Sara Jeannette Duncan and The Imperialist
Duncan is an intelligent and important national/international fin de siècle writer of manners. She observes, through a social lens, the decline of the British Empire. For her, the story of the beginning of the end begins in Southern Ontario’s Elgin (Brantford).
Sara Jeannette Duncan’s West Street home is presently Thorpe Brothers Funeral Parlour.
Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes
Sara Jeannette Duncan in the “Camp of the Philistines”
The newspaper columns Sara Jeannette Duncan wrote in the 1880s explore English Canada’s literary climate in relation to those of the United States and Britain, and this commentary is adapted and extended in her novel The Imperialist. Duncan’s own literary talents were not highly valued in Canada, and she was forced to seek recognition and publication abroad. Yet her veiled criticisms of Canada’s “colonial” and philistine attitudes coexist in The Imperialist with an affirmation of her country’s creative potential. Her analysis prefigures those offered almost a century later by Northrup Frye, D.G. Jones and Margaret Atwood, and it is significant [and painful] that these critics all omit Duncan from their overviews of Canadian literature.
À l’aide de sa rubrique journalistique des années 1880, Sara Jeannette Duncan put explorer le climat littéraire du Canada anglais par rapport à ce qui se passait aux États-Unis et en Grande Bretagne. Son roman, The Imperialist, lui a permis d’adapter et d’approfondir ses commentaires. Cependant, les talents littéraires de Duncan ne furent guère appréciés au Canada et elle dut aller à l’étranger pour être publiée et reconnue comme auteure. Ses critiques voilées de l’attitude “coloniale” et philistine coexistent dans son roman avec l’affirmation du potentiel créateur de son pays. Son analyse préfigure celles offertes par Northrop Frye, D.G. Jones et Margaret Atwood, même si ces critiques ont tous passé Duncan sous silence dans leurs études sur la littérature canadienne.
ABOVE: In The Imperialist Hugh Finlay demands truth from Dr Drummond.
SJD’s fashion and era (mainstream America, colour by Sanna Dullaway)
Haudenosaunee Lacrosse champions, 1869.
A complex talent
Homelessness is painful for anyone. It is painful for a writer. It is painful for a genius writer. And ultimately it is painful for the hometown and home country that fails in its obligation to recognize the homeless one, and take her in. And be proud of a woman who has exceptional talent.
Canadianists often wax enthusiastic about the “Indian poetess,” Pauline Johnson, while they may tend, nervously, to glide by Duncan. Sara Duncan owns a first-rate complex talent and produces an enormous opus whereas the performer Pauline Johnson, albeit beautiful and amazing and captivating on stage, is a secondary literary figure. Johnson shines as one of Canada’s earliest and most gifted actors (see Emily Landau’s piece Double Vision), but she is not a literary genius. Sara Duncan’s complexity in dramatic form and subtle irony demands careful study and promises to sustain the attention. Pauline Johnson delights on stage whereas her friend Sara Jeannette Duncan records the end of an era. Duncan’s literary models are contemporary and North-American continental: William Dean Howells (a distant cousin to Emily Howells Johnson, Pauline Johnson’s mother) and Henry James. When we shun Duncan we cheat ourselves. We miss an opportunity to laugh and cry and lament, and to find both the wisdom in and the folly of our heritage.
Everything Duncan believes about Elgin (and Ontario) she can mark down under “truer words” after she reads the Toronto Globe‘s reviewer (1904), who slags not only The Imperialist but women messing about in politics.
Elgin cannot hold Advena Murchison and neither will Brantford or Toronto hold Sara Duncan. If Elgin wants this woman to get out-of-town, so, it seems, does English Canada. And to stay out, which she does. Duncan sees much to admire in her Calvinistic, industrial and “progressive” hometown and some of the things she writes about it are hilarious and hopeful but she can never live in Elgin (Brantford) and expect to churn out a witty first line, let alone a satiric column or an entire novel. Duncan goes abroad and so does her perspective. She does entirely not shake her liberal Presbyterian Canadian voice. And that’s a good thing.
Duncan abroad: Cousin Cinderella: Colonial Space/Imperial Identity: How Sara Jeanette Duncan navigated Victorian Canada, Americanization, and the Empire of the Race by herself.
Canada goes abroad when Duncan contrasts the elites of England, America and Canada. Who other than she does that, or can do that? No nation is without foibles. When it comes to seeking out a fresh money tree, England finds Canada and the United States are ripe for plucking. England stands impoverished from countless wars and a foolish, hyper-condescending aristocracy and looks to colonial and local middle-class merchants and manufacturers to prop up a dying caste system. In exchange for the promise of babies born with ancient silver spoons in their mouths, rather than North America’s iron filings or wood chips, republican souls sell the farm. Wealthy North American families crave high-caste prestige and are willing to pay for it, and to reside in England–never to be accepted as one of them. Duncan’s narrator of Cousin Cinderella, Mary Trent, born to sawdust nobility (See Peter Aylen, King of the Shiners), appears to have little respect either for phony aristocrats or snobby contrivers. Mary Trent has a great deal of Stella Murchison in her. Unlike Mary Trent who has the support and love of her wealthy family, Sara Duncan is on her own. Carol Shields and Carole Gerson half-heartedly analyze Duncan and part of her opus but I have never read a sadder commentary on Duncan than Cecily Devereux’s Colonial Space/Imperial Identity: How Sara Jeannette Duncan navigated Victorian Canada, Americanization, and the Empire of the Race by herself.
It would have been idle to inquire into the antecedents, or even the circumstances, of old Mother Beggarlegs. She would never tell; the children, at all events, were convinced of that; and it was only the children, perhaps, who had the time and the inclination to speculate. Her occupation was clear; she presided like a venerable stooping hawk, over a stall in the covered part of the Elgin market-place, where she sold gingerbread horses and large round gingerbread cookies, and brown sticky squares of what was known in all circles in Elgin as taffy. She came, it was understood, with the dawn; with the night she vanished, spending the interval on a not improbable broomstick. Her gingerbread was better than anybody’s; but there was no comfort in standing, first on one foot and then on the other, while you made up your mind—the horses were spirited and you could eat them a leg at a time, but there was more in the cookies—she bent such a look on you, so fierce and intolerant of vacillation. She belonged to the group of odd characters, rarer now than they used to be, etched upon the vague consciousness of small towns as in a way mysterious and uncanny; some said that Mother Beggarlegs was connected with the aristocracy and some that she had been “let off” being hanged. The alternative was allowed full swing, but in any case it was clear that such persons contributed little to the common good and, being reticent, were not entertaining. So you bought your gingerbread, concealing, as it were, your weapons, paying your copper coins with a neutral nervous eye, and made off to a safe distance, whence you turned to shout insultingly, if you were an untrounced young male of Elgin, “Old Mother Beggarlegs! Old Mother Beggarlegs!” And why “Beggarlegs” nobody in the world could tell you. It might have been a dateless waggery, or it might have been a corruption of some more dignified surname, but it was all she ever got. Serious, meticulous persons called her “Mrs” Beggarlegs, slightly lowering their voices and slurring it, however, it must be admitted. The name invested her with a graceless, anatomical interest, it penetrated her wizened black and derisively exposed her; her name went far indeed to make her dramatic. Lorne Murchison, when he was quite a little boy was affected by this and by the unfairness of the way it singled her out. Moved partly by the oppression of the feeling and partly by a desire for information he asked her sociably one day, in the act of purchase, why the gilt was generally off her gingerbread. He had been looking long, as a matter of fact, for gingerbread with the gilt on it, being accustomed to the phrase on the lips of his father in connection with small profits. Mother Beggarlegs, so unaccustomed to politeness that she could not instantly recognize it, answered him with an imprecation at which he, no doubt, retreated, suddenly thrown on the defensive hurling the usual taunt. One prefers to hope he didn’t, with the invincible optimism one has for the behaviour of lovable people; but whether or not his kind attempt at colloquy is the first indication I can find of that active sympathy with the disabilities of his fellow-beings which stamped him later so intelligent a meliorist. Even in his boy’s beginning he had a heart for the work; and Mother Beggarlegs, but for a hasty conclusion, might have made him a friend.
It is hard to invest Mother Beggarlegs with importance, but the date helps me—the date I mean, of this chapter about Elgin; she was a person to be reckoned with on the twenty-fourth of May. I will say at once, for the reminder to persons living in England that the twenty-fourth of May was the Queen’s Birthday. Nobody in Elgin can possibly have forgotten it. The Elgin children had a rhyme about it—
The twenty-fourth of May
Is the Queen’s Birthday;
If you don’t give us a holiday,
We’ll all run away.
But Elgin was in Canada. In Canada the twenty-fourth of May WAS the Queen’s Birthday; and these were times and regions far removed from the prescription that the anniversary “should be observed” on any of those various outlying dates which by now, must have produced in her immediate people such indecision as to the date upon which Her Majesty really did come into the world. That day, and that only, was the observed, the celebrated, a day with an essence in it, dawning more gloriously than other days and ending more regretfully, unless, indeed, it fell on a Sunday when it was “kept” on the Monday, with a slightly clouded feeling that it wasn’t exactly the same thing. Travelled persons, who had spent the anniversary there, were apt to come back with a poor opinion of its celebration in “the old country”—a pleasant relish to the more-than-ever appreciated advantages of the new, the advantages that came out so by contrast. More space such persons indicated, more enterprise they boasted, and even more loyalty they would flourish, all with an affectionate reminiscent smile at the little ways of a grandmother. A “Bank” holiday, indeed! Here it was a real holiday, that woke you with bells and cannon—who has forgotten the time the ancient piece of ordnance in “the Square” blew out all the windows in the Methodist church?—and went on with squibs and crackers till you didn’t know where to step on the sidewalks, and ended up splendidly with rockets and fire-balloons and drunken Indians vociferous on their way to the lock-up. Such a day for the hotels, with teams hitched three abreast in front of their aromatic barrooms; such a day for the circus, with half the farmers of Fox County agape before the posters—with all their chic and shock they cannot produce such posters nowadays, nor are there any vacant lots to form attractive backgrounds—such a day for Mother Beggarlegs! The hotels, and the shops and stalls for eating and drinking, were the only places in which business was done; the public sentiment put universal shutters up, but the public appetite insisted upon excepting the means to carnival. An air of ceremonial festivity those fastened shutters gave; the sunny little town sat round them, important and significant, and nobody was ever known to forget that they were up, and go on a fool’s errand. No doubt they had an impressiveness for the young countryfolk that strolled up and down Main Street in their honest best, turning into Snow’s for ice-cream when a youth was disposed to treat. (Gallantry exacted ten-cent dishes, but for young ladies alone, or family parties, Mrs Snow would bring five-cent quantities almost without asking, and for very small boys one dish and the requisite number of spoons.) There was discrimination, there was choice, in this matter of treating. A happy excitement accompanied it, which you could read in the way Corydon clapped his soft felt hat on his head as he pocketed the change. To be treated—to ten-cent dishes—three times in the course of the day by the same young man gave matter for private reflection and for public entertainment, expressed in the broad grins of less reckless people. I speak of a soft felt hat, but it might be more than that: it might be a dark green one, with a feather in it; and here was distinction, for such a hat indicated that its owner belonged to the Independent Order of Foresters, who Would leave their spring wheat for forty miles round to meet in Elgin and march in procession, wearing their hats, and dazzlingly scatter upon Main Street. They gave the day its touch of imagination, those green cocked hats; they were lyrical upon the highways; along the prosaic sidewalks by twos and threes they sang together. It is no great thing, a hat of any quality; but a small thing may ring dramatic on the right metal, and in the vivid idea of Lorne Murchison and his sister Advena a Robin Hood walked in every Independent Forester, especially in the procession. Which shows the risks you run if you, a person of honest livelihood and solicited vote, adopt any portion of a habit not familiar to you, and go marching about with a banner and a band. Two children may be standing at the first street corner, to whom your respectability and your property may at once become illusion and your outlawry the delightful fact.
A cheap trip brought the Order of Green Hats to Elgin; and there were cheap trips on this great day to persuade other persons to leave it. The Grand Trunk had even then an idea of encouraging social combination for change of scene, and it was quite a common thing for the operatives of the Milburn Boiler Company to arrange to get themselves carried to the lakeside or “the Falls” at half a dollar a head. The “hands” got it up themselves and it was a question in Elgin whether one might sink one’s dignity and go as a hand for the sake of the fifty-cent opportunity, a question usually decided in the negative. The social distinctions of Elgin may not be easily appreciated by people accustomed to the rough and ready standards of a world at the other end of the Grand Trunk; but it will be clear at a glance that nobody whose occupation prescribed a clean face could be expected to travel cheek by jowl, as a privilege, with persons who were habitually seen with smutty ones, barefaced smut, streaming out at the polite afternoon hour of six, jangling an empty dinner pail. So much we may decide, and leave it, reflecting as we go how simple and satisfactory, after all, are the prejudices which can hold up such obvious justification. There was recently to be pointed out in England the heir to a dukedom who loved stoking, and got his face smutty by preference. He would have been deplorably subversive of accepted conventions in Elgin; but, happily or otherwise, such persons and such places have at present little more than an imaginative acquaintance, vaguely cordial on the one side, vaguely critical on the other, and of no importance in the sum.
Polite society, to return to it, preferred the alternative of staying at home and mowing the lawn or drinking raspberry vinegar on its own beflagged verandah; looking forward in the afternoon to the lacrosse match. There was nearly always a lacrosse match on the Queen’s Birthday, and it was the part of elegance to attend and encourage the home team, as well as that of small boys, with broken straw hats, who sneaked an entrance, and were more enthusiastic than anyone. It was “a quarter” to get in, so the spectators were naturally composed of persons who could afford the quarter, and persons like the young Flannigans and Finnigans, who absolutely couldn’t, but who had to be there all the same. Lorne and Advena Murchison never had the quarter, so they witnessed few lacrosse matches, though they seldom failed to refresh themselves by a sight of the players after the game when, crimson and perspiring, but still glorious in striped jerseys, their lacrosses and running shoes slung over one shoulder, these heroes left the field.
The Birthday I am thinking of, with Mrs Murchison as a central figure in the kitchen, peeling potatoes for dinner, there was a lacrosse match of some importance for the Fox County Championship and the Fox County Cup as presented by the Member for the South Riding. Mrs Murchison remains the central figure, nevertheless, with her family radiating from her, gathered to help or to hinder in one of those domestic crises which arose when the Murchisons were temporarily deprived of a “girl.” Everybody was subject to them in Elgin, everybody had to acknowledge and face them. Let a new mill be opened, and it didn’t matter what you paid her or how comfortable you made her, off she would go, and you might think yourself lucky if she gave a week’s warning. Hard times shut down the mills and brought her back again; but periods of prosperity were very apt to find the ladies of Elgin where I am compelled to introduce Mrs Murchison—in the kitchen. “You’d better get up—the girl’s gone,” Lorne had stuck his head into his sister’s room to announce, while yet the bells were ringing and the rifles of the local volunteers were spitting out the feu de joie. “I’ve lit the fire an’ swep’ out the dining-room. You tell mother. Queen’s Birthday, too—I guess Lobelia’s about as mean as they’re made!” And the Murchisons had descended to face the situation. Lorne had by then done his part, and gone out into the chromatic possibilities of the day; but the sense of injury he had communicated to Advena in her bed remained and expanded. Lobelia, it was felt, had scurvily manipulated the situation—her situation, it might have been put, if any Murchison had been in the temper for jesting. She had taken unjustifiable means to do a more unjustifiable thing, to secure for herself an improper and unlawful share of the day’s excitements, transferring her work, by the force of circumstances, to the shoulders of other people since, as Mrs Murchison remarked, somebody had to do it. Nor had she her mistress testified the excuse of fearing unreasonable confinement. “I told her she might go when she had done her dishes after dinner,” said Mrs Murchison, “and then she had only to come back at six and get tea—what’s getting tea? I advised her to finish her ironing yesterday, so as to be free of it today; and she said she would be very glad to. Now, I wonder if she DID finish it!” and Mrs Murchison put down her pan of potatoes with a thump to look in the family clothes basket. “Not she! Five shirts and ALL the coloured things. I call it downright deceit!”
“I believe I know the reason she’ll SAY,” said Advena. “She objects to rag carpet in her bedroom. She told me so.”
“Rag carpet—upon my word!” Mrs Murchison dropped her knife to exclaim. “It’s what her betters have to do with! I’ve known the day when that very piece of rag carpet—sixty balls there were in it and every one I sewed with my own fingers—was the best I had for my spare room, with a bit of ingrain in the middle. Dear me!” she went on with a smile that lightened the whole situation, “how proud I was of that performance! She didn’t tell ME she objected to rag carpet!”
“No, Mother,” Advena agreed, “she knew better.”
They were all there in the kitchen, supporting their mother, and it seems an opportunity to name them. Advena, the eldest, stood by the long kitchen table washing the breakfast cups in “soft” soap and hot water. The soft soap—Mrs Murchison had a barrelful boiled every spring in the back yard, an old colonial economy she hated to resign—made a fascinating brown lather with iridescent bubbles. Advena poured cupfuls of it from on high to see the foam rise, till her mother told her for mercy’s sake to get on with those dishes. She stood before a long low window, looking out into the garden and the light, filtering through apple branches on her face showed her strongly featured and intelligent for fourteen. Advena was named after one grandmother; when the next girl came Mrs Murchison, to make an end of the matter, named it Abigail, after the other. She thought both names outlandish and acted under protest, but hoped that now everybody would be satisfied. Lorne came after Advena, at the period of a naive fashion of christening the young sons of Canada in the name of her Governor-General. It was a simple way of attesting a loyal spirit, but with Mrs Murchison more particular motives operated. The Marquis of Lorne was not only the deputy of the throne, he was the son-in-law of a good woman of whom Mrs Murchison thought more, and often said it, for being the woman she was than for being twenty times a Queen; and he had made a metrical translation of the Psalms, several of which were included in the revised psalter for the use of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, from which the whole of Knox Church sang to the praise of God every Sunday. These were circumstances that weighed with Mrs Murchison, and she called her son after the Royal representative, feeling that she was doing well for him in a sense beyond the mere bestowal of a distinguished and a euphonious name, though that, as she would have willingly acknowledged, was “well enough in its place.”
We must take this matter of names seriously; the Murchisons always did. Indeed, from the arrival of a new baby until the important Sunday of the christening, nothing was discussed with such eager zest and such sustained interest as the name he should get—there was a fascinating list at the back of the dictionary—and to the last minute it was problematical. In Stella’s case, Mrs Murchison actually changed her mind on the way to church; and Abby, who had sat through the sermon expecting Dorothy Maud, which she thought lovely, publicly cried with disappointment. Stella was the youngest, and Mrs Murchison was thankful to have a girl at last whom she could name without regard to her own relations or anybody else’s. I have skipped about a good deal, but I have only left out two, the boys who came between Abby and Stella. In their names the contemporary observer need not be too acute to discover both an avowal and to some extent an enforcement of Mr Murchison’s political views; neither an Alexander Mackenzie nor an Oliver Mowat could very well grow up into anything but a sound Liberal in that part of the world without feeling himself an unendurable paradox. To christen a baby like that was, in a manner, a challenge to public attention; the faint relaxation about the lips of Dr Drummond—the best of the Liberals himself, though he made a great show of keeping it out of the pulpit—recognized this, and the just perceptible stir of the congregation proved it. Sonorously he said it. “Oliver Mowat, I baptize thee in the Name of the Father—” The compliment should have all the impressiveness the rite could give it, while the Murchison brothers and sisters, a-row in the family pew, stood on one foot with excitement as to how Oliver Mowat would take the drops that defined him. The verdict was, on the way home, that he behaved splendidly. Alexander Mackenzie, the year before, had roared.
He was weeping now, at the age of seven, silently, but very copiously, behind the woodpile. His father had finally cuffed him for importunity; and the world was no place for a just boy, who asked nothing but his rights. Only the woodpile, friendly mossy logs unsplit, stood inconscient and irresponsible for any share in his black circumstances; and his tears fell among the lichens of the stump he was bowed on till, observing them, he began to wonder whether he could cry enough to make a pond there, and was presently disappointed to find the source exhausted. The Murchisons were all imaginative.
The others, Oliver and Abby and Stella, still “tormented.” Poor Alec’s rights—to a present of pocket-money on the Queen’s Birthday—were common ones, and almost statutory. How their father, sitting comfortably with his pipe in the flickering May shadows under the golden pippin, reading the Toronto paper, could evade his liability in the matter was unfathomable to the Murchisons; it was certainly illiberal; they had a feeling that it was illegal. A little teasing was generally necessary, but the resistance today had begun to look ominous and Alec, as we know, too temerarious, had retired in disorder to the woodpile.
Oliver was wiping Advena’s dishes. He exercised himself ostentatiously upon a plate, standing in the door to be within earshot of his father.
“Eph Wheeler,” he informed his family, “Eph Wheeler, he’s got twenty-five cents, an’ a English sixpence, an’ a Yankee nickel. An’ Mr Wheeler’s only a common working man, a lot poorer’n we are.”
Mr Murchison removed his pipe from his lips in order, apparently, to follow unimpeded the trend of the Dominion’s leading article. Oliver eyed him anxiously. “Do, Father,” he continued in logical sequence. “Aw do.”
“Make him, Mother,” said Abby indignantly. “It’s the Queen’s BIRTHDAY!”
“Time enough when the butter bill’s paid,” said Mrs Murchison.
“Oh the BUTTER bill! Say, Father, aren’t you going to?”
“What?” asked John Murchison, and again took out his pipe, as if this were the first he had heard of the matter.
“Give us our fifteen cents each to celebrate with. You can’t do it under that,” Oliver added firmly. “Crackers are eight cents a packet this year, the small size.”
“Nonsense,” said Mr Murchison. The reply was definite and final, and its ambiguity was merely due to the fact that their father disliked giving a plump refusal. “Nonsense” was easier to say, if not to hear than “No.” Oliver considered for a moment, drew Abby to colloquy by the pump, and sought his brother behind the woodpile. Then he returned to the charge.
“Look here, Father,” he said, “CASH DOWN, we’ll take ten.”
John Murchison was a man of few words, but they were usually impregnated with meaning, especially in anger. “No more of this,” he said. “Celebrate fiddlesticks! Go and make yourselves of some use. You’ll get nothing from me, for I haven’t got it.” So saying, he went through the kitchen with a step that forbade him to be followed. His eldest son, arriving over the backyard fence in a state of heat, was just in time to hear him. Lorne’s apprehension of the situation was instant, and his face fell, but the depression plainly covered such splendid spirits that his brother asked resentfully, “Well, what’s the matter with YOU?”
“Matter? Oh, not much. I’m going to see the Cayugas beat the Wanderers, that’s all; an’ Abe Mackinnon’s mother said he could ask me to come back to tea with them. Can I, Mother?”
“There’s no objection that I know of,” said Mrs Murchison, shaking her apron free of stray potato-parings, “but you won’t get money for the lacrosse match or anything else from your father today, I can assure you. They didn’t do five dollars worth of business at the store all day yesterday, and he’s as cross as two sticks.”
“Oh, that’s all right.” Lorne jingled his pocket and Oliver took a fascinated step toward him. “I made thirty cents this morning, delivering papers for Fisher. His boy’s sick. I did the North Ward—took me over’n hour. Guess I can go all right, can’t I?”
“Why, yes, I suppose you can,” said his mother. The others were dumb. Oliver hunched his shoulders and kicked at the nearest thing that had paint on it. Abby clung to the pump handle and sobbed aloud. Lorne looked gloomily about him and went out. Making once more for the back fence, he encountered Alexander in the recognized family retreat. “Oh, my goodness!” he said, and stopped. In a very few minutes he was back in the kitchen, followed sheepishly by Alexander, whose grimy face expressed the hope that beat behind his little waistcoat.
“Say, you kids,” he announced, “Alec’s got four cents, an’ he says he’ll join up. This family’s going to celebrate all right. Come on down town.”
No one could say that the Murchisons were demonstrative. They said nothing, but they got their hats. Mrs Murchison looked up from her occupation.
“Alec,” she said, “out of this house you don’t go till you’ve washed your face. Lorne, come here,” she added in a lower voice, producing a bunch of keys. “If you look in the right-hand corner of the top small drawer in my bureau you’ll find about twenty cents. Say nothing about it, and mind you don’t meddle with anything else. I guess the Queen isn’t going to owe it all to you.”