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review 2019-11-19 19:23
Chrystal, the Newest of Women (by an Exponent)
Chrystal: the Newest of Women - Exponent

The question was not, Why had she been born? - the answer to that came simply enough; she had been born in consequence of the satisfying of her parents' instincts. The question was, What had she been born for? Finding herself in the world, a new person who had never lived before, but who was obliged to live then, she had wanted to know what was to be the purport of her existence. Mrs. Yorke had pointed her to motherhood; she had said nothing about men and women's love.... But Chrystal could answer the question for herself now. It is the cultivation of all the faculties that makes a human being complete.The passions, the affections, the physical, mental, and moral powers, must all be exercised. She had children, two acquaintances, books, and active enjoyment, but she could not be content. The New Woman wanted the New Man.

 

As a manifesto from 1896, that's not bad - there's little here that a modern woman, let alone a modern feminist, would quarrel with. The sequence of events that the anonymous "Exponent" has chosen to illustrate her manifesto is a bit more questionable: it smacks of too much selfishness, as even the sympathetic reviewer in The University Magazine and Free Review of 1897 felt bound to point out. Chrystal enters (albeit consentingly) into a more or less arranged marriage with a man who has poor health, and bears a sickly child by him. Admittedly she does not abandon the child, but she does abandon the man; she then has an affair with a man she does not love, in order to have a healthy child, whom she quite obviously favours over the first; finally, she finds a man philosophically aligned with her, and marries him for love and has a third, and most favoured child by him. The trouble is, in carrying out this highly mechanical demonstration of the steps of enlightenment in adjusting the relations between the sexes, the author manages to create a heroine who is at best unlikeable and at worst inhuman. It's a tricky business, when arguing against a social order that demands women submerge their own needs and desires in unselfish service to everyone else, to find the point at which self-assertion becomes mere selfishness, and this author, alas, didn't quite land on it. Chrystal's Progress, like that of the Pilgrim, is not the story of a real human being, but a series of scenes illustrating philosophical points.

 

Still, it's a fascinating document of its time. I found the title in the University of Toronto Libary catalogue, and read it (in a scan of that library's copy) on the Internet Archive.

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review 2019-11-19 17:06
The Canadian Girl, or the Pirate of the Lakes: A Story of the Affections (attrib. to Mary E. Bennett)
The Canadian girl; or, The pirate of the... The Canadian girl; or, The pirate of the lakes; a story of the affections - Authoress of Jews daughter

This is an enjoyably bad oddity, a romance fiction set in Upper Canada, obviously by an English author who gleaned her knowledge entirely from reading. It is confidently ascribed in various sources to the almost completely unknown Mary E. Bennett, who was sister to a publisher. The date given to the work on the copy I read (the University of Toronto, Robarts library copy) is suspiciously early, given that the only other edition available dates from 1870, and "The Jew's Daughter" referenced on the pictorial title page ("by the author of") is actually dated 1839 in some sources. Hard to say - there is no reference to confederation, and the "governor" introduced has a fictitious though plausible name, Markham.

 

Though I have called it a romance fiction, the author herself appears to have had difficulty with genre classification. "To those who think that the orders of fiction should be preserved as distinct from each other as the orders of architecture, both the treatment and design of this work will give great offence. It is not strictly a domestic or a sentimental story, neither is it an humorous or a fashionable story; nor does it claim kindred with any decided school whatever, but partakes, perhaps, of all." Actually, the structure is pretty much standard romance fiction, but it runs into some difficulties because the hero, Clinton, is at first set up as a dissolute villain who seduces an innocent damsel (named, of course, Lucy). That being the case, even when the husband of the woman he loves, Lady Hester, conveniently offs himself, he cannot be allowed a happy ending, but has to meet an untimely and entirely out-of-the blue end based on a forgotten incident from 700 pages before: his sins find him out, as it were. None of these people is the "Canadian Girl" of the title. That honour goes to Clinton's sister, Jane - that's a spoiler, sorry - a rather pallid character who ends up paired with Lucy's similarly pallid brother to provide the happy ending.

 

The setting of the novel is similarly conventional: there is the relative safety, and consciousness of social mores, of aristocratic or middle-class houses (even here in the New World, a pirate ends up actually being a nobleman, with a mansion to inherit, while Arthur & Lucy's father is a clergyman). Then there is the thrill of the uncivilized "out there" - and in Canada the wild can be much more wild than the woods and forests of England. Here, the author demonstrates the difficulties of building a world you're completely unfamiliar with, when the resources at hand were so very limited. It is true we get a fairly splendid if rather over-wrought description of Niagara Falls and that general region, obviously drawn from travel literature. However, our author fails miserably to populate early Ontario with the right kind of wild threats. There are, it is true, a couple of First Nations people, the Christianized kind, of course, introduced in the first chapter. But they are not presented as any kind of threat, and instead of having any ongoing presence are soon supplanted as primary woods-dwellers by a band of gypsies! By and large, the flora and fauna of these woods are also easily transferable back to the more familiar and comfortable British setting. It makes one suspect that an earlier attempt at a romance may have been grafted on to the more exotic setting, though that's entirely speculation on my part.

 

The Pirate of the Lakes, of the subtitle, is a quasi-sympathetic figure whose sins, by the end, are largely being excused by dint of introducing more villainous characters who are "worse" than him. Here is the last of several self-justifications (he has just poisoned himself to escape the gallows).

 

"But suicide is a great crime, my son," interposed the Pastor.


"I fear it is," gravely returned the Pirate. "Heaven pardon it! but still, to my mind, the circumstances of my case partially excuse the deed. I have never shed blood except in self-defence. I have not deserved a public death. Perpetual imprisonment, exile, any punishment short of death I had deserved - but not death. I did not feel bound, therefore, to render up myself to the gallows. No law of God required me to do so. Such being my view of the case, I felt at liberty to dispose of myself in the way I have. The honourable name I have inherited is hereby saved from some degradation, and yet i have suffered the full penalty of my misdeeds."

 

This is a Victorian novel. There's a lot of Protestant moralizing. Since it's set partly in English Canada and partly in French Canada, the characters are perforce split between Protestant and Catholic, and the dancing around the issue would provide some interesting fodder for those interested in the state of anti-Catholicism in England - if the publication date is indeed 1838, then the whole movement towards Catholic emancipation is still well within living memory for the readers. One character in a historical flashback (the Pirate's mother) is immured in a nunnery and treated harshly, but other than that the tone is often remarkably conciliatory towards, at least, lay Catholics.

 

The writing isn't bad; it's what you'd expect from an intelligent woman with a strong background in the products of the circulating library. It's both literate and thoughtful, in entirely derivative ways. Absurdities aside - or maybe partly because of the absurdities - I quite enjoyed reading "The Canadian Girl".

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review 2019-03-24 22:15
The Christian's Wedding Ring, containing Five Letters and a Series of Poems, written by A Lady with the Sincere Desire of Sowing the Seeds of Union in the Christian Church
The Christian's wedding ring [microform]: containing five letters and a series of poems - Jane Porter

I'm being a bit disingenuous marking this "read". Unless you're passionately interested in obscure Christian theological apologetics of the 1870s (I'm not), this volume is pretty much unreadable. However, as the product of a Canadian woman of some apparent intelligence, though little literary talent and less taste in subject matter, it still was worth scanning through for points of interest.

The broad subject of all of the lengthy sermonizing in the 5 "letters", and much of the undistinguished verse - I won't call it poetry - is ecumenicalism. In addition to desiring the "union in the Christian Church" referred to in the subtitle (her explanations of doctrinal differences reveal her as definitely Protestant), this author appears to hold out some desire for the reunification of all adherents of the Abrahamic religions, under the Christian umbrella of course.

The volume, which exists physically at the University of Toronto library and in e-form on both the Internet Archive and the CIHM free miccrofilm scans (http://eco.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.03865/3?r=0&s=1), was published by Montreal's Lovell publishing house in 1874. Unlike many items coming out of Canadian publishing houses at this period, this appears to be genuinely Canadian in origin, which means that I was somewhat perplexed at first to see that it is attributed in worldcat to "Jane Porter".  The 19th-century literary Jane Porter I know of, the authoress of "The Scottish Chiefs", died in 1850 and has nothing to do with Canada. However this, it appears, is another Jane Porter, and there is a little - a very little - further literary activity by her tracked in Watters' definitive bibliography of Canadian literature. However, we don't know much about her, though the small personal clues in the miscellaneous verse suggest that she was single, fairly active and interested in Canada and current events, a churchgoer in Montreal, and very likely was published by Lovell as a favour to help her financially. (There's one short poem where she asks readers to buy her books, and ruefully tells us her publisher would prefer her to write romances).

I scribbled down a few notes about two things - comments about religion that struck me as different from mere convention; and phrases or subjects of poems that reflected either Canada or current events or both.

On the religious front, her five letters certainly have an ecumenical set of addressees. The first is to Princess Victoria (Queen Victoria's daughter, Queen of Prussia, politically liberal). All the blithe internalized misogyny of her time comes out in this letter of a woman to a woman, even though at the same time Princess Victoria is urged to exert her considerable political influence. "Female education is not practical," and the calling of wives and daughters is home-making. Indeed, Miss Porter goes so far as to deride nuns for abandoning their home duties. The second letter is to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (whom she congratulates, by the way, on the opening of the Suez Canal in 1870).  The third letter is to "Dear Jewish friends", while the fourth is to Pope Pius IX (accompanied by a portrait of him that looks quite demonic). The last letter to so the "Archbishop of Syra and Tenos" (orthodox) who had taken part in ecumenical talks - unsuccessful, one presumes - with the Church of England at Ely in 1870.

Canada is not really present in the prose, but quite a lot of the verse is either explicitly on Canadian subjects, or contains references such as:
The rapids with majestic roar
Proud St. Lawrence at our shore.

On the subject of the Friday fish fast, she has this to say:
The Esquimaux on fish subsist.
Without it, how can they exist?
If eating fish is called a fast,
Their fasting days forever last.

(Apparently Miss Porter was not aware of Inuit seal-hunting).

Other Canadian subjects memorialized in verse include John Bethune, the very prominent Montreal Anglican clergyman who died in 1872; a church in Trois Rivieres, Niagara Falls, the April 1873 wreck of the "Atlantic" off Halifax, a boat race in St John NB in which a man died, and a Montreal incident in which nine people were poisoned with stolen wine. For reasons unknown, there are also some Boston poems, and poems about 1871 fires in both Chicago and Wisconsin, as well as an unexpected poem "On Philately". A few people will know what I mean if I say some of these poems are "McGonagall-esque" (no, not the Harry Potter one).

It's easy to be derisive about this kind of bad book that pops up (only because some of its contents have rhyme and metre, I'm sure) in the miscellaneous anonymous literature sections of very large research libraries. And, I suppose, it's also easy to be too imaginatively sympathetic with the Miss Jane Porters of the Victorian colonial world, trying to sell flat conventional poetry and tortuous, untutored theology as belles lettres. Perhaps Miss Porter had a very comfortable life and was merely a hobbyist. She is dust and we will never know; thanks to big libraries, microfilm, and the internet, her book has been saved from that same dust for other odd ducks like myself to ponder over.

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