Canada’s Early Women Writers: An Interview with Karyn Huenemann

Sara Jeannette Duncan, E. Pauline Johnson, Nellie McClung

Sara Jeannette Duncan, E. Pauline Johnson, Nellie McClung

Karyn Huenemann is the Project Manager of Canada’s Early Women Writers (CEWW). She took the time to answer some of my questions and share her perspective and experiences of this long-term collaborative project, which aims to build a bio-biographical database of Canadian English-language writers published before 1950. You can visit the current website, and browse the original database.

I noticed many comments on your website from interested readers. What has been the level of public engagement with this project?

The level of input from the online community has been astounding. The internet is an amazing source—actually, tool. A little story:

I was rather taken with the poetry of RH Grenville, but didn’t know if this poet was male or female. When googling the name, I came across a comment on a blog answering this very question. The comment was something like “RH Grenville is a woman, and she is my mother. Hah!” I contacted the commenter, who was our author Beatrice Rowley’s daughter, Cathy Rowley, of Toronto. Cathy was very forthcoming with helpful information about the family.  This led to my meeting both Cathy and her step-brother Charles when I was in Toronto for a conference. Charles has been an invaluable source of information for us, even obtaining permission for us to access and publish online all of Bea’s papers, and a number of photos. Beatrice Rowley is still alive, and has recently moved into a nursing home in Victoria, BC. A number of the poems I have published on our blog are by Rowley, both part of her extremely prolific periodical publications or handwritten poems on birthday cards etc.. But I digress, as usual.

The point is that my experience researching RH Grenville led me to create an online presence for our project, in the hope that other relatives or interested individuals would come forward with information for us. It has worked gratifyingly well. We have over 200 comments on our blog, most of which either contribute information or ask for our help. Either way, it is wonderful to see the online community participating in the dissemination of knowledge about early Canadian female authors.

There are other conduits for contributions, as well., one of our major resources, has an active online community, and one of our RAs, Linnea McNally, is a marvel at getting in touch with relatives and eliciting assistance. Again, it is a two-way street, and we sometimes find ourselves side-tracked in helping amateur genealogists unravel their family trees with us. It can become an obsession, and thus bleeds into our home lives, as this extra excavation work is necessarily carried on off the clock.

CEWW is one of the seed projects for the CWRC Project. Are there any tools in the CWRC Repository that you are particularly excited to make use of?

Actually, all of it? The timelines and mapping tool is exciting, but mostly the opportunity to have our data ingested into CWRC to be accessed and used by other scholars and the general public is exciting enough in itself. I especially like that all of the CWRC tools will be able to function across multiple projects. When Carole first approached me to help her with the technological aspects of the project, I was immediately on board. What a great game!  And of course it is so much more than that. To be part of CWRC—opening up Canadian scholarship to the nation and the world (I sound like a propagandist, but it’s true!)—feels like I am making a valuable contribution.

The SFU database includes women writers “published before 1940,” but the expanded project marks the cut-off date as 1950. Can you give some insight into the choice of date? Does 1950 hold any particular significance?

Ah, yes… the SFU database has the parameters of the author having published a book of fiction or poetry before 1940. That database was initially constructed in the 1970s and 80s, back when there was no internet, and Dr. Carole Gerson (and her first batch of intrepid RAs) hunted down all of the data by letter, phone call, and meticulous hand-taken notes during long hours of research in archives and libraries. It was at that point absolutely necessary to constrain the research. Part of what makes our work at CWRC—revising, updating, and expanding the original database—so fabulous is that now, with the burgeoning digital world at our fingertips, we can include women who only published in periodicals, or only wrote non-fiction, among other literary outliers. This opens up the way to include famous women like Kit Coleman, Emily Carr, Maude Abbott (one of the first female graduates from U of T, and one of the first Canadian medical doctors), and June Callwood (google her…).

As for the 1940 cut-off: it made sense at the time, in isolation, seeing as an arbitrary date needed to be established. The world was changed by World War II, so 1940 seemed valid. Now, though, our dates extend to 1950, where Dr. Patricia Demers’s project, Canadian Women Writing and Reading from 1950, takes over. Granted her project is bibliographic and critical, where ours is bio-bibliographical, but the continuity is nonetheless there.

One of your “Adventures in Research” posts describes your joy at getting your hands on a scrapbook of articles–it reminded me of a research trip when I got to scan a piece of shrapnel removed from a Canadian volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. Research turns up some strange and fascinating objects. Has your team discovered any other particularly exciting physical objects?

A relative of one of our authors sent me a while ago a 1936 issue of the Crucible little magazine, which was not only very exciting but was part of what sparked one of our RAs, Nick Beauchesne, to take on the job of compiling an index to the complete run of the magazine (now published on our blog, and in the SFU library online). Other than that, and Charles Rowley giving me a signed (to me personally!) copy of RH Grenville’s Fountain in the Square, we don’t have a lot of artefacts surfacing as part of our research… Sadly, as holding books, magazines, letters, in one’s hand has a particular power to it…

While looking into CEWW, I noticed you blog regularly about children’s literature. Do you find much crossover in these two projects? Does Canada have a long history of children’s lit by female writers, and do you have any particular favourites?

Ah, my other great love!  There isn’t a lot of crossover between our project and the Canadian children’s literature world, as Canadian children’s literature did not really come into its own until about the 1970s, concomitantly with the solidifying in the popular mind of a unique Canadian literary identity. Don’t quote me on the dates, of course, but you know what I mean. It was about then that publishers started to take children’s and YA more seriously as financially feasible publication endeavours. It might also have had something to do with the 1967 publication of SE Hinton’s The Outsiders, even though that was American, but… different story.

At any rate, we do have a number of children’s authors and thus children’s titles, but not as many as I would like. Those few I have reviewed I have cross-posted, so they are easy to find on either site. I really want to blog about Catherine Parr Traill’s Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains, which I really enjoy, especially as it is the first actually Canadian children’s novel (although published in England in 1852, the same year as her sister, Susannah Moodie, published the more famous Roughing It In the Bush). Canadian Crusoes is a fascinating book on a number of counts, not the least of which is its inclusion of an interracial marriage at the end.

As for favourites, there are far too many good books out there. Still, L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside (1921) holds a special place in my heart. In a more modern list, Margaret Buffie’s Who is Frances Rain? (1997) is high on the list, but that list would run far longer.

I have at the back of my mind—for when I am retired, most likely, and have any time—that I want to create a comprehensive list of Canadian fiction for young people published up to the year 2000. Not annotated: I’m not that crazy.

Do you have any recent successes or accomplishments, digital or research, that you want to share?

The latest research coup was begun by Daryn Wright, who was writing up an entry on Mavis Gallant, and continued by Lindsey Bannister, who took the file to edit. Mavis Gallant’s mother, it turns out, was quite the character. Daryn had found a name, which looked to be the right person; Lindsey found proof, and from there she uncovered a number of newspaper articles about Benedictine (“Bennie”) Wiseman. As a young girl, she ran away from her home in Montreal and ended up working in Toronto masquerading as a boy, until the police found her and hauled her home. As a young woman, she was arrested for “impersonating a man’s wife” when she ran away to the USA with one Oran Robert Earl, already married… Stories like this are such fun to unravel.

Who is the newest member of your team, and what are they bringing to the project?

The newest member of our team is Dr. Sarah Bull, who is shortly to run off and leave us for a post-doc at Cambridge University, having been awarded the prestigious Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship in the Medical Humanities. She brings to the project an active engagement with and already solid knowledge of the Digital Humanities; she is also working for the SFU/UBC Digital Salon, so we are very lucky to have her. At the moment she is meticulously verifying titles and entering bibliographic data into the CEWW bibliographic repository at CWRC.