Mother Runs Off … to Canada
James Lees-Milne, Another Self (1970)
Another Self is generally referred to as a “semi-autobiographical novel,” though today, no doubt, it would just be marketed as a “memoir”. Lees-Milne is best-known as a diarist – a number of volumes of his diaries have been published – and as a key figure in the early years of the National Trust, and was also a member of the Mitford circle. (There are similarities between his description of his father in this book and the father figure in the work of Nancy and Jessica Mitford.) Another Self gives an account of his childhood and youth, the idea behind the title apparently being that the person he was then is no longer the same as the person who wrote this book.
The reference to Canada comes at a point in the book when Lees-Milne is describing how his parents reacted to his lack of success at Eton:
My housemaster recommended that there was little point in my remaining at school beyond the summer half. Eton, he hinted, could do little further for me, and I might just as well make room for some other boy who would benefit from it. My father was naturally in a blazing temper. My mother who could not face up to the recriminations which, she explained, would only make her ill, kissed me fondly goodbye, and sailed away to Canada. (45)
There is something about that scene – not romantic precisely – but melodramatic, I think. The threat of illness, the fond kiss, the abrupt departure for a distant location – these elements seem borrowed from the Victorian stage and make this moment feel not so much natural as constructed for effect – though whether constructed by the author or by his mother is hard to say.
Canada’s emphatic placement at the end of the paragraph makes our country the dramatic culmination of the whole passage – it is this departure to Canada that the narrative leads up to. And yet Canada itself remains mysterious. Why does she sail to Canada? What does she do there? We are never told. The name of our country simply sits on the page, unexplained and, perhaps, inexplicable.
Of course, as a (former) British colony, Canada would offer at least some of the comforts of familiarity to Lees-Milne’s mother: she would be able to speak the language and so on. We could almost imagine Canada as a sort of sanatorium, maintained by the Empire, where Englishwomen can go when they need a break from life at home. After a few months in the colonial wilderness, no doubt, whatever problems they had back in England will begin to look relatively minor.
And in fact, in the next chapter the narrator’s mother is back in England, and no reference to Canada is ever made again. We can speculate about the reasons behind the journey – did she have a lover there, or a lover who was going there? She had already run – or more accurately, flown – off with a balloonist before the abrupt departure to Canada, so something along those lines is possible – but we are never told.
Canada is the means by which the mother dramatically gives up on life and escapes from reality, but only temporarily. Sailing to Canada is not a real decision with irrevocable consequences; it is, rather, a gesture that conveys the mother’s mental and emotional state at that particular moment in time, but can always be retracted later. For her, living in Canada is a momentary aberration, not a permanent state.