Thursday, May 24, 2007

i've had just about enough of pre-confed canlit, and it only took two books to get me here

Really, I've had an assful of the whole colonial period of literature. I'm glad I'm starting out the summer with this stuff, because I think reading these books while being eaten by mosquitos would make me certifiably insane. Forseriously, has anyone -- ANYONE -- ever read one of these books for pleasure since about 1910? Argh. This is all such a far cry from my ultra contemporary pop culture studies interests.

Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada
by Anna Brownell Jameson

But when I hear some men declare that they cannot endure to see women eat, and others speak of brilliant health and strength in young girls as being rude and vulgar, with various notions of the same kind too grossly absurd and perverted even for ridicule, I cannot wonder at any nonsensical affectations I meet with in my own sex.

[On alcohol.] But all their taxes, and prohibitions, and excise laws, will do little good, unless they facilitate the means of education. In society, the same evening, the appearance of a very young, very pretty, sad looking creature with her first baby at her side, completed the impression of disgust and affright with which the continual spectacle of this vile habit strikes me since I have been in this country.

Anna Brownell Jameson was a feminist and a challenger of the status quo. According to her biography, Jameson came to Canada in 1836 at the behest of her estranged husband, who was the attorney general of Upper Canada and was hoping to become Vice-Chancellor. He needed his wife to come to Canada in order to show a steady domestic force at home to improve his chances at gaining the post; she, conversely, came to Canada with the intention of putting together an amicable divorce settlement so that she could live comfortably in England separated from her husband. Jameson never had any intention of staying in Canada, and conceptualized her travel memoir en route to Canada as a means of passing her time as she came to an arrangement with her husband.

The book itself is a series of sketches, and is about 300 pages too long. The first 150 pages or so, the Winter Studies section, is deathly, painfully boring. Jameson is essentially trapped in her Toronto home, without friends -- she comments that everyone uses the winter to do their visiting, but that she doesn't know anyone to visit. As a result, she talks endlessly about the lack of society in Toronto, and the few visitors who come by, but she's not particularly insightful in this section. She does have some interesting discussions of gender and social issues in these pages. For example, on witnessing a fire in Toronto and hearing someone approve of the idea because it will allow for new construction of brick housing, Jameson is disgusting, and comments on the folly of any government or social structure that depends on the pain of one to create benefit for another. These glimmers are interesting, but without any plot on connectivity to these sketches -- not even a discussion of her personal life, the people she meets, the friend she is writing to and so on -- it is hard to connect to the text. Where Brooke wrote a timeless love story that said little, Jameson says much without offering any common ground of connection.

The second section, however, dealing with Jameson's summer rambles, is the real meat of the book. There are two major flaws with this section -- it, too, just runs far too long, and again, we miss key information to string the sketches together. While this section is generally held together as a simple travel narrative where Jameson goes about exploring the wilds of Canada with her various friends and guides, there is never any reason for why the trip occurs. Even the expression of simple curiosity would help, but instead the reader is left occasionally wondering why a wealthy woman from England would even attempt such a hazardous journey.

There is a lot of good in this section. Interesting to me was the focus on Aboriginal people in this book -- very different from the background characters in Brooke's novel, for Jameson the Aboriginals are the driving force of her curiosity and the learning she accomplishes. Jameson writes of the Native people she encounters with far more compassion and far less judgement than does Brooke. Where Brooke's characters assert that the British bear no responsibility for the alcoholism among the Native population, Jameson holds the British to task for the situation and recounts stories of Aboriginals being involuntarily drugged with drink in order to ensure that they will trade more loosely their furs and goods. This is not to say that Jameson is without her prejudices -- she is struck by the "dirtiness" and "smell" of the Native populations -- but interestingly enough Jameson is aware of her prejudices and is certain that she is in the wrong for making some of her assumptions. She absolutely comes across as percieving herself as superior to the Aboriginal population, but she's certainly aware of the problems in her own perceptions.

Jameson is a social reformer and a feminist, and as such her view of Canadian society is fascinating because she sees both the positive and negative in the new world. She is neither fully engrossed with the world, nor is she disgusted by it like Brooke seems to be. This, for once, is not at least a tale of how to get the hell out of Canada. Indeed, though Jameson never intended to stay in North America, she actually expresses sadness and disappointment in not being able to stay. For Jameson, too, the wilderness is not to be feared so much as it is to be appreciated, and she encourages other women to take on the challenges and adventures that she has.

As much as one would love to read more about the personal relationship between Jameson and her husband, it's obvious why it's not there. On the whole, it's a more interesting text by far than Brooke's novel... But a plot really wouldn't go amiss. I'm not such a fan of the non-fiction these days, it seems.

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