Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Stealing Characters in Montreal in 1910

Dr. Ritchie England, President of the Montreal Council of women from 1912 to 20 something...not sure. Also on the Exec of the Montreal Suffrage Association.  She would suffer an impeachment hearing in 1918 over her words about Conscription.. but she'd survive to be part of the new bilingual Suffrage Committee in 1922, the one with Thérèse Casgrain.

I'm reading a book written in 1915, a satirical novel, set in English Montreal society. A Soul on Fire, a book in the public domain.

1915 is the year Virginia Woolf published her first book, the Voyage Out and just 7 years before what many believe to be the birth of the Modern Era, with the publication of Eliot's the Wasteland.

I stumbled on this little lost volume the other day, because I am researching a group called the Montreal Suffrage Association, 1913-1919.

I've been writing a lot about this group here on this blog because I have been poring over the Minutes of the Montreal Council of Women in the archives of the Quebec Library. The MCW spun off the Suffrage Association in 1913.

But I didn't find mention of this book, or its author Frances Fenwick-Williams, in the old minutes. I found it in a Gazette article reporting on the April 1913 launch of the Montreal Suffrage Association.

She was a member of the Montreal Suffrage Association Executive at launch, although I saw no mention of her afterwards in press clippings or in the Minutes.

Now, her story, Soul on Fire, has been lost to history.

I found it on and I just read 6 chapters and downloaded it to my KINDLE.
James Joyce, whose Ulysses also ushered in the Modern Era, affects a meditative pose on my Kindle, which is resting on a bunch of photocopies of Montreal Council of Women minutes from 1918...I already suspect that one of the women on the Council was a mole for the NON Reformist faction at City Hall, and now this Frances Fenwick-Williams, using the opportunity to steal characters for her book?

I can already see where's she going, it is a social satire, disguised in a gossipy and perceptive style and tone that is very familiar....think Vanity Fair. Clearly Mrs. Frances Fenwick-Williams was a bright literary type, but her problem was she was writing in an old-fashioned style...unlike our Virginia. She even uses some letter-writing. How old fashioned.

Of course, I do that in Threshold Girl, also about Montreal in 1910, but I'm so out of date, I'm back in fashion, like a corset worn outside the dress...

Reading this book, I have to wonder if the author got kicked out of the Suffrage Association after this book was published.. I found a notice of publication in the New York Times, but no review.

She likely used real people as her models.  And she has a lot of clever things to say about Montreal Society.. English society. There hasn't been a hint in the book, as yet, that Montreal is French.

But I suspect this novel will tell me more about the Montreal Council of Women and the Montreal Reformers than any minutes or academic paper. It is about a young girl accused of being a witch! There's already been a line about "All the Reform going on  in the City" a teaser or foreshadowing of things to come.

I've just finished reading a part where a Professor expounds to the narrator about the inferior nature of woman. But she knows better than to argue. She just feels sorry for the man. "Poor man, he knows as much about women as I know about anthropoid apes." She says, "He is converting me to suffrage. Mrs. Pankhurst ought to pay him a rattling good salary."

(I can almost guess who she is patterning this character on.) OH MY GOD. (I just checked on the Net. She WAS making fun of Andrew McPhail...she admitted it. I really know my subject, I guess.)

Other gems so far:

"Truth is like pepper. It must be administered in infinitesimal doses if it is to go down at all. Most people make the fatal mistake of administering truth as Mrs. Squeers did the brimstone and treacle. They force the poor unfortunates to take a soup ladle full at a time. so that the poor unfortunates take an incurable dislike of treacle,..ah, I mean truth and never come within range of it again."

"Mrs. Bilkin's housekeeping consisted in making everybody beneath her roof as uncomfortable as possible, regardless of the cost. Lynn's consisted in making her home a haven of beauty and comfort and saying nothing about it. However Lynn never talks servants or the price of beef and Mrs. Bilkins talks of little else. So the later certainly fulfilled the popular idea of a good housekeeper better than the former."

Oh, the day I went to the archives, I went to a movie afterwards while waiting for my ride home. Anna Karenina, another more famous Soul on Fire. I had the little theatre, no 22 at the cineplex, at Montreal, all to myself. And I liked semi-surreal, semi-theatrical Anna Karenina. Tom Stoppard! How could I not? I also saw a preview for The Great Gatsby with Leonardo di Caprio and Carrie Mulligan that seemed absolutely gorgeous. All this HD splendor...a reason to redo those classics over and over.