Jane Urquhart Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.