Jane Urquhart 1949–
(Born Jane Carter) Canadian novelist, poet, and short story writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Urquhart's life and career through 1995.
Considered one of Canada's most promising writers, Urquhart is known for works that reflect her fascination with literary Romanticism and the Victorian Era. Often emphasizing the theme of estrangement, her writing is noted for its focus on place and landscape, memory and history, and the creative process. Urquhart's novels, for which she is best known, frequently employ parallel story lines and often incorporate historical figures and events.
Born in northern Ontario, Urquhart was raised in the small mining settlement of Little Long Lac until she was five or six years old, at which time she moved with her family to Toronto. As a child, she was a voracious reader, and she has cited Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Robert Louis Stevenson, L. M. Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Charles Dickens as among her favorite authors. Attending junior college in Vancouver in the late 1960s, Urquhart eventually returned to Ontario where she received a B. A. in English in 1971 from the University of Guelph. At Guelph she also met and married artist Paul Keele. Following the death of Keele in a car accident, Urquhart resumed her academic career, earned a B. A. in art history, and, in the mid-1970s, married artist Tony Urquhart. In addition to the demands posed by her role as a mother, Urquhart began to pursue a writing career in 1977, initially working as a poet and then turning to fiction.
Urquhart's debut novel, The Whirlpool (1986), is set near Niagara Falls in late nineteenth-century Canada. Considered Gothic in its tone and outlook, the novel opens and closes with descriptive pieces detailing the death of English poet Robert Browning. The remainder of the novel, drawn in part from Urquhart's second husband's family history, concerns a widowed undertaker, who fishes victims and debris out of the whirlpool under the falls, and her young "mute" son. A lovesick poet and the object of his desire—a woman filled with Romantic notions of the natural world and an ardent admirer of Browning's verse—are also central to the plot. Emphasizing the fluidity of language and desire, The Whirlpool employs a circular structure and story line, which are reinforced by the novel's central image of the whirlpool. Urquhart's next novel, Changing Heaven (1990), similarly features a renowned literary figure as a character. Juxtaposing the tumultuous love affair between a nineteenth-century balloonist and her manager with that of a twentieth-century Canadian scholar named Ann and an art historian, the multilayered Changing Heaven recounts scenes from Ann's life and includes passages in which the ghost of Emily Brontë discusses her Gothic romance Wuthering Heights (1847) and the nature of love. In her explication and retelling of Wuthering Heights, Urquhart continues Brontë's examination of passion and betrayal, obsession, nature, and the creative process. In Away (1993) Urquhart explores Canadian history and her own Irish heritage. Spanning four generations of women and infused with Celtic myth and folklore, the novel is a family saga relating the experiences of an Irish woman and her descendants in both Ireland and Canada. Thematically, Away presents issues related to immigration, time, "otherness" and identity, and the oral tradition.
Urquhart's verse collections, False Shuffles (1982), I Am Walking in the Garden of His Imaginary Palace (1982), and The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan (1983), similarly reveal a focus on the past and frequently incorporate references to historical figures and other literary texts. In The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan, for example, Urquhart examines issues related to love, power, and memory, often speaking in the voice of Madame de Montespan, a mistress of King Louis XIV of France and a prominent figure at the court of Versailles. Focusing on problems of language, meaning, and communication, Urquhart argues in False Shuffles that there is a relationship between poets and magicians, making numerous allusions to a twentieth-century book on the art of prestidigitation. False Shuffles also shares similarities with Urquhart's novels: the volume contains poems that are set in Niagara Falls, some in which an undertaker's wife speaks, and a number of pieces featuring a young woman who relates the stories of her female relatives and ancestors. The short story collection Storm Glass (1987) likewise has elements in common with Urquhart's other writings. Noted for its surrealist aspects and focus on estrangement, pain, death, and foreign settings, the collection includes "The Death of Robert Browning," which appeared as the prologue and epilogue to The Whirlpool, and the critically acclaimed title piece. A tale of domestic and sexual conflict, "Storm Glass" revolves around a married couple's debate concerning the correct name for shards of glass that have been made smooth by their exposure to the elements. The pieces in Storm Glass have been praised by Patricia Bradbury as "poetry made long, not fiction rendered short."
Best known for her fiction, Urquhart is often noted for her complex narrative structures, her emphasis on Gothic themes and the supernatural, and her meticulous attention to time and place. At times faulting Urquhart's use of parallel and circular story lines in her novels, reviewers have occasionally argued that Urquhart often values plot and setting over characterization. She has also been castigated by some critics for her inclusion of Browning and Brontë in The Whirlpool and Changing Heaven; while applauding her use of these writers as characters, some commentators argued that Urquhart's combination of fact, folklore, and literary analysis was heavy-handed. Nevertheless, Urquhart is highly regarded in her homeland and abroad. She has been the recipient of several awards, including France's Prix pour le meilleur livre étranger for The Whirlpool as well as Ontario's Trillium Award.
False Shuffles (poetry) 1982
I Am Walking in the Garden of His Imaginary Palace (poetry) 1982
The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan (poetry) 1983
The Whirlpool (novel) 1986
Storm Glass (short stories) 1987
Changing Heaven (novel) 1990
Away (novel) 1993
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SOURCE: A review of False Shuffles, in Quill and Quire, Vol. 49, No. 3, March, 1983, p. 66.
[In the following positive review, Wayne briefly discusses stylistic and thematic aspects of False Shuffles.]
Once in a very long while a book of poetry appears that is so strong and original it signals the discovery of a remarkable new talent.
Jane Urquhart's second book of poetry, False Shuffles, is one of these occasions. Filled with the lives of small-town eccentrics, Niagara Falls daredevils, undertakers' brides, and beer-hall waitresses, the book is both expertly crafted and emotionally compelling.
At its heart, False Shuffles is about the power of magic as the poet, portrayed as magician, explores a surrealistic world. Illusion takes precedence over reality, and the odd, the eccentric, and the ghostly mean more than the daily news.
The language is intensely private and the imaginative landscape is highly charged with passion and memory. It's a shadowy, eerie landscape Urquhart creates where a turn-of-the-century bride records the number of bodies drowned in Niagara Falls and another girl dismantles a tombstone in search of a dead woman's clothes.
The poems are written mainly as tales, in a voice deceptively straightforward but always alert, tense, and often on the verge of some ghastly discovery. It is a voice that...
(The entire section is 289 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan, in Quill and Quire, Vol. 50, No. 5, May, 1984, p. 35.
[In the following mixed review, Tregebov asserts that The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan "is a well-written little book … that reveals a poet who could do more if she wanted to."]
Madame de Montespan's 10-year career as mistress of Louis XIV (he built the Petite Trianon at Versailles for her) ended in scandal. She was implicated in the poisoning scare that raged through the court in the late 1670s. Madame had administered love potions to Louis, but greater mischief was not proved conclusively: Louis himself destroyed the trial records to preserve her name. If more such facts had been noted somewhere in Jane Urquhart's book of poems, it would be more easily appreciated.
Nonetheless, this is a well-written little book (illustrated with some very fine photos by Ottawa artist Jennifer Dickson) that reveals a poet who could do more if she wanted to. Urquhart has chosen to speak in the voice of Mme de Montespan, recounting a glistening world of surfaces where the sun (king) "polishes your tables / his brilliance clings to cutlery / till spoons become large / bright incisions / all across the grain". In portraying the circumscribed life of a woman whose existence is dependent on the eye of the beholder—"the hours filled with / preservation of her...
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SOURCE: "Museum & World," in Canadian Literature, No. 104, Spring, 1985, pp. 134-36.
[In the following excerpt, Lemire-Tostevin offers a thematic discussion of The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan.]
Jane Urquhart has chosen a museum as the setting for her third book. The poems of The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan hover in and out of the rooms and gardens of Versailles in the persona of Montespan who was for a while a favourite mistress of Louis XIV. They pause over catalogued items and saved artifacts like "loose fragments drawn into new configurations." They shift behind windows and over brocade coverings of baroque beds; they witness and conjure devious plots; they settle in glass coffins or the frozen ground under lifeless monuments and leafless trees of the carefully kept winter gardens. The six photographs of Versailles by Jennifer Dickson are very effective in both capturing and adding to the mood of the book.
The Little Flowers is in the same sleight of hand spirit as Urquhart's second book False Shuffles. Where it engaged the author's own history, The Little Flowers suggests behind-the-scene machinations of social life when the Sun King held court "dressed in a hundred diamonds." The games, costumes, and disguises prevalent in Urquhart's poetry serve less to conceal than dis/guise and capture the deceptive space, the absent revolving...
(The entire section is 450 words.)
SOURCE: "Sleight of Tongue," in Canadian Literature, No. 106, Fall, 1985, pp. 112-15.
[In the following excerpt, Sowton discusses intertextual aspects and influences of False Shuffles.]
One very fine effect of the intertextualities at play in False Shuffles (among cards/book of tricks/Urquhart's poems) is the witty problematization of a three-generation history: grandmother, mother, narrating daughter. The interleaved lexicon—of false shuffle: transparent swizzle stick: magician: sleight: tricks—genially but persistently interrogates our shaky everyday equilibriums between narration and what is narrated, between verbal signs and their purported herstorical referents. Consider this gem from [Blackstone's Tricks Anyone Can Do] which Urquhart deals in just before the section on "False Shuffles": "This is a real false shuffle. It will require considerable practice to render it deceptive"; in their earlier site these remarks are straight; here, in their later site, they undergo a deep intertextual seachange and glow with gorgeous multiple equivocations. The semiotics of False Shuffles is very subtle; as a sign system this deck of texts offers not only citations that function simultaneously as thematic epigraphs, equivocating commentary, and caveat lectors, but also the bonus of Tony Urquhart's visual representations of playing cards, including a delicious 9 of Clubs in which...
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SOURCE: An interview in The Canadian Fiction Magazine, No. 55, 1986, pp. 23-40.
[The editor of The Canadian Fiction Magazine, Hancock is a Canadian journalist and critic who has edited several books about and anthologies of Canadian literature. In the following interview, originally conducted in late 1985, Urquhart discusses her life, art, and influences.]
Jane Urquhart was born in northern Ontario, and now lives near Waterloo, Ontario. She is an accomplished creative writer of both poetic and prose forms. Her poems are collected in False Shuffles; The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan; and I Am Walking In The Garden of His Imaginary Palace, a deluxe limited edition done in collaboration with her husband, artist Tony Urquhart. Her first novel, with a working title of The Whirlpool Dream House, is scheduled for publication with McClelland & Stewart's new Signature series in 1986. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, several of which have previously appeared in Canadian Fiction Magazine, as well as a novel located in Brontë country.
Jane Urquhart's work has wit, flair, and zaniness combined with a passion for her subjects. Her writing contains a vision unique in contemporary Canadian creative writing. While polished in style, she looks for the bizarre underside of our own history. Whether her work is situated at turn of the...
(The entire section is 6971 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Whirlpool, in Quill and Quire, Vol. 52, No. 11, November, 1986, p. 25.
[In the following review, Ledger offers a highly negative assessment of The Whirlpool.]
[The Whirlpool] is a dissertation masquerading as a novel and as deceptions go, it's not terribly successful. Pity the poor reader who, lured by the Signature Series' romance-style covers, opens the book and looks for a story. 'Twould be in vain: there's no plot, little characterization, next to no dialogue, and certainly no drama.
Urquhart is after a berth in the CanLit pantheon. The three major characters in her novel live beside the whirlpool in 19th-century Niagara Falls. They live in separate solipsistic bubbles, seldom talking, almost never touching. In each case, the character's major relationship is with nature. It's that golden oldie, that cherished Canuck chestnut: man against nature or, will we survive with our garrison mentality intact? Maude the undertaker lives in peaceful co-existence with the whirlpool, making a living by burying its victims. Fleda lives on Whirlpool Heights where she views the Canadian landscape through the filter of Wordsworth and Browning (and looks in vain for a Canadian Heathcliff). Patrick the poet sees the whirlpool as a metaphor and tries to skim meaning from it by swimming the vortex. He dies. That's the most exciting event in the book and it occurs...
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SOURCE: "Eccentrics in a Luminous Maelstrom," in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, December 6, 1986, p. E21.
[In the positive review below, Wigston relates the story line of The Whirlpool, noting Urquhart's focus on history and eccentric characters.]
The Whirlpool is a jewel of a book: its finely polished facets are full of light, yet suggest numerous depths. The depths are real, for the story takes place in late nineteenth-century Niagara Falls, and much of the action focuses on the mystery of the huge cataract and its adjacent whirlpool. But the depths here equally serve to illuminate the collective identity of a people.
Jane Urquhart brings her poetic sensibility to bear on the psyches of an eccentric set of Ontarians, bracketing their tales with a portrait of poet Robert Browning on the final day of his life, in Venice. Watery Venice gives way to watery Niagara during the closing days of a flu epidemic. Maud Grady, the undertaker's wife, sits in her house with the corpses of her husband and parents-in-law lying in the bedrooms overhead. The prose crackles with the texture of the imprisoning black crepe that Maud dons for the mandatory mourning period, which lasts years. Death exerts an almost erotic magnetism for many of the characters in this book—as it did for many true nineteeth-century romantics. And it's with increasing pleasure that we watch Maud emerge through...
(The entire section is 652 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Whirlpool, in Books in Canada, Vol. 16, No. 1, January-February, 1987, p. 26.
[In the following, Posesorki provides a mixed assessment of The Whirlpool.]
The person and poetics of Robert Browning cast a giant shadow over Jane Urquhart's ambitious first novel The Whirlpool. In her prologue Urquhart presents the elderly Browning in Venice, overwhelmed by his recollections of the poet Shelley and by portents of his death. This romantically morbid vignette introduces the major leitmotivs of her novel: dreams, obsessions, death, and their relationship to the production of art.
Browning wrote, "Throughout life, 'tis death makes life live. Gives it whatever the significance." That is the premise Urquhart dramatizes through the lives of her characters, who all are cocooned in the mourning of their death-related obsessions and livelihoods. Maud Grady, the undertaker's widow, spends her days tenderly tending the dead, and her nights dreaming of her late husband. She ignores her autistic son in favour of her "dolls"—dead young girls that she prepares for embalming. Military historian David McDougall marries a woman who resembles the spectre who haunts his dreams—Laura Secord—and neglects her in his pursuit of his studies. His wife Fleda, preoccupies herself with compulsive rereadings of Browning by the edge of a whirlpool, where Patrick, a poet,...
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SOURCE: A review of Storm Glass, in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, June 25, 1987, p. D1.
[French is a Canadian editor and critic. In the favorable review below, he surveys several of the stories collected in Storm Glass.]
Glib generalizations won't do in any discussion of Jane Urquhart's fiction. Just when she seems to be establishing a pattern in this first collection of 17 short stories [entitled Storm Glass], she darts off in another direction and ambushes our expectations.
But it can be said, without fear of contradiction, that she has impressive talent. There's nothing simple and obvious here; concentric circles of meaning ripple out from the stories, and the prose shimmers like reflections in a deep pool. (Her frequent use of water imagery is contagious.) If Urquhart occasionally strives too hard for complexity, that's always a risk for writers who press against the limits of the conventional short story.
Urquhart, who was born in Northern Ontario and came of age in Toronto, has published three volumes of poetry, and her poetic sensibility is much in evidence here (as it was in her first novel, The Whirlpool, published last fall).
Urquhart (whose husband, artist Tony Urquhart, provides some appropriate drawings) observes in a preface to Storm Glass that most of the stories are about other places. She adds: "It seems to...
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SOURCE: "Through the Looking Glass," in Books in Canada, Vol. 16, No. 5, June-July, 1987, p. 14.
[Findley is a renowned Canadian novelist, playwright, and scriptwriter. In the following review, he praises Urquhart's focus on and striking evocation of character, time, and place in Storm Glass.]
In 1986, Jane Urquhart published her first novel, The Whirlpool, to almost universal critical acclaim. When it met with a negative response, it tended to offend or bemuse because of its imaginative content. In The Whirlpool, Urquhart treated reality with contempt. She was clearly a courageous stylist with a unique vision—and such writers rarely escape without raising a few hackles. Now, with Storm Glass, the courage of the stylist is confirmed and the uniqueness of the vision is expanded.
Though most of the stories here predate the writing of The Whirlpool, the reader is given the chance, once again, to explore the territory of dreams and memory so vividly established in that book. Clearly, this is a milieu in which Urquhart excels.
The author herself describes her work as "escape writing" and certainly there is an air of creative freedom in the stories that make up Storm Glass. People walk in and out of one another's dreams and cross with alarming ease from the present into the past. In one story—"The Drawing Master"—an artist encounters...
(The entire section is 692 words.)
SOURCE: "Jane Urquhart's Short Stories in the Landscape of the Poet," in Quill and Quire, Vol. 53, No. 7, July, 1987, p. 64.
[In the review below, Bradbury discusses Storm Glass, its imagery and symbolism, its poetic quality, and its similarities to the works of the Romantics.]
"It was an attraction to the mysterious 'other'," says poet and novelist Jane Urquhart, "that started me writing short fiction … that wild desire to explain, if only to myself, a landscape, an era, a human being, an event, about which I had little knowledge and to which I had but limited access…. Writing fiction can be, you see, the most satisfying form of armchair travel…. And as I look out my window to the white of the field, the diagonals of the rail fence and the horizontals of the winter trees, I'm grateful, also, that my armchair is situated where it is."
This introduction to Urquhart's new and very beautifully designed collection of short stories, Storm Glass, is ordinary enough. Most writers describe their fictional impulses in these terms: the desire to catch the particulars of other people and things, the need to draw alien landscapes. What is not at all ordinary is Urquhart's result: rich imagery drawn meticulously in complex colour alongside character and plot in pale outline.
In the title story ["Storm Glass"], particulars are rather few. A woman is dying, we...
(The entire section is 1080 words.)
SOURCE: "A Gathering of Seven," in The American Book Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, May-June, 1988, pp. 10, 21.
[An educator and critic, Brown has served as co-editor of anthologies of Canadian literature. In the excerpt below, he reviews The Whirlpool and Storm Glass. Although faulting Urquhart's ability to effectively sustain narrative movement in her works, he extols the precision of her prose style.]
Jane Urquhart, Janice Kulyk Keefer, and Paulette Jiles are three fiction writers who began as poets, and their fiction remains rooted in poetry. Although that poetic quality is part of the attractiveness of their writing, at times it is achieved at the cost of the traditional strengths of narrative. In particular, Urquhart provides a wonderful group of nearly Gothic characters in The Whirlpool, makes fascinating use of historical background (Niagara Falls at the end of the nineteenth century) there, and manages to suggest intriguing symbolic depths—but her novel remains static. Still, the writing in The Whirlpool is so precisely etched and extraordinary that the book is always rewarding. And the lack of an ongoing forward movement may be intentional; certainly it is appropriate to the novel's central image:
In one sense the whirlpool was like memory; like obsession connected to memory, like history that stayed in one spot, moving nowhere and...
(The entire section is 576 words.)
SOURCE: "Inside Stories," in Saturday Night, Vol. 105, No. 2, March, 1990, pp. 53-5.
[In the following excerpt, Ashenburg discusses the prominent role of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) in Changing Heaven.]
The desire to read or reread the hero's work is a strange but real measure of success in this genre. Judged by this yardstick (as well as by others), Jane Urquhart's second novel, Changing Heaven, succeeds superbly. Urquhart, who bracketed her first novel, The Whirlpool, with scenes of Robert Browning's dying in Venice, has created a tartly level-headed ghost of Emily Brontë for the presiding genius of her new book.
At first Brontë seems peripheral to the main action, which is shared by two sets of lovers—a Victorian balloonist whose professional name is Arianna Ether and her manager, and a contemporary Canadian scholar named Ann Frear who is having an affair with a married art historian. Only gradually, as the two pairs struggle to reconcile obsession with everyday life, storm with calm, and the appeal of two-in-oneness with its horror, does it become clear that Changing Heaven is a sustained meditation on the themes of Wuthering Heights. Just as the child Ann Frear discovered the story of Heathcliff and Cathy during a Toronto hurricane and never recovered (as an adult she is writing a book about Wuthering Heights and weather),...
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SOURCE: "Niagara Falls Gothic," in The New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1990, p. 16.
[Disch is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, editor, librettist, and author of books for children. He has also written under the name Leonie Hargrave and the joint pseudonyms Thom Demijohn and Cassandra Kyne. In the following, he provides a negative review of The Whirlpool.]
Jane Urquhart's new book, The Whirlpool, is an almost perfect example of the first novel in the common, and pejorative, sense of the term. Of course, there are as many types of first novels as there are types of novels, and the type the Canadian poet Jane Urquhart has aspired to is one of the more modest: a genteel historical novel with Gothic overtones (but nothing overtly or vulgarly horripilating) concerning the inactions of abnormally sensitive individuals. There are three separate strands of plot, which are never braided, and more symbols than you can shake a stick at.
The principal symbol is, as you might expect, the whirlpool of the title, which is, in reality, the whirlpool at the base of Niagara Falls. It represents almost anything the author supposes attractive, complex, mysterious, inexorable or deathly, and it is always there, just at the threshold of hearing, all through the novel.
The main plot concerns a sensitive young poet, Patrick, who, loitering about Niagara Falls in the...
(The entire section is 1085 words.)
SOURCE: "Stormy Weather," in Books in Canada, Vol. IXX, No. 3, April, 1990, pp. 31-2.
[Keefer is a Canadian poet, short story writer, novelist, and critic. In the review below, she praises the prose style and originality of Changing Heaven, but faults the novel's structure and Urquhart's attempts to "demystify" Emily Brontë.]
Like her first novel, The Whirlpool, Jane Urquhart's latest work of fiction plunges us into a world of passions and marvels and intricate obsessions. Changing Heaven opens with a meditation on wind and weather, invoking those tempests of mind and heart without which we cannot achieve our full stature or understand our true nature as human beings. Urquhart's new novel is, in large part, a love affair with another novel, Wuthering Heights, one of the strangest, most powerful texts in the English language. At crucial moments in Changing Heaven, climactic scenes from Emily Brontë's novel are echoed: lightning strikes, windows are wrenched open to let whirling blizzards in, the wild winds of the Yorkshire moors river through the hair and heads of those whose souls are large enough to welcome them.
Within this doubled structure, Urquhart develops two interrelated love affairs: that between a 19th-century balloonist, Polly Smith (a. k. a. Arianna Ether), and her Svengali, the Arctic-enamoured Jeremy Unger, and that between a...
(The entire section is 1029 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Whirlpool, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, May-June, 1990, p. 21.
[In the following review, Ramke, an American poet and educator, praises The Whirlpool for the feeling of poetry it conveys.]
The events of Jane Urquhart's first novel [The Whirlpool] take place on various borders; not merely the geographical and geological border between the United States and Canada (on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls), but also on borders between married couples, between those with language and those without, even between the living and the dead. The characters include Maud Grady, the widow of the town's deceased undertaker, a widow about to shed her mourning, whose skin has been next to crepe (milled in Halstead, England, "on secret looms in secret factories,") so long it is now stained a deathly gray. Her child, who "progresses" from his early absolute quiet, to speaking words at random, to attaching particular words to the wrong objects or events:
"Onion," said the boy.
"Nickel," said Patrick.
The child was not to be moved. He retaliated with the word "shovel."
The child stroked his toy and ignored the coin. "Salad fork!" he sang as the trolley, making a great deal of noise, rolled by. "Ri-ver."
And there is the poet,...
(The entire section is 658 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Whirlpool, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 3, Summer, 1991, p. 487.
[In the following review, Elgaard discusses characterization in The Whirlpool.]
Set in the (Canadian) Niagara of the 1880s, Jane Urquhart's first novel portrays characters who seek life rather than live it. Patrick, the poet, observes landscape—and the woman "mysteriously" inhabiting it—as perfect, ethereal architecture, not to be sullied by the mundane (i. e., flesh-and-blood vulnerability). Fleda, the dreamer, reads and breathes Browning's poetics, soon Patrick's as well, with a tenderness—for his reality—that he cannot countenance: "Patrick began to shake. He felt his privacy, his self, had been completely invaded—How dare she? he thought as if she, not he, had been the voyeur—She was not supposed to be aware of the lens he had fixed on her." David, Fleda's husband and a history researcher, is obsessed by the ghost of Laura Secord, supposed to have made a journey on foot (with one cow) to Indian territory; his collections of fact seem to Patrick mere "documented rumours" and, to Fleda, metaphors for other things.
Nominally on the sidelines is Maud, the undertaker's widow who, with the Old River Man, picks up the pieces of anonymous lives after annual stunts through the Falls—and springtime's desperate drownings in the river. Through her son, however, she...
(The entire section is 527 words.)
SOURCE: "Ghosts in the Landscape," in paragraph, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1991, pp. 3-5.
[In the following essay, based on an interview with Urquhart, Canton reveals Urquhart's thoughts on the writing process and the role of landscape and the fantastic in her work.]
"I had explored the graveyard outside the Bronte parsonage," explains Jane Urquhart, "but on my way out to the moors, I noticed another graveyard, slightly newer. Wandering through it, I saw a tombstone engraved with a balloon, and a woman's name and dates. It's one of the most terrifying graveyards that I've been in. When I went to live in Yorkshire, in the village of Stanbury, which is as close to the site of Wuthering Heights as you can get, I asked about this grave, and was told that the woman buried there had been a stunt performer. She took off over the Bronte moors as part of a village gala, and parachuted from the balloon over the moors; but the parachute didn't open and she was killed."
"I thought to myself—of all places to come crashing down, the Bronte moors are probably the best. You might become a ghost, and this would be a terrific place to haunt. You might run into another ghost, and that's basically how the novel began in my mind."
In Toronto to read at Harbourfront and launch her second novel, Changing Heaven, Urquhart, in conversation, is as provocative as the fiction she writes....
(The entire section is 2150 words.)
SOURCE: "Train & Balloon," in Canadian Literature, No. 132, Spring, 1992, pp. 209-10.
[In the following excerpt, Macfarlane praises Urquhart's "tight interlacing of metaphor, structure and theme" in Changing Heaven.]
Changing Heaven is a novel apparently fragmented into individual stories telling of separate characters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries…. [T]hese stories are linked through theme and recurrent images, but the characters, too, begin to merge into each other's stories. Arthur and Ann, two twentieth-century academics, have at first separate chapters, but their stories converge as they become enmeshed in an increasingly stormy affair. The story of two nineteenth-century balloonists parallels Wuthering Heights in some aspects and the ghost of Emily Brontë figures in their tale, told intratextually by a moorland sage Ann is coming to love. In this intense and complicated structure, time is spatialized to bring the stories of these characters together under the (internal) storyteller's control in a frenzied, storm-tossed chapter. These winding stories show the wind to be the book's theme. The academics intellectualize the wind and see it, in art, as a metaphor of passion: Ann associates it with the passion of Wuthering Heights; Arthur is obsessed with the tempesttossed angels in Tintoretto. One of many angels, fallen or otherwise, who link the narrative levels...
(The entire section is 299 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Away, in Quill and Quire, Vol. 59, No. 8, August, 1993, p. 28.
[In the following review, Wigston offers a favorable assessment of Away.]
In Jane Urquhart's fictional renderings of the Canadian past, history is transformed into a series of fluid images. The title of her new novel, Away, reverberates with meaning. First, it indicates the mysterious condition suffered by Irish peasant women who have encountered a daemon lover from the "other world," the enchanted realm that now and then collides with this one. Second, it refers to the forced migration of the Irish to Canada, forced when the deadly scythe of the potato famine cut them down without mercy.
Urquhart's book juggles an ambitious sweep of history, myth, and geography, from County Antrim to the environs of Belleville and Port Hope (in what is now Ontario) in the early years of the Canadian union. Inevitably, some myths travel better than others. Little in the book is more powerful than the opening scene, when a woman called Mary witnesses a quirky miracle on an Irish beach: a storm pushes quantities of cabbages, silver teapots, and barrels of whiskey towards shore. The sea's last gift? A half-drowned sailor. For Mary, nothing will ever again be the same.
Although Mary is "away," she marries Brian O'Malley, the local schoolmaster, and has a child, Liam. They emigrate to Canada...
(The entire section is 354 words.)
SOURCE: "A Dazzling Novel of Home and Away," in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, September 11, 1993, p. C22.
[In the following review, Grove-White praises Urquhart's evocation of time and place in Away, noting that despite the specificity of its locale, the novel has universal relevance.]
For anyone who believes that Canadians, or at least Canadians of European descent, are soulless, sexless creatures who inhabit not so much a landscape as a bottom line, Jane Urquhart should be required reading. Like Michael Ondaatje in Toronto and Jack Hodgins on Vancouver Island, Urquhart dreams our history for us, peopling the countryside around Lake Ontario with revenants born in memory, in imagination, in that enigmatic place where history and geography overlap.
Away, Urquhart's ambitious, dazzling new novel, recounts an alternative history of Canada lived through several generations of an Irish family who settle in Southern Ontario. Beginning in Ireland in the final years of the old Celtic world, the story, told by the family's women, brings us to present-day Lake Ontario, to an equally endangered landscape. The novel opens with Mary, the young Gaelic-speaking storyteller whose life changes forever when she falls in love with the dying sailor she finds washed ashore on her remote island. Driven away from her land by the potato famine, she survives the deadly Atlantic crossing and the...
(The entire section is 847 words.)
SOURCE: "Art and Revelation," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 23, 43.
[In the excerpt below, Harris relates Urquhart's focus on art, creation, and obsessive love in Changing Heaven.]
The relationship between art, the artist, and the appreciation of art has long intrigued writers of fiction. This theme is explored brilliantly in new novels by [Jane Urquhart and other] emerging but already masterful authors who freely transcend boundaries between centuries, life and death, and reality and memory….
In Changing Heaven, Jane Urquhart weaves together stories about Victorian and modern couples as she explores obsessive love and the role of imagination in art….
(The entire section is 928 words.)
SOURCE: "Magically Real," in Books in Canada, Vol. XXII, No. 7, October, 1993, p. 44.
[In the following, McNaughton offers praise for Away.]
Jane Urquhart's Away is a complex layering of ideas about emotions and emotions about ideas. If that sounds too intellectual, Away is also one of those novels that moves in and takes over your life. Urquhart writes on a very large canvas, spanning more than a century and two continents. The book begins in pre-famine Northern Ireland, when beautiful young Mary pulls a drowning man from a sea awash with cabbages, silver teapots, and casks of whisky. The man dies in Mary's arms. Ever after he is regarded as Mary's demon lover and she is thought to be not of this world—"away."
The novel describes what happens to Mary and Brian, the sceptical, self-educated schoolteacher she marries, and to their children, Liam and Eileen. When the famine comes, the family is given passage to Canada by their twin Protestant landlords Osbert and Granville Sedgewick. The sincere and totally ineffectual efforts of these two characters to somehow connect with their Catholic tenants give the narrative a broad comic thread. But beneath the humour, Urquhart conveys the Sedgewicks' sense of loss because they can never feel at home in the country where they were born.
In Canada, the story focuses on Eileen. Mary abandons her family just after...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
SOURCE: "Multigenerational Tale Adds Poetic Lift to Women's Issues," in Detroit Free Press, Section D, August 17, 1994, p. 3.
[Holliday is an American critic. In the following review, she relates the story line of Away.]
Jane Urquhart is an Irish Canadian who writes with the lilt of the Old Sod. Her third novel, Away, brings alive an old superstition linked to today's consciousness.
Away is the story of four generations of women, three of whom, in the author's words, are women of extremes. They either stay young into old age or age very young. They thrive near water. Men, states of mind, come and go. In the end, these bright, engaging women describe themselves as being "away."
The writing is poetic, musical, enhanced by the occasional Gaelic phrase. The message is mixed. At times it seems a plea for women's equality; again, it sees love as a fickle male domain, expressed in the words of an old Irish saying: "The most short-lived traces: the trace of a bird on a branch, the trace of a fish on a pool, the trace of a man on a woman."
Esther O'Malley Robertson, 82, is recalling the family history as she heard it at 12 from her grandmother, Old Eileen.
It starts in 1842 when the girl, Mary on Rathlin Island off the north Ireland coast, falls in love with a drowned sailor and, true to superstition, falls into the state of...
(The entire section is 459 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Away, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 143-44.
[In the following, Hewson offers a highly favorable assessment of Away, noting Urquahart's focus on story and voice.]
The title of Jane Urquhart's third novel [Away] is not just a reference to Mary, an intriguing character who, on a remote island off the northern coast of Ireland, gets taken by a daemon lover, renamed, and claimed by the "other-world." Rather, the condition of being "away" resonates as a metaphor, reminding us how a writer must feel when she is writing or a reader when she is engaged by fiction, unwilling or unable to leave completely the world of the book, its entrancing geography interrupting the mundane here and now; or how one functions when overcome by passion for another, drifting, as if spellbound, in a dreamlike fog. Urquhart has always been superb at rendering intense states of being, and Away offers plenty of such renderings.
This is also a novel about story and voice. Eileen, daughter of the one who went away, tells her mother's and her own story to her granddaughter Esther. She is telling the stories to Esther as warnings—about the hazards of passion and the dangers of change. Mary's story, which traces the hardships endured by the Catholic peasant class in Ireland circa 1840, is the most captivating. Once she and her family migrate to...
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SOURCE: An interview in Books in Canada, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, May, 1995, pp. 7-13.
[In the following interview, which was conducted over the course of a few weeks in early 1995, Urquhart discusses her life and her art.]
Jane Urquhart began her literary career as a poet, publishing three collections: I Am Walking in the Garden of His Imaginary Palace (1982), False Shuffles (1982), and The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan (1983). She has also written a book of short stories—Storm Glass (1987)—but she is best known for her novels, all published by McClelland & Stewart: The Whirlpool (1986), Changing Heaven (1990), and Away (1993), which was a co-winner of Ontario's Trillium Award.
This interview has been fused together out of two separate conversations with Jane Urquhart, one by phone on February 7, 1995 and the other in person on March 2 in Ottawa, the day after her husband had received the Order of Canada.
[Naves]: This has been quite a year for you, winning the Marian Engel Award last fall and sort of taking up permanent residence on the Globe's best-seller list, not to mention invitations to read in Australia and being published in Germany. What's this all doing to your life and writing?
[Urquhart]: It's made me schizophrenic, in a way. Because obviously...
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Fitzgerald, Judith. Review of I Am Walking in the Garden of His Imaginary Palace, by Jane Urquhart. Quill & Quire 48, No. 10 (October 1982): 33.
Praises I Am Walking in the Garden of His Imaginary Palace as "an extraordinarily well-designed and meticulously crafted book," but laments the quality of the verse.
Houston, Gary. "Symbolism Swirls around Images." Chicago Tribune (21 March 1990): section 5: 3.
Mixed review in which the critic lauds the prose style and symbolism of The Whirlpool, but faults the narrative as lacking dramatic interest.
Manguel, Alberto. "Northern Lights: Canada Heats Up." Village Voice 33, No. 42 (18 October 1988): 52-3, 101.
Discusses the genre of the short story in Canada, briefly mentioning Urquhart's work as reflected in the pieces collected in Storm Glass. The critic also discusses work by Rohinton Mistry, Sandra Birdsell, and Graeme Gibson.
Ross, Val. "Going for the Magical Is Dangerous." The Toronto Globe and Mail (27 September 1993): C1.
Feature article written on the occasion of the publication of Away. Ross discusses Urquhart's emphasis on place, identity, and...
(The entire section is 245 words.)