Sara Jeannette Duncan Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.