The Menace of Ontario
Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm (1932)
I might as well begin by confessing that I came to this book through the film, which I saw years ago and don’t remember much about, other than the line, “I saw something nasty in the woodshed.” The novel itself, according to the back cover blurb, is “a dazzling parody of the earthy, melodramatic novels” that were popular around the time Gibbons wrote it. It takes place in a village called Howling, has characters with names like Aunt Ada Doom (she’s the one who saw something in the woodshed) and Starkadder and … well, you probably get the idea, and if you don’t, you can always read the book (or watch the movie).
Canada doesn’t play a large role in the novel, alas, but we do get in for a quick one-liner:
‘Curious how Love destroys every vestige of that politeness which the human race, in its years of evolution, has so painfully acquired,’ reflected Flora, as she leaned out of the carriage window and observed the faces of Bikki and Swooth. ‘Shall I tell them that Mig is expected home from Ontario tomorrow? No, I think not. It would be downright sadistic.’ (31)
It’s hard to draw too much out of that reference, but the fact that telling them Mig is returning would be “sadistic” indicates that no one wants to spend any time in her company; the fact that she’s returning from Ontario would seem to suggest that Canada is a sort of catch-all for unwanted, awful relatives, who are sent there so decent people don’t have to put up with them, except on the rare and much-dreaded occasions when they return to visit.
In the context, Canada is probably meant to call to mind associations of wildness and a lack of civility – a colonial wasteland where the civilizing touches that make English life so refined are unheard-of. This is hardly unusual; in fact, it was probably a fairly common view of our country even as late as 1932 – and even as late as today, perhaps? – but it’s hard to feel that Gibbons put much thought into the reference; it’s more of a throwaway.
And doesn’t that, in a way, say more than anything else could about the position Canada occupied in the author’s mind? Ontario was a distant place brought in to add point to a joke; having served its purpose, it was promptly forgotten.