Sara Jeannette Duncan Essay - Critical Essays

Duncan, Sara Jeannette


Sara Jeannette Duncan 1861-1922

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Cecil V. Cotes and Jane Wintergreen) Canadian novelist, short story writer, travel writer, and journalist.

A respected journalist and fiction writer, Duncan is best known for her novels of Canadian, British, and Anglo-Indian society at the turn of the century. In her works, which range from stories drawn from her experience as a resident of India to novels satirical of British and American society, Duncan wrote with a journalistic attention to detail and dramatized such themes as the effects of British imperialism on colonial culture and the clash of idealism, imagination, and talent with tradition and conformity.

Biographical Information

Duncan was born in 1861 in Brantford, Ontario. Her father, Charles Duncan, was a Scottish-born merchant, while her mother, Jane Bell, was of a Protestant family in Ulster. Educated in Brantford, and later at the Toronto Normal School, Duncan gave up teaching in favor of pursuing her childhood dream of becoming a writer. One of the first professional women journalists in Canada, she worked for a time at the local Brantford newspaper and as a freelance correspondent for the Toronto Globe and The Week. In 1886, she took a full-time position at the Washington Post, followed by one at the Montreal Star in 1887. The next year, Duncan, along with her colleague Lily Lewis, embarked on a year-long trip around the world. Duncan recounted their visits to western Canada, Japan, India, Egypt, and England in a series of travel sketches for the Star, which she later collected and fictionalized in her first novel, A Social Departure: How Orthodocia and I Went Round the World by Ourselves. In Calcutta Duncan met Everard Cotes, an English museum official and journalist, and the two married in 1890. She spent the next twenty-five years living in India with Cotes, first in Calcutta and later in Simla. Meanwhile, she followed her first novel with the publication of two more light-hearted works, An American Girl in London and Two Girls on a Barge. Having shifted the focus of her writing from journalism to fiction, Duncan produced twenty-two works in all, including a series of Anglo-Indian novels, beginning with The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib and ending with The Burnt Offering. Duncan lived in England the last few years of her life and wrote several plays and adaptations of her novels, none of which met with any commercial or critical success. She died in England in 1922.

Major Works

Duncan's works generally fall into one of three categories: early pieces of journalism, comic novels of manners, and works dealing with more serious social themes. In her journalism, Duncan set out many of the major issues that she later explored in her fiction, including the nature of Canadian nationality identity, Canada's position as part of the British Empire and the larger questions of imperialism, and the role of women in modern society. Several of these topics appear in two of her earliest novels, An American Girl in London and The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib, both of which portray an innocent young woman living in a foreign land. In the former, Mamie Wick records her impressions of a stuffy and highly class-conscious Britain in the 1890s. The latter describes the exploits of an English woman who marries into Anglo-Indian society. Although accentuated by touches of pathos and melodrama, these works are humorous and light in contrast to the novels Duncan produced in the middle of her career. In The Imperialist—Duncan's only novel set in Canada—Lorne Murchison, a young lawyer, fails in his attempt to gain a parliamentary seat when his idealistic imperialism clashes with the practical politics of Elgin, his hometown and Duncan's fictionalized portrait of Brantford, Ontario. Like The Imperialist, Cousin Cinderella confronts the issue of Canadian identity as it follows Graham and Mary Trent, two vital Canadians placed within the contexts of a stultified English society. In The Burnt Offering, Duncan returned to the theme of imperialism as the misguided benevolence of Vulcan Mills, an easily manipulated British member of parliament, triggers a terrorist uprising in early twentieth-century India.

Critical Reception

Although Duncan's novels and journalism were popular in her day, her writings fell into relative obscurity after her death. Not until the 1960s—in conjunction with an increased interest in feminism and Canadian nationalism—did scholars turn their attention to her works. The Imperialist, for example, was the topic of much discussion at the time of its first printing, and since its republication in 1961 it has rekindled scholarly interest and continues to generate the majority of Duncan criticism. Despite a renewed interest in Duncan, however, critics have generally considered her works to be artistically flawed. Many have disapproved of the journalistic mode of her novels, calling them superficial or insubstantial, or have attacked her works for their overtly didactic and often condescending tone. Other commentators have found Duncan's writing uneven and self-contradictory. In contrast, many scholars have praised her careful observations of her contemporaries in Canadian, English, American, and Indian society, and have lauded the sophistication of her ironic narrative style. The Imperialist and Cousin Cinderella, both among her greatest achievements, are considered classics of Canadian literature.

Principal Works

A Social Departure: How Orthodocia and I Went Round the World by Ourselves (novel) 1890

An American Girl in London (novel) 1891

Two Girls on a Barge [as Cecil V. Cotes] (novel) 1891

The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib (novel) 1893

A Daughter of Today (novel) 1894

The Story of Sonny Sahib (novel) 1894

Vernon's Aunt: Being the Oriental Experiences of Miss Lavinia Moffat (novel) 1894

His Honour, and a Lady (novel) 1896

Hilda: A Story of Calcutta (novel) 1898; also published as The Path of a Star, 1899

A Voyage of Consolation (novel) 1898

On the Other Side of the Latch (memoir) 1901; also published as The Crow's Nest, 1901

Those Delightful Americans (novel) 1902

The Pool in the Desert (short stories) 1903

The Imperialist (novel) 1904

Set in Authority (novel) 1906

Cousin Cinderella (novel) 1908; also published as A Canadian Girl in London, 1908

Two in a Flat [as Jane Wintergreen] (memoir) 1908

The Burnt Offering (novel) 1909

The Consort (novel) 1912

His Royal Happiness (novel) 1914

Title Clear (novel) 1922

The Gold Cure (novel) 1924

Selected Journalism (journalism) 1978


Carole Gerson (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Duncan's Web," in Canadian Literature, No. 63, Winter, 1975, pp. 73-80.

[In the following essay, Gerson argues that The Imperialist accesses "the universal concerns of literature" by examining the nature of political and moral idealism and exhibiting a complex pattern of perception and point of view.]

While the overt subject of The Imperialist is indeed imperialism, the novel's deeper structural unity derives from its focus on idealism and its internal patterning of perceptions and points of view. Sara Jeannette Duncan uses Canada not only to provide the history of the imperialist movement, but also to supply a foil for the old world, so that in the interaction between old world and new world experiences and personalities she can scrutinize subtleties of idealism and levels of vision. Hence her concern is not narrative for the sake of narrative but the effect of event on the formation of vision; as she herself says of Lorne Murchison's trip to England, "what he absorbed and took back with him is, after all, what we have to do with; his actual adventures are of no great importance." In the context of turn-of-the-century Canadian fiction, marked as it was by a strong emphasis on "actual adventures", Duncan's ability to work into the fabric of her narrative the abstract problem of the levels, limitations and horizons of vision distinguishes The Imperialist from the story-telling of Gilbert Parker, Norman Duncan and Ralph Connor. Much of her distinction may be due to her long absence from Canada, which may have helped to expand her artistic vision and give her greater detachment and a more universal frame of reference than her Canadian contemporaries. This detached perspective, combined with her personal knowledge of Canada and her dexterous manipulation of characters and ideas, renders The Imperialist one of the most carefully structured and unduly neglected Canadian novels.

The skill of Duncan's structural technique lies in her meticulous interweaving of narrative threads so that all events and characters implicitly comment upon one another, and through the various attitudes manifested by various characters the "figure in the carpet" slowly and surely emerges. Within this scheme of levels of vision the highest focal point—the horizon—is idealism, political in the case of Lorne Murchison, moral in the case of Hugh Finlay. Just outside central focus sit the two characters who function on the lesser plane of self-interest, Alfred Hesketh and Dora Milburn. And the substantial back-ground to the whole is provided by Elgin, Ontario, recognized by John Murchison to be "a fair sample of our rising manufacturing towns," and by his son Lorne to be a microcosm of eastern Canadian society: "Elgin market square … was the biography of Fox County, and, in little, the history of the whole province."

Elgin's vision focuses on "the immediate, the vital, the municipal." Anchored in common-sense pragmatism, the town distrusts imaginative eccentricity. In Elgin religious fervour "was not beautiful, or dramatic, or selfimmolating; it was reasonable"; and young daydreaming Advena Murchison learns that "No one could dream with impunity in Elgin, except in bed." As the microcosmic example of the level-headed, business-minded Canadian community, Elgin supplies the formal testing-ground for Lorne's idealism and judges less by principle than by economic practicability. When Lorne accepts the Liberal nomination in a federal by-election and makes imperialism the keynote of his platform, the whole country looks to Elgin to indicate the national reaction to the Idea and sees in Elgin a mirror of itself.

The town's solid, practical personality manifests itself in Mrs. Murchison and, on a more sophisticated level, in Dr. Drummond. "The central figure… with her family radiating from her," Mrs. Murchison contains the stability of everyday reality: she knows that the crises of ordinary living are whether Abby's baby has the whooping cough and what to serve the minister for tea. On her own level of apprehension she sees through the ideal of England when Lorne returns with his clothes "ingrained with London smut," and she implicitly understands the emotional realities that Advena and Finlay try so hard to idealize away because, in her common-sense world, no young man and young woman can see so much of one another without falling in love. Dr. Drummond, the Scottish Presbyterian minister, exemplifies a similar intuitive grasp of ordinary life. While his limitations are those of any man who moves "with precision along formal and implicit lines" and whose study is lined "with standard religious philosophy, standard poets, standard fiction, all that was standard and nothing that was not," his fundamental knowledge of human behaviour enables him to confront Finlay's misguided idealism and to inform him that he and Advena are "a pair of born lunatics" for their determination to sacrifice love to principle.

While Elgin, Mrs. Murchison and Dr. Drummond represent the primary level of vision—namely common sense and practical conduct—there runs in them a deep vein of old loyalties and half-hidden emotional ties waiting to be tapped by Lorne's more penetrating imagination. For all its spirit of North American enterprise, Elgin, "this little outpost of Empire," maintains its umbilical ties in its annual lively celebration of the Queen's Birthday; the importance of this event to the Murchison children fills Duncan's opening chapter. Dr. Drummond and John Murchison emigrated from Scotland together and transferred their concerns entirely to the new world, yet "obscure in the heart of each of them ran the undercurrent of the old allegiance." Allegiance to tradition inspired Mrs. Murchison to name her first two daughters after their grandmothers, Lorne after the Marquis de Lorne (Governor-general of Canada from 1878 to 1883) whose mother-in-law was Queen Victoria, and two sons after Canadian Liberal party leaders. In addition, Lorne Murchison grows up in the old Plummer place, a home distinguished by the "attractiveness of the large ideas upon which it had been built and designed." This atmosphere of "large ideas," Elgin's lingering "sentiment of affection for the reigning house," and Lorne's early manifestation of "that active sympathy with the disabilities of his fellow-beings which stamped him later so intelligent a meliorist" are all absorbed into his earnest personality and into the making of his idealistic imperialism. In her careful plotting of Lorne's background Duncan weaves an intricate fabric of colonial affections which requires only Lorne's personality to tailor it into the imperialist banner.

But even more important than the content of Lorne's idealism is his idealism itself, as The Imperialist focuses squarely upon the personality of the idealist. For Duncan, idealism results more from temperament than from philosophy. Hence her two principal idealists, Lorne Murchison and Hugh Finlay, are described in remarkably similar terms although the actual forms of their idealism differ greatly.

Hugh Finlay, the young Presbyterian minister from Dumfriesshire, and Lorne Murchison, the young Canadian lawyer, are two examples of the same "type": sincere, open, at times almost simple, and noticeably different from everyone else in intensity and visionary focus. Both inhabit a dimension beyond the ordinary, both appeal to others by their strength of personality, and Duncan describes both in terms of expanded horizons. Lorne's face is "lighted by a certain simplicity of soul that pleased even when it was not understood"; he is "frank and open, with horizons and intentions; you could see them in his face." Similarly Finlay is "a passionate romantic … with a shock of black hair and deep dreams in his eyes … a type… of the simple motive and the noble intention, the detached point of view and the somewhat indifferent attitude to material things." Like Lorne, he has "horizons, lifted lines beyond the common vision, and an eye rapt and a heart intrepid." Circumstance and place of birth rather than temperament direct Lorne's...

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S. Nagarajan (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "The Anglo-Indian Novels of Sara Jeannette Duncan," in Journal of Canadian Fiction, Vol. III, No. 4, 1975, pp. 74-84.

[In the following essay, Nagarajan discusses Duncan's Set in Authority and The Burnt Offering as representative of her Anglo-Indian novels.]

The work of the Canadian novelist, Sara Jeannette Duncan is not generally known outside her own country, and even in Canada, all but one of the nearly two dozen books she wrote are out of print. Many of these novels deal with the life of the British in India—Anglo-Indian fiction, we may call these novels, after Bhupal Singh—and Canadian readers, unless they have a special interest, are not...

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Frank Birbalsingh (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Sara Jeannette Duncan's Indian Fiction," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 16, No. 1, April, 1977, pp. 71-81.

[In the following essay, Birbalsingh examines Duncan's fiction, commenting on the flaws he finds therein: superficiality, anticlimax, and contradiction.]

Sara Jeannette Duncan was born in 1861 in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. By 1889, when she first visited India, she had already established a reputation, both in Canada and the United States, as an articulate journalist and a versatile publicist of topical issues. In India she met Charles Everard Coates, an Anglo-Indian whom she married in 1891. She then lived in India, almost continuously,...

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Clara Thomas (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Canadian Social Mythologies in Sara Jeannette Duncan's The Imperialist," in Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 38-49.

[In the following essay, Thomas analyses The Imperialist in terms of two mythologies common in Canadian literature, those of the small town and the "hero and nationbuilder. 'I

Sara Jeannette Duncan had been living away from Canada for thirteen years when she wrote The Imperialist. During that time she had travelled widely, stopping in India to work as a journalist in Calcutta, and there marrying Everard Cotes, curator of the British museum. In 1902, from Simla, she wrote to John Willison, editor...

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Thomas E. Tausky (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Sara Jeannette Duncan as a Novelist," in Sara Jeannette Duncan: Novelist of Empire, P. D. Meany Publishers, 1980, pp. 73-90.

[In the following excerpt, Tausky discusses narrative technique and similarities of plot and theme in Duncan's novels.]

[Sara Jeannette Duncan] began reviewing fiction at a time when the controversy between the proponents of realism and of romance was at its height. Her own attitude … was to avoid what she took to be extreme positions on either side. It is not surprising to discover, therefore, that elements of realism and romance co-exist, sometimes happily, sometimes uneasily, in her novels.

Realists, a...

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George Woodcock (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Changing Masks of Empire: Notes on Some Novels by Sara Jeannette Duncan," in The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 13, 1983, pp. 210-27.

[In the following essay, Woodcock traces Duncan's development as a novelist.]

Sara Jeannette Duncan is a better and more interesting writer than the caprices of posthumous reputation have allowed. For almost forty years of her relatively short life she was an industrious and capable journalist (writing for Canadian, American, and eventually Indian papers) and she wrote twenty books which appeared in her lifetime or shortly afterwards. Most of them were published in both London and New York, and some in Toronto as well....

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Peter Allen (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Narrative Uncertainty in Duncan's The Imperialist," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1984, pp. 41-60.

[In the following essay, Allen attributes many of the ambiguities in The Imperialist to Duncan's own uncertainty about the Imperial Question and Canada's future.]

In recent years a number of Australian films have won acclaim in Canada, as elsewhere, for their sympathetic and realistic depiction of colonial life in the years before World War I. The common theme of such films as The Getting of Wisdom, My Brilliant Career, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Breaker Morant is the process of maturation from colony to...

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Misao Dean (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Process of Definition: Nationality in Sara Jeannette Duncan's Early International Novels," in Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 13249.

[In the following essay, Dean argues that Duncan's early international novels articulate a theme of Canadian nationalism that reconciles the extremes of freedom and tradition as represented by the United States and Britain respectively.]

Since Confederation, Canadians have often attempted to define what Canada is by first discussing what it is not. A process of negative definition has been forced upon Canada by history and geography; the ever present threat of assimilation into the...

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Elizabeth Morton (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Religion in Elgin: A Re-evaluation of the Subplot of The Imperialist by Sara Jeannette Duncan," in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1986, pp. 99-107.

[In the following essay, Morton examines the romantic subplot of The Imperialist in terms of opposing religious concepts that parallel those of the political struggle in the novel's main plot.]

Lack of unity in the plot of The Imperialist has generally been explained in terms of character and theme—either the theme of idealism or the theme of love. Carole Gerson has pointed out [in Canadian Literature No. 63 (1975)]: "While the overt subject of The...

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Ajay Heble (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "'This Little Outpost of Empire': Sara Jeannette Duncan and the Decolonization of Canada," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, 1991, pp. 215-28.

[In the following essay, Heble, through an analysis of narrative technique in The Imperialist, maintains that Duncan was committed to the same imperial idea in the novel as in her journalism.]

Imperialism means … the realization of a Greater Canada … I … am an Imperialist because I will not be a Colonial.

—Stephen Leacock

There is a two-cent stamp issued by this country for Christmas 1898 which bears the...

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Misao Dean (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "A Different Point of View: The Colonial Perspective in Sara Jeannette Duncan's Novels" and "A 'Colonial Edition'," in A Different Point of View: Sara Jeannette Duncan, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991, pp. 3-18, 154-58.

[In the following excerpt, Dean examines Duncan's political and philosophical outlook as reflected in her novels.]

What makes Canadian writing Canadian? This question has interested readers and writers at least since the Confederation period, when Archibald Lampman suggested that our cold climate would not only produce a distinctive, striving spirit in literature but a whole new race. Attempts to identify a "tradition" in Canadian...

(The entire section is 7704 words.)

Jennifer Lawn (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib and the Prisonhouse of Language," in Canadian Literature, No. 132, Spring, 1992, pp. 16-30.

[In the following essay, Lawn explores the linguistic complexities of The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib.]

"Here, you see, sir, all the chairs," stated the little baboo, waving his hand. "I must tell you, sir, that some are off teak and some off shisham wood. Thee shisham are the superior."

"You mean, baboo," said young Browne, seriously, "that the shisham are the less inferior. That's a better way of putting it, baboo."

"Perhaps so, sir. Yessir, doubtless you...

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Further Reading


Fowler, Marian. Redney: A Life of Sara Jeannette Duncan. Toronto: Anansi, 1983, 333 p.

Critical biography of Duncan.


Bissell, Claude. Introduction to The Imperialist, by Sara Jeannette Duncan, pp. v-ix. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1971.

Discusses The Imperialist as a novel of social criticism and of the "conflict between manners and morals … and the promptings of the human heart and mind."

Cloutier, Pierre. "The First Exile." Canadian Literature 59 (Winter 1974): 30-37.

Examines A Daughter of Today as the first...

(The entire section is 255 words.)