Fiction of the 20th century women writers in Canada

My friend Gitta (check her site dedicated to Anne, reminded me that in two days’ time it will be Lucy-Maud Montgomery’s birthday; she gave us Anne of Green Gables among other things, which is one of my favourite novels ever, so I thought I would dig up my old final exam papers I had to compile in university, and below is what I found to be relevant.


In order to understand the 20th century women writers, a journey into the past in essential. The presence of the Canadian lady has always been felt in literary life. Frances Brooke and Rosanna Leprohon wrote French-English romances in Québéc; Pauline Johnson and Isabella Valancy Crawford depicted their Indian experiences in their poetry; and Susannah Moodie’s and Sara Jeannette Duncan’s novels were the Canadian response to American presence.

Canadian women have always had to cope with life in the bush. In their struggle to stay lady-like, they scribbled stories, painted, made music to keep their spirits up. Life for them was harder in Canada than in the States due to worse climate and the fact that the British government was less likely to respond quickly to the needs of the ordinary settler.

The Canadian woman emerged as a genteel woman, inhibited by her social ambitions and sense of propriety. The code by which she was bound was completely the opposite to the necessities of wilderness. They tried to keep their decorum and gentility as best as they could. There are many portraits in Canadian literature of women in harsh situations who resisted the pressure to conform to their environment.

The Canadian woman came into prominence in Canadian publishing in the pre-Confederation era, particularly in the 1840s and 1850s. The very first novel written and published (Kingston, 1824) in Canada was Julia Hart’s St Ursula’s Convent, or the Nun of Canada. Both this and Susannah Moodie’s Roughing it in the bush (1952) imported style, plot tricks and character stereotypes from the Gothic novel then dominant in Europe. In 1848 Anna Jameson (already a serious writer in England) published Winter studies and summer rambles, a sensitive commentary on life in Upper Canada. With this novel, literary content became more Canadian. The book is about a gallant woman in an unhappy marriage, who flees to her books and studies. Indian content is also present, as well as political gatherings in the pre-1837 rebellious days. Rosanna Mullins (later Leprohon) was also a prolific and professional writer of the time, publishing poetry, short stories and sketches in the Literary Garland. Her Antoinette de Mirecourt is a romance novel with two soldiers for one woman. The noble English colonel loves her sincerely, and disentangles her from the foolish secret marriage to a dashing but corrupt junior officer. She submits to her father, accepts the hero’s help, and resists the charming but unprincipled villain. She is a proper lady who follows a genteel code. The women in Frances Brooke’s The history of Emily Montague (1769) represent the garrison life as well: social codes of aristocratic England are acted out in the novel without any willingness to adjust it to a new life.

The ideals toward which the well-bred Canadian woman was striving, established by the official circles of town and garrison, the conventions of conversation, with courtship dresses and intellectual pursuits. Outside, in the bush and clearings, everything was much more difficult. Catherine Parr Trail, Susannah Moodie, Anne Langton were pioneering gentlewomen who show variations of portraits of the Canadian woman at that time. Roughing it in the bush is an important Canadian document. While great 19th century American novels tended to focus on a male cast of characters and metaphysical profundities, Mrs Moodie wrote in a realistic and personal way, the novel being centred in a feminine point of view. Her greatest British contemporaries, Charlotte and Emily Brontë wrote with passionate intensity. In contrast, Mrs Moodie wrote about the aspirations and frustrations of everyday life in the wilderness.

In the later part of the 19th century visiting travellers commented on the refinement of manners of the people in Canada. Much historical fiction was written at that time, with accurate details of events and costumes, but within a romantic and sentimental plot. Some more readable stuff is Agnes Lout’s Lords of the North (1900) and Heralds of Empire (1902). Sara Jeannette Duncan’s The imperialist (1904) is an honest study of a young girl coping with a restrictive code of courtship. Advena, the central character is rich in emotional response and fine in intellectual energy, but still inhibited by her social environment.

Thanks to suffragism and the First World War, Canadian women were freed from some of the restrictions of the Victorian age. Still, novelists in the 1920s depicted heroines muffled by their family or community. Martha Ostenso’s Wild geese (1925) is a study of loneliness, harsh land and harsh family life in the Northwest. Her heroine does not mingle with the community not wanting to lose her own ideals. Lucy Maude Montgomery in The blue castle (1926) painted the portrait of an imaginative, rebellious heroine, a girl against unimaginative conformity, family propriety and dreary work ethic. In the following decades, Canadian heroines were more and more ambitious, convention-ridden, sensitive, anxious, yearning for liberation from the restraints of their environment. Some of the women novelists saw the Second World War as a way to solve the dilemmas of the women characters. Gabrielle Roy’s The tin flute (1947) gives momentary release from the tragic tensions by the coming of the war to Florentine and Rose-Anna. Sinclair Ross in As for me and my house (1941) gives a study of the idealism and aspiration of a woman on the Prairies, defeated in the end. The Canadian woman is not a happy lot in the eye of male writers.

The pioneer woman in Canada was inhibited by the cultural ideals based on a garrison situation, the climate and the land. Modern city economics tightened those restraints. In most of the recent fiction by Canadian women the old desire for decorum surfaces. Alice Munro in The lives of girls and women (1971) writes about the role of women and their status. The relationship between mother and daughter is a major theme in 20th century literature. Margaret Laurence is famous for her wonderful studies of women characters. The Stone Angel (1964) is about a strong-minded prairie woman, Hagar, who does not have a good relationship either with her father, brother, husband, sons, or herself. She has great integrity, she is arrogant, ridiculous sometimes, but never pretentious or petty. Ethel Wilson’s The swamp angel (1954) is the story of a woman’s journey for herself in the wilderness. Another woman in the novel slips from old age to death, while her daughter slips into marriage and maternity. The central character is Maggie Vardoe, who leaves her small-minded husband, her job and home in Vancouver for the sake of freedom in the bush. Eventually, her social flight makes her end her newly founded relationships with the child, the old man and her new employer.

Some of the greatest Canadian novels written by women:

Margaret Atwood: Surfacing
Margaret Atwood: The edible woman
Margaret Laurence: The stone angel (1964)
Margaret Laurence: The diviners (1974)
Lucy Maude Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables (1908)
Aritha Van Herk: Judith (1978)
Aritha Van Herk: The tent peg (1981)- J.L.