Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels (1960)
Let me just note, for those not already familiar, that this book is published by New York Review Books, a fantastic source of hard-to-find books (though in hunting down the link I find Dead Souls is their featured title, which is actually fairly ubiquitous. Oh the cruel ironies of life!) They also have a great children’s series.
There are a couple of points of interest here; let’s tackle the meatiest first.
We sailed for New York on February 18, 1939, on the Canadian ship SS Aurania. (p. 198)
Perhaps only a Canadian would note the irony implicit in this: Mitford and her husband, Esmond Romilly, sailed on a Canadian ship, but of course they weren’t going to Canada – no, they were on their way to a far more glamorous and exciting destination – New York. Their brush with Canada was merely a means to get somewhere else.
A description of the voyage follows:
Our fellow passengers were Canadian tourists, and Polish refugees who had managed to get on the immigration quota. Since there was little to liven up the voyage, we devoted our attention to taking sides in the continuous battle that raged between these two groups.
Some of the Canadians had taken it upon themselves to preserve the Anglo-Saxon purity of the steerage class bar from the “foreigners”. The bar was small, generally crowded, and stuffy. A group of Canadians generally managed to monopolize it early in the evening. “This place stinks of polecats,” they said loudly when some of the immigrants tried to come in. Esmond, assuming his most super-English-upper-class-public-school manner, escorted a group of Poles through the Canadian phalanx. “I really must apologize for these ghastly Colonials. They’re virtually uncivilized. Too bad we couldn’t have sailed on an English ship.” For once he was enjoying outsnobbing the snobs.
For a country that now prides itself on welcoming immigrants, this doesn’t make the most charming reading. Romilly’s comments about the Canadians play on the standard trope of colonials taking on the characteristics of the wild land they have settled, becoming more savage than the cultured sophisticates who remained home in the mother country. And putting on his most upper-crust attitude is the perfect touch; even today, most Canadians are cowed by the mere sound of an English accent. A cockney could proclaim himself a lord in Toronto and be met with bows of obeisance.
No insight is given into the motivations of the Canadians, but this sort of imposition of inferiority tends to work in a chain i.e. the English make the Canadians feel inferior; the Canadians then have to find someone (in this case, Polish refugees) that they can make feel inferior in their turn; and so it goes until the person at the bottom is left screaming at his child or kicking his dog. Perhaps the Canadians were acting out the contempt they had just been treated to on their tour of Europe. If so, Romilly’s joke about uncivilized Colonials must have twisted the knife with particular sharpness.
Romilly’s decision to join the Armed Forces to fight in the Second World War while he and Mitford were living in the United States brought about another brush with Canada:
[Esmond] was exultant at being in a position to arrange the details of his own participation in the war. Had he been caught up in the English conscription he would have found himself at the mercy of officialdom, with nothing whatsoever to say about what branch of the services he would join. As things stood, he was free to steer as clear as possible of the more tradition-bound centers of the armed forces. He decided to leave immediately for Canada, there to volunteer for the Air Force.
Notice that the reason for enlisting in Canada is entirely negative – he doesn’t particularly want to be part of the Canadian armed forces, he just wants to avoid English conscription. Romilly was the nephew, by marriage, of Winston Churchill, and to him Canada is nothing more than a useful backwater that provides him with some much-desired obscurity.