larger-than-life woman who, on moving out west from Ontario, discovered that western Canada’s frontier-like environment provided her and other women with many freedoms and opportunities not so readily available in the east. As Ellis’ friend and colleague E. Cora Hind observed, “the West was big enough and strong enough to have the truth told about it.” Contemporary scholars are now discovering that Hind’s statement may also apply to Canada’s first wave of women writers. Perhaps Canadians are ready to accept the reality rather than the romance of early twentieth-century working women’s lives. When Agnes C. Laut began reporting for the Winnipeg Free Press in 1895, she observed that journalism for women meant grime and grind: poor pay, long hours, and lousy working conditions (newspaper rooms blue with cigar smoke and raucous language).

Demers’ 50 page introductory essay titled “A Passionate Spirit” provides a brief biographical sketch of Ellis and an account of Ellis’ entry into the wide world of western journalism. The West, historian Grant MacEwen tells us, produced some “mighty men” and “some mighty women too.” Having discovered the professional papers of one of western Canada’s “mighty women,” Demers transforms MacEwen’s “lady with a notebook” into a “forthright, bold, and often pugnacious” figure. To support her reading of Ellis as a strong, smart, confident, and compassionate writer with a wonderful sense of humor (“a car is a woman’s best friend”) and diverse interests (agriculture, new technologies, the arts, Aboriginal peoples and their cultures), Demers includes a dozen travel, magazine, and newspaper essays, illustrated by a number of strategically selected and provocative photographs (“composed pictures”) of Ellis and her contemporaries. The camera (as well as the typewriter, which Agnes Deans Cameron deemed the “modern notebook”) was one of the new technologies that gave women easier access to the field of journalism.

In “Down North” Ellis presents herself initially as a tenderfoot, one whose longing to travel to “the land of the midnight sun” began when she was still “a small girl in pinafores.” early in the trip, two of Ellis’ fellow travellers, an American botanist and the manager of the northern transportation company, attempt to stereotype her as a “modern woman and they conveyed to [her] quite simply…what they thought of women who wore knickers and tried to ape men’s ways.” Unfazed by their overt criticism, Ellis responds with humor, casual conversation, and considerable self-reflection. And throughout the trip, the views of her fellow travellers do not prevent Ellis from donning a bathing suit and taking a daily swim.

When Ellis, the newspaper reporter, is excited by the sight of a lone man searching for oil or minerals on the side of a river bank, the captain curtly dismisses the legitimacy of her response by replying that the man is “just some fool scratching around in the dirt.” When the boat stops to take on wood for the engine and Ellis asks permission to go ashore, the manager’s response to her “very polite inquiry” is that “the mosquitoes would eat [her] alive,” that “there was absolutely nothing to see if [she] did get off,” and that he was afraid that she would “lose [herself] in the marsh.” With good humor Ellis complies outwardly while quietly reflecting that this is “only another instance to prove why women do not deserve equal rights. That man is about half as big as I am and I should just have taken him by the collar and thrown him overboard.”

This recognition of her own superior position leads to Ellis’ determination to take charge of her situation. When the boat is forced to land due to a storm on Lake Athabasca, without fanfare or confrontation, Ellis simply disembarks, “creating a precedent…which carried [her] through the rest of the trip.” When she returns to the boat, covered in mud “from [her] heels to [her] hat,” Ellis ignores her fellow travellers’ insincere expressions of concern. “I am not worrying about the mud,” she writes. “I have had intimate relations with it before.” The portrait of Ellis that emerges from the “Down North” essay is consistent with the sane, sympathetic persona who narrates “A War Bride’s Return” and the journalist impressed by the Women Grain Growers of Saskatchewan, nonchalantly balancing business and babies.

Travels and Tales of Miriam Green Ellis makes a valuable contribution to the fields of women’s history, women’s culture, and print culture in Canada. Just as the “commercial geography of the continent will have to be readjusted to accommodate the manufacture of untold natural resources” in the Canadian North, so too must perceptions of women, their work and their literary productions widen and deepen to reflect “the way we were as westerns and Canadians in the early decades of the twentieth century.”

This review “The Virile Pen” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 151-154.

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