Identifying and Migrating

By Pat Demers (English and Film Studies, University of Alberta)

The retrospective observation of Atwood’s narrator in “My Last Duchess,” a story about a high school English teacher whose standards made a lasting impression, from her collection Moral Disorder, supplies one way of encapsulating what I continue to learn in the CanWWR project. Grouping the revered Miss Bessie with other exceptional teachers, the narrator sums up their importance:

They knew something we needed to know, but it was a complicated thing–not so much a thing as a pattern, like the clues in a detective story once you started connecting them together. These women–these teachers–had no direct method of conveying this thing to us, not in a way that would make us listen, because it was too tangled, it was too oblique. It was hidden within the stories.

This note will outline the ongoing team work–patterns, clues, connections–in the Canadian Women Writing and Reading from 1950 to the Present project in preparing, expanding, and updating the database and adding selected brief bio-critical entries following an “Orlando-lite” format. These activities are focused on the migration of the site and database to the CWRC platform. With data entry guidelines and alternate name information, the CanWWR database continues to be modified to assist information sharing within CWRC and lateral searches with other affiliated CWRC projects. Identifying women writers–Canadian by birth, location, or immigrant and refugee re-location–the site documents every conceivable medium and genre, from print to blogs, prose fiction to graphic novels, journals and diaries to film scripts and music scores, literary studies to cook books. Through analyzed reader surveys (conducted with undergraduate and graduate classes and library patrons in large and small urban settings) and transcribed interviews with writers, the site shines light on the ways reading interprets and extends the life of texts, underscoring that writers and readers live in interconnected worlds. Reading selection and criteria help us to gauge the appeal and impact of women writers. Our readers’ surveys corroborated many the of the findings of UK studies: that “fiction by women remains special interest” and that, as Lisa Jardine observed, “men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life’s journey, as consolers or guides, as women do.” This online, open access resource of elite and popular writing indicates the unprecedented diversity and artistic productivity of the period from post-war prosperity to post-industrial late modernity. It reflects transformations in demographic patterns, communication media, national and community expectations, and legislation dealing with cultural identity, matrimonial and intellectual property, sexual abuse, and exploitation. It signals the move from heteronormative middle-class concerns for workforce and gender equity to pluralist concepts of race, class, and sexuality. As imagined, located, and perceived in the writing of women, Canada is vastly different from the country it was in the middle of the previous century. Our hope is that this resource will supply mapping devices and signposts for tracing the prismatic forces of human imagination, translating the capital H of history into the emotive effects on individual lives.

The exercise of conceptualizing this national terrain necessarily involves the social and imaginary elements of space along with acknowledgment that postmodernity–from the late twentieth century on–has destabilized historical time and narrative. The movement from place, understood as the particularities of a named space experienced as unified with clear boundaries, characteristics, and a history, to space, envisioned not so much as bounded areas as open and porous networks of social relations, supplies one way of thinking about the calibrations in perspective during the period of this project. The markers and events listed in our timelines and chronologies indicate the complicated, contested sense of history being traced. On the one hand, consider the Massey Commission, the establishment of the Stratford Festival, the Canada Council for the Arts, the journal Canadian Literature, the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission, the Status of Women Commission, Studio D of the NFB, SSHRC, the passage of the Canada Act repatriating the Constitution and enacting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Multiculturalism Act. There is a counter-narrative as well: le réfus global, le rattrapage de la revolution tranquille, Justice Berger’s Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland, Quebec’s absent signature on the Constitution Act, the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, the Oka crisis, the narrow margin of the second Quebec Referendum on Sovereignty, General Romeo Dallaire’s unheeded calls for UN assistance as Hutu extremists slaughtered almost a million Tutsis and Hutu moderates within 100 days, and the national apology to First Nations peoples and re-constitution of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to acknowledge, record, and document inter-generational and ongoing consequences of the lethal legacy of residential schools.

With assistance from the current research team of Amy Dyrbye, Chloe Jones, Ashley Moroz, and Jessica Ratcliffe, and concentrating on the single genre of fiction, I want to share some of our discoveries hidden within the stories. Fiction: did it simply sprout in the 1950s or blossom later? In addition to Mazo de la Roche’s blockbusters, Evelyn Eaton’s historical romances, les romans de la terre of Marie le Franc et Germaine Guèvremont, pioneer tales of Mabel Dunham and Olive Elsie Knox, and the success of Françoise Loranger, there is this combination of early- and late-bloomers: Madge Macbeth, Irene Baird, Gwethalyn Graham, Elizabeth Smart, Winifred Bambrick, Gabrielle Roy, and Ethel Wilson, exploring both timely and perennial topics–the illusions and bonds of middle-class marriage (Macbeth’s Shackles), the dynamics of a Swiss finishing school (Graham’s Swiss Sonata) and of a continental theatrical troupe (Bambrick’s Continental Revue) as war looms in Europe, labour upheaval during the Depression (Baird’s Waste Heritage), anti-Semitism in Westmount (Graham’s Earth and High Heaven), the plangency of passionate longing (Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept), the imprisoning cycle of poverty (Roy’s Bonheur d’occasion), and the dawning realization that glamour and venality can co-exist (Wilson’s Hetty Dorval). Reader response, then as now, trains a specific lens on these works. One especially strong example is the recollection of a teenager reading Bonheur d’occasion; Saint-Henri native Lise Payette, media star and Parti québecois Minister of Cultural Affairs in the first Lévesque government (1976-81), saw Roy as a spy mocking her and warping her view of the district:

J’ai regardé autour de moi avec ses yeux. Je nous ai vu pauvres, insignifiants, sans ambition et sans culture, ‘nés pour un petit pain’ et incapable d’en sortir, répétant de génération en génération les mêmes gestes et le mêmes erreurs. Je fus blessée au coeur. Je nous ai vu paresseux, nous contenant de peu et ne désirant rien d’autre.

Through searches directed at writers’ names, genres, titles, or at contextualizing times and decades of their productivity, or at awards earned, or critical studies (searchable by writer, genre, or theme), visitors to the site can trace the five-decades-long career of novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and screenwriter Anne Hébert and the lineaments of her work–psychological torment and analysis embedded within social themes of the rejection of religiously inculcated guilt and challenge of the restraints of marriage. A similar search could focus on her expatriate contemporary and friend, Mavis Gallant, who has itemized their shared experience:

We were both from Quebec, though from dissimilar backgrounds, hers in Quebec City, mine in Montreal. We had been to convent school run by the same order of nuns. We had both worked at the National Film Board, when it was still in Ottawa. We had both moved to Paris to live and to write. We had both decided to live on and for our writing, and we did.

A search from a thematic angle could reveal the growing appeal of the autobiographical or semi-autobiographical mode–in Roy’s La Route d’Altamont, Claire Martin’s Dans un Gant de Fer, Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House, and Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. Changing perspectives over a career become visible, too–from the monological, patriarchal world propagated by Adele Wiseman’s protagonist in her Governor General’s Award-winning début novel The Sacrifice and, almost two decades later, to the decentralized vision and efficacy of self-sacrifice championed by her strong-minded survivor, Hoda the prostitute, in Crackpot.  Unpredictable alliances can be uncovered, as in the response to Sheila Watson’s non-realist yet non-Romantic The Double Hook, its dry-belt B. C. interior so desiccated in contrast to the luxuriance of Swamp Angel, from Ethel Wilson, praising Watson’s work as “personal incandescence in a lighted mind.” The tensions and loyalties of la revolution tranquille with the collapse of a social order and symbolic destruction of the family emerge in the explosive talent of Marie-Claire Blais’ La Belle Bête and Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel.

One feature of our joint work over the past while has been the preparation of brief bio-critical entries for women writers not in Orlando, entries which will serve as introductions to the lists of works by both twenty-first-century and forgotten women. Jessica Ratcliffe and Chloe Jones have been responsible for these entries.

It’s one thing to establish data entry guidelines; another to try to implement and standardize them. Amy Dyrbye’s blog discusses the issue of writers’ names, pseudonymns, changed names, and alternate names, and how they have been added to the database to appear on the site.