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.

The Problem. Canada owes Sara Duncan an apology. Duncan writes well-crafted, complex novels. Her narrative voice is Southern Ontario. By and large, Canada has ignored her. Yes, she paints an accurate picture of Ontario – not always complimentary. Scott Fitzgerald is not complimentary about America in the Great Gatsby but somehow American academics have enough self-confidence to value him. When will Canada rise above the Philistines? Duncan’s Canadian and international novels deserve as much respect as Canadian academics accord Fitzgerald, Forster and the redoubtable Austen. 

Duncan’s divine intelligence gives grist to the academy’s Victorian conferences and feminist conferences but where’s the passion? People end up tut-tutting and looking away and (wrongly) muttering about her second-rate value. And/or Elgin’s (Brantford’s) racism. In 1904 Brantford’s racism and relentless snootiness are real and Duncan calls them out.  Perhaps Duncan is not given her due because of academic political correctness, which makes her wear the same elitist mantle as her narrator, and the objects of her satire. Duncan will win in the long run. She must. One hopes the long run will hurry up. Carol Shields and Carole Gerson half-heartedly analyze Duncan and part of her opus but I have never read a sadder title than Cecily Devereux’s Colonial Space/Imperial Identity: How Sara Jeanette Duncan navigated Victorian Canada, Americanization, and the Empire of the Race by herself. 

Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes
Sara Jeannette Duncan in the “Camp of the Philistines”
 Faye Hammill
 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.

Aristotle changes everything. Duncan’s novels gain dramatic (structural) complexity, as The Imperialist illustrates.

Early in her career Duncan writes to Henry James for comment on her work (A daughter of today 1894) and James praises her ability and talent, and writes back suggesting she accord “her pearls” a string. In other words, pay attention to form. Duncan turns to Aristotle’s Poetics. She dives into an ancient’s description of drama because, really, where else does one start to study ‘the string’ that holds the pearls?

In The Imperialist Duncan makes good use of Sophocles’ chorus figure, that is, the community-minded commentator. Duncan’s commentator is sharp but she is not as sharp as Duncan (or we are) and since we hold the edge in perspective, as the author intends, we see the humour arising from an intelligent and chatty but small-town voice. Telling stories about Mariposa (Orillia), humorist Stephen Leacock picks up the trick of the parochial narrator and plays it for all it’s worth. Like comedies of old, novels of manners are about hegemonies, or elites, often as elites battle each other, or come into conflict with some poor Joe Schmo who fights against social hypocrisy. And as Saturday Night Live shows us, targeted communities, mercilessly mocked, ought to pay attention.

Duncan’s Elgin illustrates the two ruling political classes in mini-conflict: Elgin’s Liberals and Elgin’s Tories. Duncan-the-writer is certainly not a conservative and she, personally, sees the flaws in Canadian liberalism. Using the clever, but not too clever, chorus-narrator, Duncan sets up the humour and manages the intertwined plots of The Imperialist, and tips the structural hat to Aristotle and Sophocles. The pearls have a string.

Duncan’s novels of manners describe the last gasps of the British Empire

A novelist of manners tells a wondrous tale, which creeps towards allegory, and some (satirical) scenes and quips are flat-out amusing, which is no easy feat as you will see should you happen to catch the movie The death of Stalin. Some characters may die or fail to achieve their dreams but since not everyone in any given group meets a tragic end, “manners” are normally thought of as comedies.

Duncan writes about cataclysmic changes in British governance and power at the turn of the last century. Set in Authority and The Burnt Offering are darker than The Imperialist

The 21st-century literary world of readers, used to reading about the twisted psychology of individual contrarians and loners, is not fertile ground for sociology, unless you’re Margaret Atwood. Today’s trends track misfits and outliers and male serial killers by the yard. So unpopular and undervalued is the manners genre, we may wind up underestimating its long-term cultural and historical value. Writers who use their gifts to record and satirize the “comedy” of people-in-groups are invaluable to students of literature and history and science. Manners is a genre where women tend to dominate, both as characters and writers, and Duncan snaps an anamorphic picture of a large subject (pre World War 1 culture), which includes seeing the western world through the eyes of women. 

Duncan paints on a large canvas to acquire a modicum of international interest, and perhaps prestige. She might as well use a large canvas because home/Canadian territory proves unfriendly. Her canvas, perforce, has a sweep larger than many manners’ novelists, say, Jane Austen or William Dean Howells. American and English and French writers of note can count on receptive audiences because of the economic/cultural clout of their countries.

Canada doesn’t even try to be receptive to locals writing about local issues. Writers with social intelligence and international experience – those who are able to describe the story of an empire and capture the moment when the foundations of the empire crack – are a rare breed. Duncan is rare among the rare. From a woman’s perspective she tells readers how well or how poorly smaller cultures fare under the enormous, dominating English umbrella.

English Canada pays close attention to economics. That is true. But artists in English Canada have a famously rough go. Duncan knows her province has no real cultural clout, either nationally or internationally, and the place appears not to want any. Duncan will have to rise above the manners of her own country to get anyone to pay attention to her Canadian voice. Early in Duncan’s career, the seminal question gets raised, and later picked up by Alice Munro, Who you think you are? She is Sara Duncan – a genius. And she is a novelist of manners, and her colossal canvas beckons. 

At the end of the 19th century republican styles nip at high-buttoned English boots. The popular Downton Abbey could have been a Duncan story but we know the writer’s maxim: write what you know. Not yet as comfortable with England as with English Canada, Duncan surely knows small-town Ontario. Starting with Elgin’s tiny cultural parasol, Duncan points at the rips and holes in the fabric that indicate the spectre of a fatally fatigued British Empire and an English-Canadian culture bent on overloading its citizens with loyalist hypocrisy.

Sara Jeannette Duncan (1861-1922) writes newspaper columns and novels and plays. Her reporter’s mind is a perfect dream-catcher for customs and manners. As perfect for Canada West and confederated Canada as the mind of Eliot for Middlemarch. Or William Dean Howells for Boston.
ABOVE: In The Imperialist Hugh Finlay demands truth from Dr Drummond.

The Imperialist.

Warring hegemonies in Elgin: Liberals-Presbyterians versus Tories-Anglicans

In 1904 there are two social hegemonies in Elgin (Brantford).

Political stripes and Protestant sects define both. Not all Presbyterians are Liberal. Not all Anglicans are Tory. But by-and-large, like Pinot Noir and brie, the pairings are agreeable.

On trade and tariff policies, what annoys polite society in The Imperialist are the mini-cross-overs of Liberal and Tory ideas. What unites the two groups, however, is their wild and crazy love for Queen Victoria and all things English.

The Imperialist’s protagonists are loveable and intelligent and Liberal. They are the brother and sister duo, dreamers Lorne and Advena Murchison. The young Murchisons receive significant adult attention, favourable and unfavourable as befits proper guidance, and for a while all is well.

But something goes wrong. Lorne and Advena give their parents and Dr. Drummond and Horace Williams and the community-at-large alarming wake-up calls.

Lorne and Advena declare their love and admiration for the most inappropriate “idealisms.” Presbyterian-Liberal Lorne courts a Tory Anglican’s daughter, Dora Milburn. Moreover Lorne wants Canada to adopt Imperialism, which is the Tory position emanating from loyalist Toronto. (To understand Canadian Imperialism, see Carl Berger’s The Sense of Power: Studies in the Ideas of Canadian Imperialism, 1867-1914, reprinted 2013.)  Noting Lorne’s attraction to Dora Milburn and Canadian imperialism, Brantford citizens of the Liberal persuasion look at each other in wonder. What irrationality has overcome the young man?

Adding to the apparently inexplicable Lorne-Murchison madness, Advena falls for the stiff-necked Hugh Finlay. “What on earth?” practical townsfolk mutter. Finlay is a stubborn, hyper-idealistic Scot. A real Ivanhoe type.

What a shame about Lorne and Advena Murchison. Two children show up on God’s green earth with all the promise in the world of capturing straight A’s in critical thinking and what do they do? They turn romantic. They follow harmful idealisms. They paddle up the Grand River against the current, so to speak.

Elgin the impossible

Readers! Who’s to blame for this dreadful situation?

Readers! Blame Elgin!

Lorne Murchison and Advena Murchison can handle carping individuals who do not approve of their plans. It’s Team Elgin that bothers and confuses them. No one citizen is quite as difficult to live with as the collective.

As stated, Elgin hums with two competing sets of polite manners. Religion and politics and manners are the main concerns of each set. The wealthy industrialist Octavius Milburn and his wife  – the Nova Scotian, Mrs Filkin Milburn – and their spinster daughter, Dora, are Tories. Tories are manufacturers. Like the Milburns, Tories are insensitive, high-society copy-cats, and wholly unimaginative. Born in Canada, they aspire to Englishness. To ape fine folk, they eat at eight.

The salt-of-the-earth Murchisons are Liberal. As their name suggests, they are merchants. They are practical Scot and Ulster immigrants. They are Presbyterians. They eat at six.

These two elites mesh to make polite society. The shallow Milburns and the strait-laced Murchisons own a strict and an almost insufferably narrow code, which rules society in Elgin. For the Milburns, nothing but English (art and literature) is good enough to bother with. For the Calvinistic Murchisons, no art at all is worth one’s time.

Why blame Elgin for the follies of a couple of romantically deluded kids? The chorus in classical Greek drama speaks for the community and adds information where necessary.

Even the narrator of The Imperialist cuts down to size poor Lorne and Advena.

A person’s promising to commit an extraordinary act or threatening to bring attention to herself or himself through unusual achievement propels the community into remedial action. To be “fair-minded,” the community slices down the artistic tall-poppy. Elgin, the absurd fuss-budget in Duncan’s novel of manners, wants citizens with artistic promise to go away and not to embarrass themselves (or the community). Elgin lauds egalitarian habits, which seems like a good thing. But any marvellous concept taken to extremes, be it fairness or freedom or egalitarianism, courts zealotry. Not being able to tell puffery from art, Elgin scythes everyone down to size  – because a level playing field is only fair. Fairness is as important to Elginites as freedom is to New Yorkers. Elgin drives out the dreamers but retains Stella Murchison (Lorne and Advena’s practical younger sister), who promises polite society nothing more or less than her own dignity, which, she believes, puts her on a social par with anyone in town. Taken to extremes fairness encourages the mindless liberalism of Jane Bennet, which Jane Austen so decries in Pride and Prejudice. In 1904 Duncan is a woman with exceptional courage. Duncan grabs her straw hat and runs. And she writes The Imperialist, a story full of love and chiding and satire, which stands as a caution to Canada.

But. How does Elgin cause the false steps the two loveable protagonists take? Enter the United Empire Loyalists and their endless propaganda. In 1904, Tories and Liberals may disagree on tariffs and trade but they agree on one thing: Queen Victoria (Mother England). They LOVE her. In churches and newspapers, and in kids’ books and classrooms, and on signposts and on park names, in eating style and cooking hints, Elgin mythologizes England. To hear someone say “England” is to hear a rhapsody.

Because of its obsession with England, Elgin causes Wizard-of-Oz delusions. Little children – full of wonder and being believers (natural romantics) – fail to look behind the curtain, they mythologize England. As idealistic kids, Lorne and Advena are susceptible to loyalism and its propaganda.

Early settlers name the village after a Father of Upper Canada, Upper Mohawk Pine Tree Chief Joseph Thayendanegea Brant, but that’s it. Brant does not get a second glance from Advena and Lorne (or Elgin). Personally, I don’t recall any of my Brantford teachers instructing us on the actual contributions of Chief Joseph Brant and Brant’s Volunteers to the British Empire. Teachers may have said the Six Nations Confederacy (Iroquois League or Haudenosaunee) identifies as United Empire Loyalist. Ha! Not so. Most definitely Brant would not appreciate being labelled a UEL if it meant the subjugation of his people under the British cultural umbrella. For Brant, a soupçon of Englishness oils the interaction between different peoples; a lot of Englishness is simply too much to bear.

All of this is moot. In The Imperialist, instead of openly talking about Butler’s Rangers and Brant’s Volunteers, Elgin encourages impressionable children to look to England for culture and to eschew North America. Elgin encourages children to fantasize about the adventures of Robin Hood in Sherwood forest. No one knows about Brant, who hails from a scorched village in the Mohawk Valley, New York. No one knows how, for freedom for his people, Brant and his volunteers fight guerrilla style in the gigantic Carolinian forest. Better to mythologize Robin Hood.

On Victoria Day, Elgin’s children watch the annual lacrosse game with no understanding of the real hero. Sans Joseph Brant and the allies there would be no Victoria Day. Certainly no Upper Canada. If you don’t believe it (and over time many Canadian Studies students most certainly have not wanted to believe it) please check out readings to find books on the subject of the Revolutionary War and allies invaluable contribution to the English fighting the American patriots. See James Paxton, Alan Taylor, Isabel Thompson Kelsay, William Stone, et al. We know George Washington. Who is Joseph Brant? students ask, thereby proving Duncan’s point about an ongoing, culture-stunting and inappropriate Victoria day, and Elgin’s 19th-century reluctance to commemorate the local talent. 19th- and 20th-century social and historical education in Elgin/Brantford is delusional.

Swallowing Elgin’s anti-American and pro-British mythologizing as God’s truth, the indoctrinated loyalist Lorne Murchison foolishly dives head-first into the gospel of Wallingham (Joseph Chamberlain) and British-Canadian Imperialism. Lorne’s delusions about trade with England will do nobody in Elgin any financial good, least of all the practical farmers of Fox County, descended from “late-loyalist” mostly rural Americans (see the Bloody Assize). Late loyalists take all matters royal with a royal shrug. The republicanism of late loyalists undercuts loyalist hoopla. The farmers of Fox County make themselves known on market- and voting-days.

But Advena and Lorne are not pragmatic farmers. They are idealistic urbanites.They are the children of a pragmatic Scot and Ulster Irishwoman, who, with no choice in the matter, have surrendered their children to school and church systems that espouse fanatical English loyalism. Lorne and Advena are a split personality and both sides learn a hard lesson about Elgin, where the unspoken reality is hypocrisy: mind what I do and not what I say. Espouse English loyalism until you’re red, white and blue in the face but remember the naked truth: costs and proximity to markets demand you sell to and buy from America. I imagine Duncan would be shocked to discover how muscular the idealization of Victoria Day remains in urban Central Canada, even after one hundred-plus years (and Brexit). The Imperialist reminds us of our foolishness. If you don’t read the hints or feel the irritation in the satire, which relentlessly comes between the antagonist, Elgin, and the stars of the novel, Lorne and Advena Murchison, then you might want to assume Duncan wears Elgin’s bigotry and applauds Elgin’s loyalism. As for bigotry, may I suggest to critical types, those who speak of “the Aboriginal other” in the Imperialist, to take a closer look for more of Elgin’s “polite society’s” throwing shade.

Elgin hates Americans. Just listen to Lorne, when he makes his nomination speech. Good heavens. Such anti-American resentment, and thrown at your county’s biggest trading partner. The American Revolution ended over a hundred years ago. Move on. So. Moving on. By default Elgin should be pro-English anyway. So what about the posh English fellow newly arrived in town? That’s a good thing, surely. Nope. Englishman Alfred Hesketh appeals to a few members of the Anglican Tory elite, but to nobody else. Presbyterian elites and Irish Catholic workers join forces: they hate English remittance men with their affected Germanic accents. All right then. No English aristocrats in Elgin. What about Irish Catholics? Good grief, Ontario and Elgin are decidedly and famously anti-Irish-Catholic and anti-French. Don’t expect a promotion if you’re either of those. Polite society not only despairs of “the girl” Lobelia (African?), but also disdains the poor young Irish “Flannigans and Finnegans,” who never pay their own way into a lacrosse game. Who else? Polite society in Elgin disdains factory workers. No one in polite society will sit on a train next to a smutty face. Children mock Yorkies and Lancastrians. Unkind saucy types (not sweet Lorne, of course) toss their insults at Mother Beggerlegs (north England’s Buggarlugs) after they buy their gingerbread. Time and again, Elgin draws the elitist line and whisks the welcome mat inside the door. No (overt) American republicans. No posh English accents. No non-posh English accents. No French-Canadians. No Catholic Irish. No blacks. No smut. No. No. No. Not on this town’s social ladder. 

But most offensive is Elgin’s anti-Indigenous streak. (19th-century Brantford has the reputation of being more racist than Hamilton, not twenty minutes away.) The racism is true enough in fact – and hard enough to read about. The narrator, herself a member of polite society, nastily observes “drunken Indians vociferous on their way to the lock-up,” and yet, off-hand, she tells us how much Lorne and Advena admire the heroes of the lacrosse game.

Without using a neon sign to point out who the best lacrosse players are, Duncan, placing herself snugly behind the parochial narrator’s scrim, sideswipes her snooty commentator. You have to know the territory to feel the swipe. This story is set, after all, in the era of the great Haudenosaunee runners. Mohawk Bill Davis finishes second in the 1901 Boston marathon, and the fabulous Onondaga runner, Tom Longboat, wins it in 1907. Return to The Imperialist. Everyone in Elgin in 1904 knows the best lacrosse players are the Indigenous athletes. Lacrosse heroes are descended from the Eastern Woodland First Nations, who invented the game. “Though [Lorne and Advena] 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.” Duncan uses a narrator who is funny and amusing and a member of the Presbyterian elite to nip at the heels of Anglican Conservative elite but that does not mean the two hegemonies of Elgin’s polite society are not VERY exclusive. They certainly are.

The chorus/narrator takes part in Liberal Elgin’s anti-otherness. Duncan is the voice behind the narrator and Duncan tells the truth: elitist Elgin doesn’t like anybody very much. Certainly not anybody American, or Irish Catholic, or black, or posh (English), or show-offy, or Indian. Or anybody in any other way exceptional. Years pass and the “exotic” others (eg., Tom Longboat and Pauline Johnson) will get their due but at the time of their rising fame, Elgin shudders, and looks away. “Exotic,” so-called, eventually wins over the Canadian Philistines. At the moment, the ultimate irony:  the brilliant stage actor Pauline Johnson fares better with the Canadian nation than brilliant writer Sara Duncan. Both women deserve national fame and commemoration. As happy as one is for Johnson, one weeps for Duncan.

Tom Longboat


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 Jeanette Duncan navigated Victorian Canada, Americanization, and the Empire of the Race by herself. 



The Imperialist

Chapter 1

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.”