On May 31, 1984, York University celebrated Prof. Clara Thomas on her retirement from the English department with a gala dinner at Glendon College. On that occasion Clara’s close friend Margaret Laurence read a poem, “An Ode to Clara Thomas.” As I recall, the large audience, comprised in part of former students, applauded gratefully. Margaret presented the poem to Clara as a special gift.
I was there with my research colleagues Carl Ballstadt (McMaster) and Elizabeth Hopkins (York). We were then in the final stages of preparing our first book, “Susanna Moodie: Letters of a Lifetime” (1985) for publication. It was, we thought, a path-breaking book and we were delighted when Clara Thomas reviewed it very positively for the Globe & Mail. Clara was to us “a true pioneer” who had with passionate insight shown legions of York students the importance of taking early Canadian writers seriously and learning more about their lives and their books. As younger gatherers and editors, Carl, Beth and I were following her lead, a lead she shared with other senior scholars like Carl Klinck (Western Ontario), Northrop Frye (Toronto), and Gordon Roper (Trinity College, Toronto and Trent University).
I was whisked back in time this month when Stephanie Ford Forrester sent me a copy of Margaret Laurence’s poem, which she had recently rediscovered in her own papers. A noted fabric artist, Stephanie is an old friend. After years of curating the Hutchison House Museum, she has devoted her energies to organizing the Lakefield Literary Festival. For more than 25 years the LLF has celebrated Margaret Laurence, along with those earlier Lakefield-area settlers, Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie. I offer the poem to you as a kind of holiday present. It is a fun piece but it carries its own kind of seriousness. The copy is adorned by Margaret’s floral images and a comical cameo of herself.
Back in the 1980s when “Canlit” was struggling to gain a footing in the English departments of Canadian universities, there was a kind of urgency and collegial nobility in fighting the good fight to get Canadian books and Canadian literary efforts recognized both within the academy and by the larger public. An older generation of academics like Clara Thomas and Malcolm Ross led the charge. In those days there was no Giller Prize and no Canada Reads to publicize that work.
Today, despite a plethora of new Canadian books, there is little talk of “Canlit” as we once knew it. The world of ‘isms’ now governs the work of academics and their departments—feminism, nationalisms, colonialism, ageism, racism and ‘isms’ to do with writing methods.
That all-too-brief moment of attention to “Canlit” has come and gone. But Margaret Laurence’s poem recalls the excitement that many of us shared during these decades. It seemed like gold and it felt like oak. It was about recognizing a richer Canadian heritage than had been previously identified and about giving present-day writers a complex past to draw upon.
One sees that awakening in the writings of Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Carol Shields, Timothy Findley and Laurence herself to name just a few. There is of course a direct link between Laurence’s ode and “The Diviners” (1975) where Catharine Parr Traill becomes the impossible multi-tasker, a saintly role model whom Morag Gunn fails to live up to.
It seems appropriate to consider Laurence’s depictions of these “women of old.” Anna Jameson gets pride of place as she was the subject of Clara Thomas’s impressive biography “Love and Work Enough”: The Life of Anna Jameson” (1967). A well-published art historian and literary woman in Europe, Jameson came to Canada in the late 1830s as the unhappy wife of an English political administrator.
Here she wrote “Winter Studies and Summer Rambles” (1838) about her experiences and privileged travels. Incidentally in sailing to Canada she read a book called “The Backwoods of Canada” (1836). Its unnamed author was Catharine Parr Traill.
Clara Thomas also wrote important essays about Moodie, Traill and Duncan. Her take on Moodie, which she shared with Laurence, was more critical, but in the ode she is simply a woman of genteel manners and toughness of spirit who endured a life “in the bush that was rough.” There was much more to be learned about Susanna through her letters and Clara acknowledged that in her aforementioned review. Moodie’s “Roughing It in the Bush” (1852) was slowly emerging as the most complex and powerful book about the pioneering experience.
Sara Jeannette Duncan is a later figure with a wide-ranging and challenging background. She was Brantford, Ontario’s most famous citizen long before Wayne Gretzky and she published many successful novels in the mode of Henry James.
Her most Canadian book was “The Imperialist” (1904) which offers the finest realism and politically astute dramatization of Canadian (Ontarian) identity ever written. Laurence guardedly calls her “semi-Imperial,” though, Duncan, like herself, spent a good deal of her life abroad.
Finally there is Catharine Parr Traill who both Thomas and Laurence regarded was a “really heroic” pioneer. She was “a mover and shaker” and “no stoic”—a “match for any male.” Alas, the male in her life after she left Suffolk for Canada, was Thomas Traill, a rather limp-toast Orcadian who found himself overmatched, indeed overwhelmed, by the demands of settling on the Canadian frontier.
Mrs. Traill understood his inadequacies and did her best to support him until his death in 1859. Never did she lament her marriage and its consequences. To say she was “no stoic,” however, misses the essence of her heroism and ability to survive. She relied on her optimistic nature and a Christian stoicism to guide her through the many challenges she had to face.
Clara Thomas must have loved to be so warmly linked to Mrs. Traill and her cultural legacy.
“Ode for Clara Thomas”…on her retirement dinner…May 31/1984.
Let’s sing a brave song of those women of old—
Their strengths were as oak but their hearts were of gold.
Each one was a lady who spun a fine tale—
Anna, Susanna and Catharine Parr Traill.
Anna Jameson’s life was no leisurely amble.
In winter she’d study, in summer she’d ramble.
S. Moodie, she lived in the bush that was rough,
Though her manners were genteel, her spirit was tough.
Catharine Traill was a mover and shaker, no stoic,
A true pioneer, she was really heroic.
These women, though ladies, could match any male—
Anna, Susanna and Catharine Parr Traill.
To these we must add another name yet—
The novelist Duncan, Sara Jeannette.
She wrote of Canadians semi-imperial;
Her own life, it read like an old-fashioned serial.
Who has taught all these books, and many good others?
Who has fought for Canlit of our sisters and brothers?
Who has written biographies, articles, reviews?
Who has worked to make Canlit a part of our views?
Clara Thomas we celebrate joyously here.
Like these women of old, she’s a true pioneer.
Her heart is of gold, her strong intellect, oak.
She honours our people, Canadian folk.
She’s a new pioneer, and they’d understand,
Those women who wrote long ago of our land,
As we understand and owe her a debt,
Writers in our land who are writing yet.
She’s a writer, a fighter, a teacher, a friend.
Retirement’s a start again, never an end.
So let’s hear it and cheer it, and say a loud “Hail..
For Clara and Sara.
For Anna, Susanna, and Catharine Parr Traill”.