The Silent Sisterhood
August 07th, 2012
Charles Lillard, author and Pacific Northwest literary enthusiast, was a regular contributor to BC BookWorld. Though somewhat erratic in his writing, selective in his scholarship and highly opinionated in his judgments, he had a deep respect of British Columbia literary culture and the characters that coloured it. In the essay that follows he corrects the oversight he made in neglecting to mention the women of “B.C.’s ‘character-rich past’” in a previous article, and corrects this error by honouring those too often overlooked by the official histories.
In my last column (“The shooting of Ginger Goodwin”), I went on at some length about B.C.’s “character-rich past” but did not mention one woman. Not one. And much to my surprise not one woman phoned or wrote to set me straight.
Maybe it’s because Emily Carr is the first female character to come to mind and maybe women, as well as men, are tired of hearing about her. As B.C.’s sanctified misunderstood-genius, Emily Carr looms over us, fierce and otherworldly, much like the D’Sonoqua figure she has described in Klee Wyck (Clarke, Irwin 1941).
Anyhow, it’s likely that everything that can be said about Carr has already been said. But the same isn’t true about many other remarkable women from B.C. history.
For many years Margaret “Ma” Murray was B.C.’s reigning curmudgeon. She started her colourful journalism career in 1913 with the Chinook newspaper published in south Vancouver (unlisted in the Union Catalogue of British Columbia Newspapers) and continued with The Bridge-River Lillooet News (still publishing), Fort Nelson News and Ma Murray’s Bridge-River Lillooet News.
Ma is the central figure in Georgina Keddell’s The Newspapering Murrays (1967) and Eric Nicol’s popular play Ma!. Not since the days of Amor de Cosmos and the British Colonist has such an independent voice as Ma’s amused and challenged newspaper-reading public in B.C.
Gwen Cash has been called “Canada’s first female general reporter.” Born in England in 1891, she began as a cub reporter with the Vancouver Province in 1981. She later married game warden Bruce Cash, a Manitoban, and they began fruit farming in Naramata. They later lived in Squamish and Sedro Woolley, Washington before returning to B.C.
Cash spent 65 years in Canada as a working journalist, tried her hand at turkey farming and worked in public relations for the Vancouver Board of Trade and the B.C. Teachers Federation. She died in Saanich at age 92, the author of three books including her memoir, Off The Record (1977).
Another name I half-expected to be reminded of was Mother Cecilia Mary, the Victoria nun who became workd-renowned for her animal welfare activities after Big Jim Ryan photographed her with a dancing goat for Life magazine. Mother Cecilia continued her selfless work even after the Vatican commanded her to give it up. Although the late nun’s legend continues to grow, there is only one book about her, E.D. Ward-Harris’s A Nun Goes to the Dogs (Collins).
If some of these leading women were seen as “unladylike”, certainly a much more feminine character was E. Pauline Johnson. “The Mohawk Princess”, who was buried in Stanley Park in 1913, may still be Canada’s best-known poet and storyteller.
Johnson’s mixed-up love life, her Indian-White sensibilities and her life in what was then a largely male-dominated literary arena have been recounted in Betty Keller’s biography Pauline: A Biography of Pauline Johnson (D&M), for which Keller received the Canadian Biography Award in 1982.another Johnson biography, The Moccasin Maker was published in 1990 by the University of Arizona Press.
Johnson’s poems made Stanley Park’s Lost Lagoon and Siwash Rock into lures for dreamers everywhere; whether critics like her no longer fashionable poetry or not (“The singing firs, and the dusk and – you”).
No less romantic but much harder-headed, Mary Ellen Smith became the first woman to win a seat in the B.C. Legislature back in 1918. Three year later Smith served as a minister without portfolio in Premier “Honest John” Oliver’s cabinet, making her renowned and popular as the first Commonwealth woman to hold a cabinet position.
Writing under the pseudonym Minnie Smith, Mary Ellen Smith published Is It Just (1911), probably the first Canadian novel to have divorce as its theme. The story is sentimental but not without its punch. Before the divorcee dies, “the last rays of the setting sun shone into the room, they rested upon the marble, and the smiling face of Mary Pierce, to whom the injustice of British Columbia law had cause such bitter suffering.”
Why no historical biographer has written about Mary Ellen Smith is a mystery.
Similarly, Jean Usher wrote William Duncan of Metlakatla and Margaret Poynter wrote Miracle at Metlakatla, but not female biographer has written about Marion (nee Goodwin) Collison, the first woman to live on the Queen Charlotte Islands and B.C.’s north coast.
Collison lived on the Charlottes during the 1870s, giving birth to the first white child to be born there. If she isn’t a remarkable “character” like the north coast’s William Duncan, it’s likely because no one cared enough to do the necessary research.
The same is true in the case of Lily Adams Beck, about whom next to nothing is known. She appeared in Victoria in 1919 and proceeded to write something in the neighbourhood of 40 books by 1920. Many of these books were bestsellers, and one or two of them remained in print until the 1950s. One book, The Land of Ho was abridged by Barbara Carltand and reprinted in 1979. Quotes from Beck’s Story of Oriental Philosophy still turn up now and again.
Beck was in her sixties when she started her writing career. Her pseudonyms included Louis Moresby and E. Barrington. The former is associated with Moresby |Island in the Charlottes, named after Beck’s grandfather, Sir Fairfax Moresby, a naval admiral. Mostly remembered today as an occultist, she was published by esteemed New York publishing houses.
“There is no weariness of mind in writing any of my books,” she wrote, “I have learned from high Oriental thought that the body has its share in mental and spiritual training.”
Beck was famous for her séances and other activities only hinted at by elderly ladies in Victoria whose mothers once knew her.
Writer/artist Mildred Valley Thornton was as committed to coastal Indians as Emily Carr. And her handling of Native history and myths was much more sophisticated than Pauline Johnson’s. Consequently, Thornton’s Indian Lives and Legends (1966) has become a prized collector’s item. But who remembers Mildred Thornton today?
Another forgotten B.C. writer is Alice Ravenhill, once a mover ‘n’ shaker in the women’s institute movement and a pioneer in B.C. public health work.
She wrote The Memoirs of an Educational Pioneer (1951) and still reliable though hard-to-locate books on Indian art.
M. Wylie Blanchet wrote Curve of Time, perhaps our best-loved book on coastal cruising. Only a “character” would have done what she did, and only a character could have survived. Francis E. Herring, whose many books about B.C. drift between fact and fiction, may have been B.C.’s first woman writer of lasting importance.
Biographies of women such as Thornton, Ravenhill, Blanchet and Herring would give the words “B.C. characters” a much broader dimension.
“Some years ago Margaret Ormsby, the dean of B.C. historians, said in an interview, ‘I think one reason our history is so interesting is that we have people with such strong personalities in our past. They’re really individuals and they really stand out.’”
Most “individuals” documented in our biographies, however, have been men. Ormby made a noteworthy exception when she contributed her study of Susan Allison, A Pioneer Gentlewoman of British Columbia (1976), about one of the first female settlers in the B.C. interior.
Essay Date: 1990