Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

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Those Ghastly Colonials


Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate (1949)

Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford’s sort-of sequel to The Pursuit of Love, doesn’t just mention Canada – it features a Canadian as a major character, and both raises and then undermines a number of common ideas about our country and its citizens. The novels share several features: like The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate is again narrated by Fanny; again has very little to do with Fanny’s life, but is rather the story of one of her acquaintances, Polly; and again makes ample use of the Mitford family in the guise of the Radletts. Many of the characters from the earlier novel recur, though seen from slightly different angles, as it were.

As for the evocative title, if it has led you to hope that the novel is all about how to get naked and stay warm in a snowbank, I’m afraid I must disappoint you: the “cold climate” of the title refers to England (which must make any Canadian laugh, but anyway).

On to the story: Polly is the beautiful but cold daughter of Lord and Lady Montdore, and the first half of the novel concerns Lady Montdore’s attempts to marry her daughter off to a suitable bachelor. One of Lady Montdore’s great disappointments is that the family’s beautiful country house, Hampton, cannot be inherited by Polly, but instead will go to Cedric Hampton, a young relative the family has never met from – wait for it – Nova Scotia.

Here is Lady Montdore laying it out:

‘Oh, dear, oh, dear! Now, if only we were a French family, they seem to arrange things so very much better. To begin with, Polly would inherit all this, instead of those stupid people in Nova Scotia – so unsuitable – can you imagine Colonials living here?’  (271)

And similarly, a few pages later:

‘The young man from Nova Scotia simply gets Hampton and everything in it, but that is an Aladdin’s Cave, you know, the furniture, the silver, the library – treasures beyond value. Boy was saying they really ought to get him over and show him something of civilization before he becomes too transatlantic.’  (281)

And this:

‘Sad, isn’t it, the idea of some great lumping Colonial at Hampton!’  (367)

Here we can see the English aristocracy’s attitude to Canada: “stupid people … so unsuitable … Colonials.” The incredulity implied by the question at the end of the first passage makes it clear that Canadians are viewed as simply not good enough to live in a stylish English house.

The second passage continues in the same vein, with the reference to showing the Nova Scotian something of civilization indicating that no one thinks there’s any civilization to be found in Canada; no doubt it’s essentially a wilderness inhabited by people not much better than animals. Only Europe can provide civilization – and there we see the one ray of hope. The boy from Nova Scotia is not beyond recovery; if he could just be rescued from Canada and brought to Europe in time, perhaps the touch of civilization could smooth out his savage nature (“too transatlantic”) and make him someone who might not be welcomed, but could at least be tolerated, in the drawing rooms of society.

I don’t want to summarize the entire plot here – too labyrinthine – but, for the sake of comprehension, I’ll hit the high points: Polly disappoints her parents by marrying her uncle, Boy Dougdale (who has also been her mother’s lover, apparently – let’s hope Park Chan-wook doesn’t make a film adaptation). In response to this inappropriate marriage, her father cuts her out of his will entirely:

‘Of course lots of people say Polly isn’t Lord Montdore’s child at all. King Edward, I’ve heard.’
‘It doesn’t seem to make much difference now, whose child she is, because he’s cut her out of his will and some American gets it all.’  (383)

This is one of the most remarkable references to Canada I’ve come across. Without even mentioning Canada, it says so much about us: even in fiction, we get taken for Americans.

In the second half of the novel we actually meet Cedric Hampton, the Nova Scotian who will inherit all of Lord Montdore’s estate, and this is where things get particularly interesting. Mitford sets us up with a few more references along the lines of what we’ve come to expect:

‘Now, fancy moving in Canada. You’d think one place there would be exactly the same as another, wouldn’t you?’  (397)

And this:

Words dimly associated with Canada kept on occurring to me, the word lumber, the word shack, staking a claim…. How I wished to be present at Hampton when this lumberjack arrived to stake his claim to that shack.  (399)

So there he is again: our old, and seemingly inescapable, friend, the Canadian lumberjack. The passage is a miniature summary of how a well-off young Englishwoman of the time would think of Canada – ironically so, it turns out, because then we meet the “lumping colonial,” the “lumberjack,” Cedric Hampton himself, and things take a turn for the unexpected:

There was a glitter of blue and gold across the parquet, and a human dragon-fly was kneeling on the fur rug in front of the Montdores, one long white hand extended towards each. He was a tall, thin young man, supple as a girl…. He was flashing a smile of unearthly perfection….  (401)

It turns out that this nominal Canadian has not been living in Canada for years; in fact, as he says himself:

‘…kindly Nature has allowed a great sea-fog of oblivion to rise between me and Nova Scotia, so that I hardly remember one single thing about it.’  (406)

He’s been living in Paris, depending on the kindness of Barons, involved with a “selfish” German “boy” named Klugge; he is “kind and thoughtful and affectionate, like a charming woman friend” (413); he turns out to be a member of quite a different tribe from what we were led to expect:

‘Aesthetes – you know – those awful effeminate creatures – pansies.’  (420)

For us as Canadians, Cedric’s actual appearance, when compared to what everyone expects of him before he arrives, marks a significant shift in the perception of Canadians in the English novel, and brings about an equally remarkable shift in the views of the English aristocrats in the book – for Cedric becomes like a son to the Montdores, especially Lady Montdore, who at the beginning of the novel loathes the very idea of his existence. He turns out to be a sophisticated aesthete with an extensive knowledge of art, architecture, poetry, fashion, furniture, personal grooming – pretty well any subject of interest to society ladies with more money and time than they know how to spend. He charms every member of high society he meets, usually by seeming to have an intimate knowledge of, and deep interest in, whatever subject the other person is most fascinated by. He is a glittering chameleon, always exactly what the other person wants him to be.

This seems to suggest that Mitford had a view of Canadians quite a bit more nuanced than many of her compatriots had – or even have today. In part the intention of the novel is satirical, of course; she builds up expectations of a coarse, unsophisticated Canadian, and then shifts the direction of the novel by introducing a completely different sort of character. And Cedric’s sophisitication is the product of his time in Europe, not in Nova Scotia – though really it’s the product of time in Europe combined with his innate nature, which suggests Canadians aren’t doomed to never be more than lumberjacks; we have at least the potential to understand and appreciate the finer things, so long as we are brought into contact with the improving influence of European civilization.

There is also the idea that “blood will out” to consider – Cedric’s mother was a Canadian woman, but his father was a member of the English aristocracy, and perhaps we are meant to understand that it is the aristocratic half of his background that makes the life he creates for himself possible.

Nevertheless, the story of Cedric Hampton represents a fascinating reversal of the view of Canada taken by Dickens, say, or Basil Bunting, as a land of new opportunity for Englishmen; in the case of Cedric, it is his leaving Canada and coming to Europe that opens up a social and cultural world where a person with his aesthetic and theatrical inclinations can succeed and become an adored figure of high society – something that surely never would have happened in Halifax or Dartmouth, where he might well have simply withered away.


Our Lake Ontario … or Theirs?

We the Animals cover

Justin Torres, We the Animals

Justin Torres, We The Animals (2011)

Manny and Joel were flunking, so when a man paid my father to drive a package up to Niagara Falls, it was me Paps took out of school fro two days; it was me he brought along for company. We drove for four hours; Paps didn’t say much, just that we were headed east, around Lake Ontario, hugging the shore. We stayed in a dusty motel room, and in the morning Paps took me to see the falls….  (98)

If you’re curious to know what sort of writing is coming out of the big U.S. writing workshop programs (and, really, why would you be?), then this novel will give you a sense of it – both the good and the bad – and all in only 120 pages! (The Acknowledgements section – which is as long as some of the chapters – mentions the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Bread Loaf conference, among others, and thanks a number of well-known, and doubtless well-connected, authors.)

Even over such a short distance, the self-consciously “poetic” and “writerly” style goes from intriguing to grating as the plot, such as it is, meanders – I was going to say in circles, but that would suggest some sort of patterning; more like in a series of shaky spirals that eventually make their uneven way off the page and into the mist of the reader’s disinterest.

And does it even contain a reference to Canada? I have to admit that it’s impossible to be sure from the book itself. The narrator’s family lives in upstate New York, and the Niagara Falls referred to could easily be on the American side; there’s no specific reference to crossing the border. But my instinctive nationalism is such that when I read the words “Lake Ontario” I immediately thought “Canada!” Only after a few seconds of more sober reflection did I recall that, like most lakes, Lake Ontario has two sides, and in this case the other side is in another country entirely.

In this chapter, after showing the narrator the falls, the father leaves him and disappears for most of the day, presumably to deliver the mysterious “package” referred to in the quoted passage. The set-up suggests there is something shady or illegal about the delivery,  and I like to imagine it involves crossing and re-crossing the Canadian border, and so is a reference to Canada, which represents unknown, mysterious, and probably criminal errands – all the things we see but don’t understand about our parents.

But I could easily be mistaken.

Adventures in a Parisian Male Brothel

TIme Regained by Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust, Time Regained (1927)

Clients could be heard enquiring of the patron whether he could introduce them to a footman, a choir-boy, a negro chauffeur. Every profession interested these old lunatics, every branch of the armed forces, every one of the allied nations. Some asked particularly for Canadians, influenced perhaps unconsciously by the charm of an accent so slight that one does not know whether it comes from the France of the past or from England. The Scots too, because of their kilts and because dreams of a landscape with lakes are often associated with these desires, were at a premium.  (p. 164)

This passage enumerates the preferences of clients at a gay brothel in Paris in 1916, when foreign servicemen were in France fighting the First World War. The reference to the “charm” of their accent makes it clear the narrator is referring specifically to French Canadians, but I think all of us, Anglophone and Francophone, can take pride in knowing our countrymen “were at a premium”. Does this mean the brothel charged extra for sex with French-Canadian soldiers? If so, what a compliment.

The connection of the French-Canadian accent to “the France of the past” also reminds me of the story of French Canadian soldiers in the Second World War. Apparently in some more remote French towns the people still spoke a form of French that was outdated and difficult for contemporary Parisians, but perfectly intelligible to French-Canadian soldiers, because in Quebec certain older forms of French had been preserved from the time when people immigrated.

I have no idea now where I picked up that story (high-school history class?), or even whether it’s true or not. And yet it has lodged in my mind.

But perhaps the most pressing question the Canadian asks about this scene is: is it true? Did French-Canadian soldiers in the First World War work as prostitutes in Parisian brothels, and did their accent make them desirable? Hard to say, but we’ll marshal what evidence is available.

In Marcel Proust: A Life, Jean-Yves Tadie describes the real-life brothel that provided the model for the one described in Time Regained (see pp. 670-674 in Tadie’s book). There is no specific reference to French-Canadians (and a scan of the index found no entries under Canada, French-Canadian or Quebec), but there is this suggestive sentence: “Proust always remained loyal to the principle that he could not describe something unless he had seen it” (p. 672). The proprieter of the brothel, Albert Le Cuziat, was one of what Tadie calls Proust’s “informants,” and he let Proust spy on his clients so that Proust could describe their behaviour in his novel. And preferences for certain nationalities of servicemen seems like just the sort of delicious detail Proust could have picked up from hanging around the brothel and then used in his book.

We could, if we were so inclined, extrapolate these circumstances, and Proust’s preference for basing his fiction on fact, into an assumption of truth here. But are we so inclined?

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