The Project:This collection of full-text works of poetry and prose by early Canadian women writers has been created for English 5186 and 6895 at the University of New Brunswick. The project is under the content supervision of Dr. Wendy Robbins, with the assistance of graduate student Ms Robin Sutherland, Department of English, University of New Brunswick .
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Women Writers of Early Canada (Anglophone)1: An Overview from the Beginnings to 1975Originally published in World Literature by Women 1875-1975 Ed. Marian Arkin and Barbara Shollar. New York: Longman, 1989. 1095-1102.
Wendy J. Robbins, PhD
The Europeans who "discovered" North America, it has been said, were those men who believed
least in its existence: merchants and adventurers looking for a northwest ocean passage to the Far
East. The continent - inhabited by Inuits and Amer-Indians - that blocked their way gradually
became the site of permanent settlements, first French and then English. Eventually bitter trade
rivalry, leading to war between Britain and France, resulted both in the decimation of the native
peoples (movingly registered in the lamentations of the female "memorizers" of the Nootka oral
tradition, for example) and also, notwithstanding the decisive British military victory at the Battle
of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, in permanent linguistic, cultural, and religious divisions
between anglophone and francophone Canada.
After the American War of Independence in 1776, the immigration of tens of thousands of
Loyalist men, women, and children from New England - colonists who chose to remain loyal to
Britain and were rewarded with land grants - added another indelible mark on the Canadian
character, which is generally seen as more respectful of law and order and less ruggedly
individualistic than the American. Loyalist immigration not only strengthened the political,
social, and economic dominance of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant community, but it also
determined that Canadian literature in English would represent the confluence of the two main
streams in the language-those of Britain and the United States.
Yet, unlike these countries, Canada is not a world power and has a relatively small population -
roughly twenty-five million people, equivalent to that of the state of California - in a land of vast
expanse; in fact, part of the national psyche is a typically postcolonial sense of national
inferiority. The uncivilized wilderness, the insignificant small town, or the “beautiful loser” - the
victimized character - all are central symbols in the Canadian imagination. In the work of women
writers, an analogy is often drawn between the colonization of the land and other forms of
exploitation, between the submerged identity of a country sometimes depicted as a “sleeping
giant” - one that had no flag other than the Union Jack until 1965 - and the suppressed identity of
woman - who was not considered a “person” before the law until 1929.
Canadian literature in English begins in the pre-Confederation or colonial era (about a hundred
years before Canada became an independent country in 1867), just after the British conquest of
the French and their garrisoning of Quebec; it begins with the writing of a woman-novelist
Frances Brooke (1723-1789). Like Brooke, whose epistolary novel of manners The History of
Emily Montague, set in Quebec, was published in London in 1769, a significant number of other
British gentlewomen contributed valuable descriptions of colonial life to early Canadian
literature in the form of fiction, diaries, or letters - often exchanged between mothers and
daughters: Elizabeth Simcoe (1766-1850); early feminist Anna Jameson (1794-1860); Catharine
Parr Traill (1802-1899), author of the practical The Female Emigrant's Guide (1854); and her
sister, Susanna Moodie (1803-1885), whose Roughing It in the Bush (1852) is a classic of
pioneer writing. The first Canadian-born novelist to publish was also a woman: Julia Beckwith
Hart (1796-1867), author of the romance St. Ursula's Convent (1824).
A local dramatic literature began to take shape somewhat later, in the mid-nineteenth century,
replacing the well-known English plays that had at first formed the repertoire of garrison theater
groups. Again, the beginning of playwriting in English Canada can be traced to the work of a
woman: Eliza Lanesford Cushing (1794-1886) published numerous prose and dramatic works on
historical and Biblical themes in The Literary Garland between 1839 and 1845 (she also edited
the influential journal in 1850). A number of other women also wrote and had plays published in
this era; some pre-Confederation women's dramatic literature has been recovered - for example,
in the volume Women Pioneers: Canada's Lost Plays (1979).
No comparable literary archeology has been done in the field of colonial women's poetry,
however. Griselda Tonge, Margaret Blennerhasset, Halifax sisters Sarah and Mary E. Herbert
(who produced a joint collection of poems, The Aeolian Harp , as well as several romantic
novels and temperance tales), Clotilda Jennings (Linden Rhymes, 1852), and Mary Jane
Katzmann (Frankincense and Myrrh, 1893) are little more than names in The Oxford Companion
to Canadian Literature. Only the work of Montreal-born Rosanna Leprohon (1829-1879), whose
poems were collected by John Lovell after her death in The Poetical Works of Mrs. Leprohon
(Miss R.E. Mullins) (1881) and whose novels have become the subject of renewed interest in
recent years, has not been forgotten. Leprohon's three novels published during the 1860s - The
Manor House of De Villerai, Antoinette de Mirecourt, and Armand Durand - offer a realistic
portrayal of French-English relations, and her essentially feminist views on the education of
women and on marriage as a partnership are of special interest. A more comprehensive picture of
eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Canadian women's writing remains to be pieced together from
the important bibliographic work recently completed by Beth Light and Veronica Strong-Boag in
True Daughters of the North, Canadian Women's History: An Annotated Bibliography (1980)
and that still in progress in the Maritime Women's Archives Project.
The literature of the period following Confederation in 1867 up to World War I must be placed
in the context of a new women's history then being made. The “woman question” emerges as a
major social and political issue in the decades following the creation of an independent Canada -
a fact obscured in traditional histories. Several important women's organizations date from the
1870s and 1880s: women's missionary societies, intended for evangelical work, responded to the
urgent need for urban social work; other reformist organizations included the Young Women's
Christian Association and the controversial Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which
crusaded for both prohibition and women's suffrage. Numerous women's artistic, musical, and
literary societies sprang up, as did women's rights associations - the least publicly acceptable
element of the club movement in the early years. The first Canadian suffrage organization was
founded in 1876 by Dr. Emily Howard Stowe, the first woman physician in Canada, as the
Toronto Women's Literary Club; in 1883, it threw off its protective disguise and emerged as the
Toronto Women's Suffrage Association. By 1893, a Canadian federation of women's
organizations - The National Council of Women of Canada - was formed and took action on such
matters as public health, education, adult literacy, factory working conditions, prison reform, and
wildlife conservation; in 1900 it compiled a report entitled Women in Canada, intended as a
handbook of information, to be distributed at the Paris Exhibition, on Canadian women and their
work. And, because almost every large city daily had a female journalist writing a regular column
or editing a separate women's page by the end of the nineteenth century, Canadians at the time
were intensely conscious of the activities of these early female alliances.
In this period of social ferment between Confederation and World War I, two internationally
acclaimed Canadian women writers emerged: Sara Jeannette Duncan (1861-1922), who was the
first woman to work in the editorial department of a leading Canadian newspaper, wrote
numerous plays and novels; Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942) authored one of the world's
best-loved children's novels, Anne of Green Gables (1908). Another very popular Maritime
writer for children is Margaret Marshall Saunders, whose sentimental Beautiful Joe (1894), one
of her many animal tales, has kept her name alive. Many more novels by women of the time,
however, are only now beginning to be investigated. Most contain portraits of traditional women
whose lives are centered in family and church, although some present new images of women and
describe the technological, industrial, and social changes taking places in their day. Writers to be
reassessed include Carrie Jenkins Harris (d. 1903); Alice Jones (1853-1933); Jones' sister, Susan
Carleton Jones (1864-1926); Maria Amelia Fytche (1844-1927), author of Kerchiefs to Hunt
Souls (1896; reprinted, 1980), a novel highly critical of the situation of women, especially as
governesses; Lily Dougall (1858-1923), author of a dozen novels and the first editor of The
World Wide, a Montreal journal of contemporary thought; and May Agnes Fleming (1840-1880),
one of the first Canadians to have a career as a writer of popular fiction. Despite the fact that the
contemporary literary scene is dominated by powerfully influential women writers, the 200-year-
old tradition of female authorship in Canada has received relatively scant critical attention.
While the Anglo-Canadian novel tradition stretches back more than 200 years, and drama nearly
150 years, the poetry tradition, as we know it, is scarcely 100 years old. Here again the beginning
is made by a woman. The standard poetry anthologies and literary histories recognize no
important poet before Isabella Valancy Crawford (1850-1887) who published only one book in
her short lifetime - Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems (1884), and whose
remarkable mythopoeic powers were not fully appreciated until the 1970s. Other women poets of
the period have almost wholly been forgotten: Maritimer Margaret Gill Currie (1843-?); Susie
Frances Harrison (1859-1935), whose Pine, Rose, and Fleur de Lis (1891) contains a monody on
Crawford; and Agnes Ethelwyn Wetherald (1857-1940), who wrote the introduction to J.W.
Garvin's Collected Poems of Isabella Valancy Crawford (1905). Such works clearly suggest the
beginnings of a self-defining female poetic tradition by the turn of the century.
Born in the same year and the same place (Brantford, Ontario) as Sara Jeannette Duncan, E.
Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), the daughter of a Mohawk father and an English mother (she later
adopted the Indian name Tekahionwake), is the first authentic Indian voice in Canadian literature
in English. Johnson left no successor, but the Nootka women's legends collected and “translated”
recently by Anne Cameron in Daughters of Copper Woman (1981) powerfully extends the West
Coast native tradition. This collection contains a creation myth, retells from a native woman's
perspective the history of European male conquest, and culminates in a deeply compelling vision
of universal sisterhood.
While dramatic literature is the least significant genre in the period, interesting material was
produced by such turn-of-the-century playwrights as Agnes Maule Machar (1837-1927),
Elizabeth Jane Thompson (1858-1927), Catharine Nina Merritt (1859-1926), Jean Newton
McIlwraith (1859-1938), and Sara Anne Curzon (1833-1898). Curzon, an activist, dramatized the
controversy surrounding the admission of women to Canadian universities in her 1882 play The
Sweet Girl Graduate and is remembered as the author of Laura Secord, her 1887 play about the
young woman who warned the British of an impending American attack during the War of 1812,
a play she wrote “to rescue from oblivion the name of a brave woman, and set it in its proper
place among the heroes of Canadian history.”
The personification of Canadian feminism for the first quarter of the twentieth century is, most
obviously, Nellie McClung (1873-1951), popular novelist and political campaigner. During
World War I, manpower shortages led to increased female employment in nontraditional jobs,
and the Wartime Elections Act of 1917 enfranchised the female relatives of military personnel,
significantly broadening the base of the suffragist movement. Building on this, McClung and
other suffragists, shortly after the war, not only won for women the right to vote in federal and
most provincial elections, but also, In 1929, successfully challenged the British North America
Act, which had denied that women were “persons.”
The best Canadian poem of the era of the Great Depression is, arguably, The Wind Our Enemy,
the title poem of Anne Marriott's (b. 1913) first book, published in 1939. Needed are recovery
and reevaluation of the work of other women poets in the between-the-wars period: Elizabeth
Roberts (1864-1922) and her relative Dorothy Roberts (b. 1906); Florence Randal Livesay (1874-
1953); early Modernist Florence Ayscough (1878-1942), who collaborated with the American
poet Amy Lowell to produce Fir-Flower Tablets (1921); Floris Clarke McLaren (b. 1904), author
of Frozen Fire (1937); and Louise Morey Bowman (1882-1944), who experimented with free
verse. Additionally, a feminist critique needs to be made of the two most successful women poets
of the era: Marjorie Pickthall (1883-1922) and Audrey Alexandra Brown (b. 1904), whose
writings represent an almost total denial of female experience, but which nonetheless earned the
praise of male critics - in 1944 Brown received the Royal Society's Lorne Pierce Medal “for
distinguished contributions to Canadian literature.” The career of Canada's first major feminist
poet, Dorothy Livesay (b. 1909) takes root in the pre-World War II period also, although it does
not bear its best fruit until after midcentury; nurturing, and in turn nurtured by, the second wave
of the women's movement, her poems about working-class life and women's realities shatter the
Victorian mold of the “true woman” - self-sacrificing and beatifically domestic - and strike out in
In these same years of the Depression, Gwen Pharis Ringwood (1910-1984) emerges as Canada's
first major woman dramatist. The author of over sixty plays - dramas, musicals, children's plays,
radio plays - Ringwood has been a major force in the development of Canadian drama. Twenty-
five of her plays appear in The Collected Plays of Gwen Pharis Ringwood (1982). Some of her
best works are poetic “folk dramas,” such as Still Stands the House (1939), a powerful evocation
of the severity of prairie life, and The Deep Has Many Voices (1967), which again focuses on a
strongly realized central female protagonist.
But between-the-wars literature is dominated, finally, by the stunning international success of
Mazo de la Roche (1879-1961), whose major triumph was a series of sixteen novels chronicling
several generations in the Whiteoaks family; under the sway of a matriarch named Adeline
(Gran), the family owns a splendid estate in southern Ontario, of which the focal point is their
house, Jalna. As popular in its day as the successful soap operas now (more than eleven million
copies have been sold worldwide, and many titles are still in print), the Jalna books created the
myth of Canada as a great, good place. Other fiction writers of note are Martha Ostenso (1900-
1963); Laura Goodman Salverson (1890-1970); Emily Carr (1871-1945), Canada's most famous
woman painter; Irene Baird (1901-1981); Elizabeth Smart (b. 1914); and, especially, Ethel
Wilson (18881980), whose short stories began to appear in the late 1930s and whose best work,
Swamp Angel (1954), tracing its female hero's escape from a disastrous marriage to start a new
life on a remote lake in northern British Columbia, sets the pattern for several later Canadian
women's sagas of self-discovery in the wilderness.
Most of the best work in Canadian literature belongs to the contemporary period, and it is
integrally connected with both the nationalist and feminist movements of the late 1950s and the
decade of the 1960s. Judy LaMarsh, Canada's first female cabinet minister, appointed by the
Liberal government of Lester B. Pearson, prevailed upon him to set up a Royal Commission on
the Status of Women; its Report (1970) provided a valuable description of, and shocking
statistics on, women's inferior status. It concluded: “Perhaps no prejudice in human society is so
deeply imbedded or so little understood. To create equality it will be necessary to create a totally
new climate, a totally new frame of reference against which every question affecting women can
be assessed.” The sociopolitical upheaval of the era created an impassioned drive for renewal,
providing an impetus which culminated in 1983 in the long overdue “repatriation” from Britain
of the Canadian constitution; its new Charter of Rights and Freedoms, whose provisions came
into effect in 1985 - a landmark year - guarantees women's rights, most particularly native
womens' rights, for the first time.
At present, many new directions are being explored by an increasingly large number of women
writers. In prose fiction, the most outstanding work has been done by Mavis Gallant (b. 1922),
Margaret Laurence (1926-1987), Alice Munro (b. 1931), and Margaret Atwood (b. 1939) - all of
whom are represented in this anthology. Other important novelists and short-story writers for
whom, unfortunately, space could not be found are Adele Wiseman (b. 1928), who wrote The
Sacrifice (1956); Sheila Watson (b. 1919), author of The Double Hook (1959), the first truly
modern Canadian novel; Sylvia Fraser (b. 1935), whose career begins with Pandora (1972); and
Marian Engel (1933-1985), with whom an overtly feminist fiction begins in No Clouds of Glory
(1968; reprinted as Sara Bastard's Notebook in 1974). Two American-born writers, Audrey
Thomas (b. 1935) and Jane Rule (b. 1931), who settled permanently in Canada, deserve special
mention. Thomas's autobiographical trilogy - Mrs. Blood (1970), Songs My Mother Taught Me,
(1973), and Blown Figures (1974) - and her twin novellas Munchmeyer and Prospero on the
Island (1971), all written in experimental, discontinuous prose, introduce new themes such as
pregnancy, abortion, and miscarriage. Rule's novels - Desert of the Heart (1964), This Is Not For
You (1970), and Against the Season (1971) - and her stories collected in Theme for Diverse
Instruments (1975) introduce the subject of lesbian love. Rule has also written a book about other
lesbian writers, Lesbian Images (1975). But the best writing by both authors comes in the post-
Canadian drama comes into its own in the 1970s and 1980s. Carol Bolt (b. 1941) has emerged as
one of Canada's most successful and prolific playwrights. Her early plays - Buffalo Jump (1972),
Gabe (1973), and Red Emma (1974) - offer a political reinterpretation of historical events; her
most successful play (also adapted for television) is One Night Stand (1977), which starts out as
a contemporary feminist comedy but ends in senseless violence. Numerous other women
playwrights have surfaced recently, among them Joanna Glass (b. 1936); Beverly Simons (b.
1938); Erika Ritter (b. 1948), author of the hit comedy Automatic Pilot (1980); and Sharon
Pollock (b. 1936), author of Blood Relations (1981), which won a Governor General's Award.
In postwar poetry, too, there has been a virtual explosion of talent. Marya Fiamengo (b. 1926)
who has written one of the finest poems in the English language on women and aging, “In Praise
of Old Women,” is represented by this one title. Others poets not represented but also important
include Anne Wilkinson (1910-1961), author of The Hangman Ties the Holly (1955), whose
work forms a bridge between the repression of the female self typical of Audrey Alexandra
Brown and the militant feminism of writers after Margaret Atwood; P.K. Page (b. 1916), whose
first book, As Ten As Twenty (1946), includes the frequently anthologized poem “The
Stenographers,” which introduces a new subject - female clerical workers in the modern city; Jay
MacPherson (b. 1931), who wrote The Boatman (1957); the versatile Phyllis Webb (b. 1927);
Margaret Avison (b. 1918), whose work reflects a deep Christian spirituality; and Maritime
Provinces writer Elizabeth Brewster (b. 1922). More colloquial and expressive poetry is to be
found in the work of Jewish writers Miriam Waddington (b. 1917) and Phyllis Gotlieb (b. 1926).
Susan Musgrave (b. 1951) published her Haida-inspired Songs of a Sea Witch (1970) at the age
of 18; her work, like the experimental writing of Daphne Marlatt (b. 1942) and of Anne
Szumigalski (b. 1926), continues in the 1980s. But it is the achievement primarily of Gwendolyn
MacEwen (1941-1987) - with her symbolically titled The Rising Fire (1963) - Dorothy Livesay,
and Margaret Atwood -Canada's extraordinary women of letters - to have developed a truly
In the past decade, all the major novelists and poets of the postwar period have published new
work, culminating, perhaps, in the enormously successful dystopia by Atwood, The Handmaid's
Tale (1985). New writers who have made their debut include novelists Aritha van Herk (Judith,
1978) and Australian-born Janette Turner Hospital (The Ivory Swing, 1982), both of whom won
Seal Book Awards. The increasingly multicultural nature of Canadian society is suggested by
works such as Bharati Mukherjee's Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977) and Darkness (1985);
Shirley Faessler's Everything in the Window (1979); and Joy Kogowa's Obasan (1981). In poetry
this ground is tilled by Mary di Michele in Mimosa and Other Poems (1980) and by Kristiana
Gunnars in One-eyed Moon Maps (1980). Other new poets include lesbian Gwen Hauser, The
Ordinary Invisible Woman (1978); Erin Mouré, Empire, York Street (1979); and - perhaps the
best - Roo Borson, author of Rain (1980), A Sad Device (1981), and The Whole Night, Coming
Canadian writing by women, finally, would seem to encompass three reasonably discrete phases
of evolution: imitation of foreign and male models, protest against authorities - British parents,
American cousins, and Canadian brothers - and free exploration of female experience. The rubric
provided by Elaine Showalter's pioneering study of British women's fiction, A Literature of Their
Own, which divides writers into three chronologically arranged groups - feminine, feminist, and
female - is not without relevance to Canadian history.2 Nor are many of the issues raised by
recent feminist critics of American literature such as Emily Stipes Watts and Alicia Suskin
Ostriker. But the systematic recovery and detailed reexamination that are called for in the process
of “rethinking” Canadian history and “revisioning” the canon of Canadian literature are tasks that
have fallen to a still marginalized and regrettably small group of women scholars and critics
clustered in the lower ranks of the English departments of most Canadian universities or else
working in even greater isolation as private scholars without any institutional affiliation.
Important work remains undone, still “waiting the releasing yeast.”
1. When we refer to anglophone Canada, we are discussing those Canadians writing in English;
those writing in French are discussed in the essay on francophone Canada, which follows.
Canada is officially a bilingual country.
2. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press,
Cleverdon, Catherine L. The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada. Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1974.
Cook, Ramsay, and Wendy Mitchinson, eds. The Proper Sphere: Woman's Place in Canadian
Society. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Light, Beth, and Veronica Strong-Boag, eds. True Daughters of the North Canadian Women's
History: An Annotated Bibliography (Toronto: OISE, 1980).
Strong-Boag, Veronica, and Anita Clair Fellman, eds. Rethinking Canada: The Promise of
Women's History. Toronto: Copp Clark, 1986.
Trofimenkoff, Susan Mann, and Alison Prentice, eds. The Neglected Majority: Essays in
Canadian Women's History. 2 vols. Toronto: McClelland, 1984.
Atwood, Margaret. Survival. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.
Canada's Lost Plays, 2 vols. Vol. 1. The Nineteenth Century. Ed. Anton Wagner and Richard
Plant. Vol. 2. Women Pioneers. Ed. Anton Wagner. Toronto: Canadian Theatre Review
Publications, 1978, 1979.
Davidson, Arnold E., and Cathy N. Davidson, eds. The Art of Margaret Atwood. Essays in
Criticism. Toronto: Anansi, 1981.
Klink, Carl F., gen. ed. Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, 2nd ed. 3
vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.
Sorfleet, Robert, ed. L.M. Montgomery: An Assessment. Guelph, Ontario: Canadian Children's
Tausky, Thomas E. Sara Jeannette Duncan: Novelist of Empire. Port Credit, Ontario: P.D.
Tierney, E. Frank M. The Crawford Symposium. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1979.
Toye, William, gen. ed. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Oxford
University Press, 1983.
Twayne's World Authors Series (Boston: G.K. Hall) includes volumes on Gwen Pharis
Ringwood, Margaret Laurence, and Ethel Wilson.