Response to A Children’s Book Author in Academe

Posted on June 29, 2006 by Daniel Bratton: Professor of English, Doshisha University

I was appalled by the wording of the abstract for Heather Kirk’s “Caroline Clement: The Hidden Life of Mazo de la Roche’s Collaborator.” In particular, the claim that Joan Givner presented de la Roche as “a child molester who victimized her cousin and life-long companion, Caroline Clement” is a gross misrepresentation and oversimplification of Givner’s argument in her biography of de la Roche. I am distressed that a distinguished writer who has contributed so much to the study of Canadian literature as both a scholar and professor was summarily dismissed in such a sensationalistic fashion.

After reading Kirk’s actual article, which in fact contains a good deal of interesting new information about Caroline Clement’s family background and year of birth, I remain baffled as to why Canadian Literature has sanctioned this sort of critical mudslinging. Furthermore, as the author of Thirty-Two Short Views of Mazo de la Roche, a biographical essay published by ECW Press in 1996, I am dismayed by Kirk’s claim that my work built “unquestioningly” on Givner’s biography. Givner employed a feminist critique, a methodology completely different from my own. Indeed, while Kirk lambastes Givner for her representation of the relationship between de la Roche and Clement as lesbian, I never referred to the two cousins as gay. I am certainly not denying that Givner’s work, a groundbreaking critical reassessment of de la Roche and her canon, profoundly influenced my thinking about my subject; however, to state that I followed her biography “unquestioningly” ignores what the jacket copy describes as my “multifaceted, postmodern narrative” approach to life writing-a completely separate literary enterprise.

Kirk has done an admirable job tracking down the minutiae of the de la Roche and Clement genealogy, introducing a convincing argument pertaining to the respective ages of the two cousins as well, but her article has very little to say about de la Roche’s writing, other than that Caroline played a bigger part in it than has generally been acknowledged. Instead of repeatedly setting Givner up as a straw (wo)man, Kirk would have been better advised to pay more attention to the texts, and to developing a critical apparatus that would have justified the inclusion of so much genealogy. Her dismissal of Givner’s contention “that de la Roche made ‘gender problems’ central to Finch’s nervous breakdowns” suggests the shortcomings of a critique apparently based on rancour. Mazo openly acknowledged in Ringing the Changes that she “was one with Finch” and possessed a far greater affinity with him than with Renny Whiteoak, and it would take a very determined (or obtuse) reader indeed not to see Finch’s nervous collapses and attempted suicide as being rooted in an ongoing crisis of sexual identify.

Canadian Literature published Heather Kirk’s article; Oxford University Press published Joan Givner’s book.