On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Friend of My Youth
‘Meneseteung’ presents Munro’s contribution to the feminist re-visionary project of reconstructing a female literary tradition by recovering the work of forgotten women writers. As Canadian critic Carole Gerson remarks in her essay on the disappearance of so many nineteenth-century Canadian women poets’ names from twentieth-century anthologies,
Tired of being cheated of recognition by the literary establishment, the early Canadian woman poet has deviously begun to re-enter our literature in fictional form, in Carol Shields’ Mary Swann: A Mystery and Alice Munro’s ‘Meneseteung’.
Munro’s story about a fictive nineteenth-century woman poet who lived in the small town of Goderich in southwestern Ontario pays attention to issues highlighted by feminist critics, such as social assumptions about femininity, women’s domestic roles as daughters, wives and mothers, and also to the dualities experienced by women artists whose creative powers conflicted with conventional feminine expectations. The American critic Mary Poovey’s study of eighteenth-century literary women The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer provides the focus for my discussion of Munro’s exploration of that double role and its disruptive effects on a woman’s life that her story becomes a critique of nineteenth-century Canadian colonial society and its attitudes to women and to ‘poetesses’ in particular. Yet precisely because it is a fiction and not a piece of literary criticism Munro is free to invent her character’s life story, combining psychobiography with local history of place as well as a recognition of her own role as narrator. She is also free to highlight those topics which interest her most: the traditional Canadian trope of women and wilderness, issues of gender, sexuality and female bodies, and crucially women’s pleasure in writing—be it history, fiction or poetry.
This story has an apparently decorous oldfashioned structure, beginning with a scrupulous account of the (fictive) historical evidence available, as the narrator describes the book of poems which she finds:
Offerings the book is called. Gold lettering on a dullblue cover. The author’s full name underneath: Almeda Joynt Roth. The local paper, the Vidette, referred to her as ‘our poetess.’ (FMY)
The book, published 1873, has the author’s photo as frontispiece as well as a preface giving details of her life. The photo is described in detail, as are a selection of her poems, stanzas of which are used to introduce each of the six sections into which the story is divided. Almeda’s life and her poetry would seem to conform to colonial constructions of middle- class femininity with her family’s pioneer history, her role as unmarried housekeeper for her widowed father, and her poems on conventional Victorian subjects like childhood, death and landscape; as Munro says, they are ‘poems about birds and wild flowers and snowstorms’ (FMY).
Yet there are striking oddities here: first the mysterious title of the story, and then Almeda’s ambiguous challenge to gender construction in her portrait where she looks like ‘a young nobleman of another century’ as well as her fascination with heroic exploration narratives in a poem called ‘Champlain at the Mouth of the Meneseteung’. (This is where we realise that the story’s title is the ancient Indian name for the Maitland River, at the mouth of which Goderich is situated.)
Munro foregrounds the documentary evidence for her historical reconstruction, where in addition to the book of poems she refers to old photographs of the town and to reports in the local newspaper. (Curiously, the Vidette was the name of the local paper in Munro’s home town of Wingham in 1883, though the name of the Goderich paper in this period was the Signal Star.) She pays attention to the town’s economic and material development in the late nineteenth-century with the coming of the railway, local industries, sawmills and brickyards— all typical features of raw new towns built on the edge of the Canadian wilderness. The Vidette also supplies a skeleton outline of Almeda’s life story after the publication of her single volume: her prospects of marriage to the respectable citizen and Civil Magistrate, Jarvis Poulter, followed by a brief news item on her discovery of a drunken woman’s body near the back of her house, and then a gap of over twenty years till the notices of Almeda’s death in 1903 and of Jarvis Poulter’s in 1904. Apparently they never married. Munro’s narrative effort is dedicated to filling in these gaps and to constructing a logic behind scraps of newspaper gossip. Only the first and last sections are set in the present, so forming a frame for the imaginative reconstruction of a woman’s relation to place and to poetry, for this is the story of Almeda’s transformations from sentimental poetess into romantic wilderness visionary and town eccentric.
Munro’s story is a playful mixture of fact and fiction, an imaginative re-visioning of history. Just as Goderich is not named though easily identifiable from its situation on Lake Huron and its salt wells discovered in 1866, so I believe that Almeda is ‘partly real’ rather than ‘wholly invented’, as Claire Tomalin speculated in her review of Friend of My Youth. I would suggest that Almeda’s shadowy parallel be found in the forgotten nineteenth-century poet Eloise A. Skimings (1836–1921), a native of Goderich and known locally as ‘the poetess of Lake Huron’. Her photo appears in the Huron County Museum in Goderich as it does on the frontispiece to her one book of poems, Golden Leaves, published by Signal Press, Goderich, in 1904. Like Almeda’s Offerings, the book also has a pale-blue cover with gold lettering on it. Her poems, many of them addressed to persons who had presented her with flowers (like ‘a double golden petaled tulip’ or ‘gold and crimson water lilies’) are full of Victorian sentimentality, though one of them is about ‘the proud Maitland River’ and another ‘Reminiscence of Early Days’ begins remarkably enough with the phrase ‘friend of my youth’ in its first line:
Friend of my infancy, friend of my youth,
Thou are just the same to me
As when we roamed adown the glassy slopes
Of old Huron’s rippling sea.
Skimings (known in...
(The entire section is 2681 words.)