Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Selfish Gene and WWI Conscription

Frances Fenwick Williams was a Montreal author and suffragist who figures large in my book Service and Disservice about the 1917 Conscription Crisis in Canada - and the iffy involvement of the Canadian suffragist movement.

It's the follow up to Furies Cross the Mersey, about the 1911/12 British Invasion of Suffragettes to Montreal, an invasion Ms. Fenwick Williams helped bring about, I suspect.

I've written about Ms. Williams a lot on this blog. She was clever and nervy - an outlier who was part of the social elite but who made fun of these people in her books.She was the daughter of a Montreal stock market official and from a distinguished Nova Scotia family.

Her second novel, A Soul on Fire was published in 1915 when she sitting on the Executive of Board of Directors of the Montreal Suffrage Association, although she wasn't a social reformer like her co-members.

Frances Fenwick Williams, about 30 years old, was an 'equal rights' suffragist, not a 'maternal' suffragist.

 She was married in 1910  but was estranged from her American husband.

Being married gave FFW the right to be a member of the MSA.  Young single women were not invited into the Montreal suffrage movement. They were too 'excitable.'

FFW was a bit like the famed American author Edith Wharton, if you think about it, but she was not nearly as good a novelist. A critique of her 1915 novel, A Soul on Fire, claimed the characters didn't resemble any  in real life.

Hmm. Ivy Compton Burnett was a Dame Commander of the British Empire, Post-War novelist and member of the Women's Writers Suffrage League.  FFW went to London in 1912 to visit with the suffragettes. And, then, she joined the very 'sane' and 'reasonable' Montreal Suffrage Association, as a kind of mole.

FFW liked to give speeches. She was an able debater at the February, 1913 Montreal Suffrage Exhibit. Her speech is in my book Furies Cross the Mersey.

During  the 1917  Conscription Crisis, she was there when Borden needed her, giving a speech in Montreal on the first day of December, a day after riots in Sherbrooke, Quebec among other towns.

Premier Borden (or people in his office) deliberately tried to stir up trouble in Quebec, pitting Anglo against Francophone, and Fenwick Williams was one of the willing pawns, it seems.

"I am a suffragist, a socialist and half a soldier," she told the 100 ladies assembled at the 1917 rally. She also said she had no political affiliation but was for the Union government because it was the closest thing you can get to a non-partisan government.

She said anyone against the Union Government and Conscription was a  "Traitor to the Dead," a phrase that made the headline the next day.

She pledged to give another speech to a larger crowd of women within the week, but the Halifax explosion happened and stole the headlines."The enemy is at the gates,"said one such headline in the Montreal Gazette.

(Grace Richie England, Montreal born President of the Montreal Council of Women, refused to get caught up in Borden's shenanigans and stumped for Sir Wilfrid Laurier and suffered an impeachment hearing in 1918 for her troubles.)

At least FFW wasn't a hyprocrit like so many of the other Canadian suffragists during WWI. In May 1913, at the AGM of the National Council of Women in Montreal, Mrs.Philip Snowden, moderate suffragist from England spoke. The gist of her speech according to the Montreal Gazette: "That the power of women's vote in politics would be to glorify the value of human life over property."

Well, the Conscription Crisis in Canada proved this wrong, didn't it? Most suffragists were happy to help Borden get his 500,000 new recruits and send virtually every able-bodied young man in the country to the Front.

Why? So that their own sons, already at the Front, would have a better chance of surviving.

The Selfish Gene trumps principles every time.

In 1913, Fenwick Williams wrote a piece in her column The Feminist, called Women and War  stating: "It is generally believed that since women don't take part in military actions that they are opposed to war. It would be a similar thing to say that since men don't take part in Spring Cleaning, that they are opposed to it."

But she also wrote this 1917 war poem that seems to show two enemy soldiers dying together.

Before Verdun

No prayer can help, no agony atone,
As I came into life I go  - alone!

Another man is lying by my side,
Another, caught in death's fast-brimming tide.

Mine was the hand that struck his life away,
And his the hand that laid me low today.

Yet now, as nearer draws the dreadful end,
He seems to me a brother and a friend.

What is he thinking as his life ebbs fast?
(How lonely each poor soul is at the last!)

If I could hear him speak before he dies I should not feel so desolate,  but he lies,
Silent and spent.

His lips grow slowly white.

I hate to look upon the piteous sight!

(There's more.)

Like many writers, Fenwick Williams was a jack of all writing trades: she wrote short stories, novels, poems and essays.

When the first issue of Chatelaine came out in the 1930's, Fenwick Williams was a contributor!

She also taught writing in her old age, from Montreal, but her course was a correspondence course with students from all over. Fenwick Williams called on her many society connections for this project, including Dr. MacPhail of McGill, a fellow Nova Scotian, and Ida A.R. Wylie, well-known author and suffragette activist.

 And in 1963, some  students actually put on one of her plays.