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Carole Gerson, Canadian Women in Print, 1750-1918.

Carole Gerson, Canadian Women in Print, 1750-1918 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press 2010)

CAROLE GERSON established her authority on early Canadian literature with A Purer Taste: The Writing and Reading of Fiction in English in Nineteenth-Century Canada (1989). Around that time, she took a feminist stance in two important articles: in "Anthologies and the Canon of Early Canadian Women Writers," from Re(dis)covering Our Foremothers: Nineteenth-Century Canadian Women Writers, ed. Lorraine McMullen (1990), she demonstrates that the representation of. women in the first anthologies of Canadian literature was diminished by the "decanonization" of subsequent editors; in "The Canon Between the Wars: Field-notes of a Feminist Literary Archaeologist," from Canadian Canons: Essays in Literary Value, ed. Robert Lecker (1991), she argues that "one formative dimension in the construction of the Canadian canon has been the valorization of national themes (e.g., man against the land) which implicitly exclude the work of many women writers active before the current era." (46) After much other work, including collaborations with Veronica Strong-Boag in a critical study (2000) and an edition (2002) of Pauline Johnson, Gerson was involved with the History of the Book in Canada project, which "situates literary and other writing within the larger cycles of authorship, production, dissemination and reception in print." (xii) All of these interests inform Canadian Women in Print 1750-1918, which won the Gabrielle Roy Prize in 2010.

The book is a meticulous survey of all aspects of the subject, from the role of women in early Canadian publishing to the interest in the New Woman at the end of the 19th century. Gerson focuses on writing in English, but she is careful to refer to writing in French as appropriare. She provides comparisons with women writers in England and the United States, and a late chapter, "Addressing the Margins of Race," moves away from the assumptions of most of the writers she celebrates in the rest of the book. She discusses both general trends and such surprising details as Marshall Saunders' Beautiful Joe (1894), the "first Canadian novel reputed to sell over a million copies" (98), and Tried! Tested! Proven: the Home Cook Book !1877), "selling over 100,000 copies by 1885." (74) As before, she challenges the idea that women writers have flourished in Canada: "Canada takes pride in the prominence of its women authors, noting the first Canadian-born author was a woman (Marie Morin), the first novel set in Canada was written by a woman (Frances Brooke), and the first native-born author of a novel was likewise female (Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart). Yet other data belie the notion that the country's print culture has particularly favoured women." (43)

Often using statistics to prove that women succeeded as printers, binders, librarians, teachers, and writers of many kinds, Gerson emphasizes the resistance they faced. Active in Canadian publishing from the beginning, women were often paid less, since they "were not seen as family breadwinners." (7) By the end of the 19th century, women were prominent among librarians, but "James Bain, the Toronto Public Library's first chief librarian, earned an annual salary of $2,000, while the women's salaries ranged from $300 to $,500." (14) Most of the volunteers in Methodist Sunday schools were women, yet "women remained in subordinate positions within the schools' management." (141) The very idea of writing for money was in part determined by a lack of other options: "Chronically undereducated, barred from professional training, and conditioned to remain within the home circle, middle-class women who needed to earn money or desired relatively respectable self-expression exercised their pens, whether in Europe or North America." (91) For Gerson, however, publication is itself suspect, since "presenting her work in the shape of a book both valorizes an author and violates her, simultaneously giving her an enduring identity and subjecting her to discomforting public scrutiny." (68) The word "violation" seems extreme for such indomitable writers as Susanna Moodie and Margaret Atwood, both mentioned at this point. Gerson's understanding of gender is similarly one-dimensional in her account of the animal story: "Male writers such as Charles G.D. Roberts and Earnest [sic] Thompson Seton, who focused on adventures in the wilderness, were welcomed into the Canadian literary canon, whereas female writers, who stressed children's humanitarian treatment of domestic and mals, were sidelined as sentimentalists." (79) More than nationalism was involved in the international success of Roberts and Seton, as Theodore Roosevelt recognized when he debated Roberts at the White House. Returning to the issue of the status of women's writing in Canada, Gerson concludes that "the correct question is not why Canada produces so many women writers, but why writing remains the area in which women have most commonly achieved recognition," adding that the "recognition has been partial and limited." (198)

Gerson contrasts her book with Silenced Sextet (1992) by Carrie MacMillan, Lorraine McMullen, and Elizabeth Waterston, and The Woman's Page (2007), by Janice Flamengo: "their authors chose to approach a collective situation through chapter-length studies of individual writers. In a sense, I have done the opposite, with my chapters providing studies of collective situations in which individuals operated and which they helped to shape." (xiii) Her claim is fulfilled, though the book needs more of the compelling analysis that she provides for such major figures as Pauline Johnson and Sara Jeannette Duncan. It is good to read that the "Patty Pry" letters in the Halifax Novascotian in 1826 are "delightfully ironic" (31), but the point would be more compelling with supporting quotations. Gerson states that Agnes Maule Machar was "Victorian Canada's outstanding female public intellectual" (154), and her "scores of thoughtful and often lengthy articles dealt with topics ranging from higher education for women to addressing the needs of the poor" (153), but no quotations follow. Furthermore, Gerson is vague on the relation of aesthetic value to literary history. She argues that the interests of American readers "encouraged most professional Canadian literary women active after 1880 to aim their sights at the popular market rather than the loftier realms of high modernism" (98-99), but whatever she understands by "high modernism," it would not have been available in 1880. The point is more than a slip, for the last paragraph of the introduction suggests that women writers would have flourished in Canada if it were not for "high modernism."

By 1918, women writing in both French and English had drawn the blueprints for the rooms they would occupy in the nation's cultural edifices through the 20th century. These structures would undergo frequent renovation as tastes altered; during the mid-20th century era of high modernism, the hegemony of the men's smoking room would relegate most women to the hallways and closets from which they would burst forth in second-wave feminist writing in the 1960s. But their grandmothers had staked their right of occupancy to the parlour and the study as well as to the kitchen and the nursery, and would not be evicted. (xvi) Recent studies by Brian Trehearne, Ann Martin, Sandra Djwa, Dean Irvine, and others suggest that modernism in Canada was always more conflicted than Gerson implies. Nonetheless, this book will be a useful resource for years to come.


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Author:Ware, Tracy
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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