Sara Jeannette Duncan Criticism - Essay

Carole Gerson (essay date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10091 words.)

Frank Birbalsingh (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 3908 words.)

Clara Thomas (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7705 words.)

Thomas E. Tausky (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5709 words.)

George Woodcock (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 9294 words.)

Peter Allen (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7938 words.)

Misao Dean (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8453 words.)

Elizabeth Morton (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3518 words.)

Ajay Heble (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6085 words.)