Research adventures at CEWW

The Canada’s Early Women Writers (CEWW) project at SFU is amassing data on all Canadian women who wrote anything, in any forum, previous to 1950. Dealing with upward of 2000 authors, we often run across interesting, sometimes even bizarre, situations. The fascination of searching for answers, the fortuitous ways in which information comes to us, and sometimes the information itself, all seem fodder for some possibly enlightening and hopefully entertaining CWRC blogs. Here is the first.

Lily Adams Beck: A joyful narrative of discovery

by Karyn Huenemann

When I first joined CEWW, the database included 471 authors. The parameters for inclusion were that the author be sufficiently identified as Canadian, and that she had published at least one book of poetry or fiction before 1940. That’s a lot of names; I tried to learn them all, in case I should stumble across their books—or previously undiscovered authors—in bookstores. Browsing the books section at Value Village, I stumbled across an author whose name seemed familiar, possibly one of “our ladies”: L. Adams Beck. The title was The Ninth Vibration (1922). Reading the blurb about the text, I sincerely hoped that my memory was correct, because it sounded like a fascinating collection of stories, playing to my interests in both early Canadian literature, and literature about Asia written by resident and visiting European women.

The Ninth Vibration is indeed a unique text—or, rather, L. Adams Beck is a unique author. Nominally Canadian, as she lived a large portion of her life in Victoria, BC, and called Canada home, she travelled extensively and was fascinated by Eastern mysticism. Her literary career began when she was as old as 60 (in 1920), yet she published 35 books and numerous stories and articles in the 11 years before her death in 1931. Given my interests, I took it upon myself (with the help of Linnea McNally who was revising Beck’s biographical entry, and Nancy Blake at SFU inter-library loans) to hunt out as many sources for her periodical publications as I could, and to straighten out our previously confused bibliography of her extensive works and multiple pseudonyms. The path to success was long and somewhat convoluted…

Through extensive reading of obituaries and early twentieth-century “author bio” articles, I learned the extent of her contemporary acclaim. Her works were extremely popular, running to numerous reprints: Dreams and Delight (1920), for example, was reprinted in 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, and 1926. She published under only three names, but was known by many more in her social, familial, and public lives. By 1927, she was cross-referencing her female publication names, possibly to increase sales: books would be authored by “L. Adams Beck (E. Barrington)” or “E. Barrington (L. Adams Beck).”

The author herself

Image from N. de Bertrand Lugrin, “L. Adams Beck–The Lady with the Mask.” MACLEANS (1 Nov. 1925): 72.

Lily Adams Beck was born Elizabeth Louisa Moresby in about 1860. Her second husband’s name was Ralph Coker Adams Beck, hence her publications as L. Adams Beck. She is also referred to in some media reports as Elizabeth Louisa Beck, Eliza Louisa Moresby Beck, Lily Moresby Adams, or Lily Adams Moresby. The Moresbys were an eminent naval family: her father was Admiral John Moresby, son of Admiral Fairfax Moresby, after whom Moresby Island, BC, is named. Lily travelled with her family at an early age and, especially after her marriage to Ralph Adams Beck, became an inveterate traveller to Asia, fascinated by both Asian religion and philosophy. She constructed for herself a spiritual philosophy based on Buddhism but incorporating Hindu mysticism, and many of her stories are articulations of how mysticism in general, or her own philosophy specifically, influenced her European characters in their otherwise traditional lives. (My favourite of her texts is her children’s novel, The Joyous Story of Astrid [1931], which presents a comprehensive and comprehendible eschatological philosophy to her young readers.) She wrote three genres of fiction: her non-fiction historical biographies were published under the male pseudonym “Louis Moresby”; her fictional (romantic) biographies were published under the pseudonym “E. Barrington”; and her works incorporating Eastern mysticism were all published under what was essentially her real name: “L. Adams Beck.”

Her periodical contributions were many. While we know that she did publish in at least six periodicals, no one has created a comprehensive list of her shorter works, despite her popularity, her fascinating topics, and her interesting life. One of the sources that I found—and Nancy managed to bring to SFU so I could hold it in my hands!—was a scrapbook held at Brigham Young University, in Logan, Utah. It has no author; it is just a collection of articles about Asian politics, literature, art, and philosophy, as well as European life in Asia in the early twentieth century. My records indicated that it contained an article by L. Adams Beck. Nancy was overjoyed when she discovered that it in fact contained four articles by Beck. Unfortunately, we had no indication of what periodical they came from; we could only tell—from typeface and format—that all four were from different issues of the same journal. And so the hunt began.

Carole Gerson, primary researcher for CEWW, suggested using other articles obviously from the same journal to try and pin down the title. After a few attempts to find other authors online, we finally located a reference to one of the illustrators in the magazine: the illustration in question was identified as coming from Asia: The American Magazine on the Orient, a source perfectly in keeping with the theme of the scrapbook. With that information, we were actually able to track down volumes of the magazine containing Beck’s articles for sale over the internet: at only about $12 US per copy. It turns out that research is one of those areas of life where it is immensely helpful to know at least part of the answer before you ask the question. Given the search capabilities of the world-wide-web these days, it often takes only one good clue to unearth a plethora of undiscovered or at least previously unconnected information. Our entry on Lily Adams Beck is now not only more correct, but far more comprehensive than it ever could have been before the advent of the internet, fabulous research abilities of the ILL employees notwithstanding.

~Karyn Huenemann, Project Manager, Canada’s Early Women Writers (SFU)