Jane Urquhart Essay - Critical Essays

Urquhart, Jane


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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."

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


Joyce Wayne (review date March 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 289 words.)

Rhea Tregebov (review date May 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 267 words.)

Lola Lemire-Tostevin (review date Spring 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Ian Sowton (review date Fall 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Jane Urquhart with Geoff Hancock (interview date 13 December 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 6971 words.)

Brent Ledger (review date November 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 342 words.)

Nancy Wigston (review date 6 December 1986)

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...

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Sherie Posesorki (review date January-February 1987)

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,...

(The entire section is 292 words.)

William French (review date 25 June 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 829 words.)

Timothy Findley (review date June-July 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 692 words.)

Patricia Bradbury (review date July 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 1080 words.)

Russell Brown (review date May-June 1988)

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 entire section is 576 words.)

Katherine Ashenburg (review date March 1990)

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.


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Thomas M. Disch (review date 18 March 1990)

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 entire section is 1085 words.)

Janice Kulyk Keefer (review date April 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 1029 words.)

Bin Ramke (review date May-June 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 658 words.)

Elìn Elgaard (review date Summer 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Jeffrey Canton (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 2150 words.)

Susan Macfarlane (review date Spring 1992)

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 entire section is 299 words.)

Nancy Wigston (review date August 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 354 words.)

Elizabeth Grove-White (review date 11 September 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 847 words.)

Gale Harris (review date Fall 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 928 words.)

Janet McNaughton (review date October 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Barbara Holliday (review date 17 August 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Kelly Hewson (review date Winter 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Jane Urquhart with Elaine Kalman Naves (interview date 7 February 1995 and 2 March 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 4313 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 245 words.)