What Is a Canadian Fiction?

By Brian Busby

The author of The Dusty Bookcase finds a new history of Canadian fiction notable for its omissions.

REVIEW of A History of Canadian Fiction. David Staines. Cambridge University Press, 2022.

 

IT SAYS NOTHING GOOD about this country that this volume is, to paraphrase the publisher’s pitch, the first history to chart the development of Canadian fiction from earliest times to present day. Author David Staines, Professor of English at the University of Ottawa and former General Editor of the New Canadian Library, describes it slightly differently, as the “first detailed history.” Either way, one wonders what took so long.

A History of Canadian Fiction begins rather awkwardly with a two-paragraph overview of the country’s past from the arrival of its first inhabitants (c. 11,500 B.C.) to the arrival of Frances Brooke (1763 A.D.). From this point, the reader is led along a well-trodden path that will be familiar to anyone who has taken Intro to CanLit. Those students will remember The History of Emily Montague (1796), which Mrs. Brooke, an Anglican chaplain’s wife, wrote during her five-year stay at the British garrison outside Quebec City. Professor Staines steps to a less worn part of the path in taking issue with descriptions of Emily Montague as the first Canadian novel, rather it is “the first novel using, at times, a Canadian setting.”

On this we agree.

He points to Nova Scotia as the true birthplace of Canadian fiction; its earliest practitioner being Thomas McCulloch, a Scottish clergyman — he stayed, unlike “temporary resident” Mrs. Brooke — whose Letters of Mephibosheth Stepsure first appeared serially between 1821 and 1823 in the Acadian Reporter. The first work of fiction by a native-born Canadian is identified as Julia Catherine Hart’s St. Ursula’s Convent; or The Nun of Canada, Containing Scenes from Real Life (1824). In 1832, Major John Richardson’s Wacousta; or The Prophesy was published. The Clockmaker; or, The Sayings than Doings of Samuel Slick, of Slickville by Thomas Chandler Haliburton appeared in 1835 and 1836 editions of the Nova Scotian.

And here this reviewer pauses.

The next title this aging Intro to CanLit veteran expected was L’Influence d’un livre by Phillipe-Ignace François Aubert du Gaspé. A gothic tale first published in 1837, it holds distinction as the very first Canadian novel written by a francophone. L’Influence d’un livre is not mentioned in A History of Canadian Fiction, nor is Les Anciens Canadiens (1863), the thrice-translated novel by Phillipe-Ignace’s father, Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé. In fact, not one work by a francophone writer features in this history of Canadian fiction.

How is it that a book titled A History of Canadian Fiction would exclude work written in French? Remarkably, Staines does not address this issue. In fact, he doesn’t so much as recognize the existence of Canadian fiction written in French. Of the hundreds of writers of fiction named in this book, we find two French names: Roger Lemelin and Gabrielle Roy. They first feature in a short list of “important people” who were once interviewed by Mavis Gallant and reappear in another list of writers whose fiction Mordecai Richler had read. Roy’s name is in a third list, this of writers with whom Sandra Birdsell corresponded.

And that’s it.

The only mention of a work written in French appears in a nine-page Chronology of historical, cultural, and literary events that precedes the text itself. Next to the year 1632, we find: “Jesuit Relations, an annual, begins and continues until 1673.” But of course, they weren’t the “Jesuit Relations,” they were the Relations des jésuites.

Would A History of Canadian Fiction in English have been a more accurate title?

Perhaps, though this too is unsatisfactory.

 

A HISTORY OF Canadian Fiction raises questions as to whom the author considers Canadian and what he considers fiction. The answers may be found in Staines’ criticism of Arthur Stringer, one of the fin de siècle expatriate Canadian writers whose lives are documented with enviable thoroughness in Nick Mount’s When Canadian Literature Moved to New York (2005). Staines begins with an inaccurate summary of The Silver Poppy, Stringer’s 1903 debut novel, before turning to the fiction for which the once-popular author is remembered, if at all: The Prairie Wife (1915), The Prairie Mother (1920), and The Prairie Child (1922). They are, he writes, books with “no evidence of a Canadian sensibility,” each “an American writer’s odyssey on Canadian soil, though the Canadian soil is never realized.” It’s hard to know exactly what Staines means by all this as he provides no examples. And it is interesting to note, however, that no contemporary book reviews share Staines’ criticism.

He continues: “Stringer had a large and faithful following for his many novels, yet his novels are finally not about Canada nor are they written from a Canadian perspective.” Stringer, who I point out spent his summers on the fruit farm he owned outside Chatham, Ontario, was “[a]n expatriate who became an American citizen in 1937 [at age 63], he chose to become an American writer and thereby lost his Canadian vision. When he returned to a Canadian setting, he could not capture the land he had known so well.”

The Silver Poppy is set in New York and Quebec City. Stringer’s second novel, Lonely O’Malley (1905), is set wholly in Ontario, and ranks amongst his finest. My personal favourite, The Wine of Life (1921), which draws heavily on his failed marriage to statuesque beauty and former Gibson Girl Jobyna Howland, takes place in New York and rural Ontario. All of this raises the questions, when exactly did Stringer leave Canadian settings, and for how long would it have been permissible to stay away?

Staines’ criticism of Stringer concludes: “In 1946, the University of Western Ontario awarded him an honorary degree in recognition of his literary contribution to Canadian letters!”

And why not? Stringer lived most of his childhood in London. He was, to quote Staines, “an exceptionally versatile man, winning critical acclaim for his many works and gaining commercial success.”

Staines’ displeasure with Stringer as a man who “chose to become an American writer” may explain why Grant Allen and Robert Barr’s names and works are not to be found in this “detailed history.” Each contributed at least one important work to world literature — Allen for The Woman Who Did (1895), Barr for The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont (1906) — so why no mention here? Is it because the authors left Canada for England? Is it because neither book is set in Canada? Or is it because what fiction the writers did set on Canadian soil “isn’t realized”?

While Staines does not share his definitions of “Canadian” or “fiction,” it is clear both are narrower than convention. Margaret Atwood’s science fiction novels are covered in some detail, but not the novels of A.E. van Vogt, William Gibson, Robert J. Sawyer, and Cory Doctorow. Atwood aside, the history does not include genre writing. And so, we see nothing of mystery writers Frank L. Packard, Margaret Millar, Ross Macdonald, Howard Engel, L.R. Wright, and Louise Penny. Richard Rohmer, whose political thrillers Ultimatum, Exxoneration, Exodus/UK, and Separation topped Canadian bestseller lists, is missing in action, as are bestselling historical novelists Thomas B. Costain and Thomas H. Raddall. Surely, a history of Canadian fiction should also discuss the Canadian fiction the public was reading.

A History of Canadian Fiction in English seems not such a great title after all. How about A History of Canadian Literary Fiction in English?

No, that’s not right either.

Factual errors are few and for the most part not terribly egregious. Robertson Davies was born in 1913, not 1931, though it is fun to imagine Shakespeare’s Boy Actors (1939) as the work of an eight-year-old boy. Gilbert Parker is described as “the first Canadian writer to make a comfortable living through […] fiction,” an accomplishment that properly belongs to May Agnes Fleming, who was over a decade dead when the future baronet held his first book.

“Naturalized Canadian Writers,” the ninth and penultimate chapter, begins with a rather remarkable error: “Although naturalized Canadians, Canadians born outside of Canada, were a relatively uncommon feature in the country’s landscape before World War II — Frederick Philip Grove being an exception — the war years and years immediately following altered the fabric of Canadian society.”

This is simply untrue.

In 1913, the number of immigrants to Canada was more than 400,000 — this in a population of 7.6 million. In 1931, 22% of the population had been born outside Canada, a full seven points higher than in 1951.

Now, it’s possible that the author intended to write that naturalized Canadian writers, Canadians born outside of Canada, were a relatively uncommon feature in the country’s landscape — does that explain the odd reference to Grove? — but this too is false. Earlier pages in this very book have shown otherwise, highlighting the writing of Susanna Moodie, Catharine Parr Traill, Martha Ostenso, Ethel Wilson, and Stephen Leacock (whose English birth is ignored).

Things take a very strange turn with this bold claim: “Three naturalized writers led the way for the growing number of emigrant men and women coming into the country.” This trio, consisting of Henry Keisel, Austin Clarke, and Jane Rule, is credited for somehow spawning Carol Shields, Michael Ondaatje, Shyam Selvadurai, Dionne Brand, Neil Bissoondath, Andre Alexis, Rohinton Mistry, and M.G. Vassanji, “eight writers who adapted to their new homes and relished its space to write fiction of their new lands as well as their homelands.”

No expat-shaming here.

“For these naturalized Canadian writers, all of them Canadian citizens, the country is a secure home from which thy write about their new home and about their homelands. From the distance it affords them, from the freedom they enjoy, they feel under no compunction to adapt to their new country; they can write about their own landscapes as well as their new country.”

Brian Moore (1921-1999)

 

Brian Moore, by far the most accomplished writer to arrive in Canada during the years immediately following the war, is the most glaring single omission in this book. Why is his name not so much as mentioned? After all, he too was a naturalized Canadian. He too became a Canadian citizen. Is it because, like Stringer, he chose to live in both Canada and the United States? Is it because some of his novels can be considered thrillers? It’s a mystery.

A History of Canadian Fiction may be a first, but in failing to include popular fiction, genre writing, and the entirety of francophone writing, it can in no way be considered a detailed history.

It tells only part of the story.

 

Brian Busby, a literary historian and editor, is the author of The Dusty Bookcase, a collection of his reviews; A Gentleman of Pleasure: One Life of John Glassco, Poet, Memoirist, Translator, and Pornographer and Character Parts: Who's Really Who in Canlit (2003). He blogs at The Dusty Bookcase.

 


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