01 June 2015

Passion Over Reason in a Bland Bachelor's Lap

The Unreasoning Heart
Constance Beresford-Howe
New York: Dodd, Mead, 1946

McGill student Constance Beresford-Howe had just received her BA when word came that she'd won the Intercollegiate Literary Fellowship Prize. The accomplishment was duly recognized in the 12 May 1945 edition of Montreal's Gazette:

Beresford-Howe was back at McGill working on her MA when The Unreasoning Heart was published. That same academic year she wrote her second novel.

Old McGill, 1945
It was remarkable beginning to what would become a long literary career. The Unreasoning Heart itself is not nearly so noteworthy, but it is unusual. Not even a handful of Montreal novels were published in the wake of the Second World War, and this is one of only two or three to attempt anything that might be considered literary. But what most intrigues is the behaviour of the female characters. Had The Unreasoning Heart been written by a man I would not hesitate in describing it as the work of a misogynist.

The story begins with Abbey, a sixteen year-old orphan who is taken in – summoned really – by Fran Archer, a childhood friend of her recently deceased mother. The Archers live in a large house on Côte-St-Antoine in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. Theirs is an unconventional household, supported largely through what I took to be investments made with inherited wealth. A handsome fifty-something widow, Fran is pretty much in charge. Brother Teddy is a divorced drunk who wanders aimlessly, killing time, untroubled by his disrespectful daughter Paule. Fran's children are more polite. Con, the eldest of the two, runs a printing company. When not at work he sometimes treats Isobel, the aggressive young widow next door, to a movie, though he much prefers the solitude the upstairs library. David, the golden child, is married to Fay, a petite dynamo Fran found for him. He's always been his mother's favourite. Con was never nearly so good-looking and was a problem as a baby.

The heart has its reasons.

Nothing much happens in The Unreasoning Heart. Dialogue dominates the novel as Fran, Paule, Isobel, Fay and new arrival Abbey jockey for position with snide comments and outright insults. Meanwhile, the men, meek, do all they can to avoid drama and confrontation. For this reason, the sole significant episode of the novel comes as surprise. David disappears after Fay pushes him one time too many times. She couldn't care less and carries on with her life. Fran moves toward complete mental collapse. Teddy takes another drink, Con phones the city hospitals, and the girls are devastated. This in turn leads to the best bloomer I've read in many a month:
     "C'n I get into you bed?"
     Paule transferred herself quickly and snuggled up to Abbey for warmth and comfort. She cried a little and dried her tears on the collar of Abbey's pyjamas.
     "Everything's so queer now," she sniffled gratefully.
Read nothing into this encounter, Abbey has dedicated her life and body with newly budding beasts – at sixteen? – to Con, a man twice her age. Hers is the unreasoning heart.
On a sudden impulse she came over him and climbed onto his lap, her long legs dangling to the floor.
     "You young hussy," protested Con, "are you trying to take away my good name? And me so careful all these years?"
     "I just want to hug you some. You're always so remote and dignified. You ought to be hugged oftener."
     "Go right ahead. I'd be a cad to refuse an offer like that."
     She put he arms around his neck and rubbed her smooth cheek vigorously against his. Then she nuzzled her face lovingly into his neck and her fine, silky hair covered his shoulder. She lay there quietly, one hand resting against his breast. Con's long face wore a slightly foolish smile of enjoyment during the performance.
     But, as she lay there so quietly, he gradually became aware of the beating of her young heart and the warmth of her small pointed breasts against him. A proudly uneasy pleasure swept through him. When she stirred a little, his arms close around her. "Don't move," he said. She lay perfectly still, with closed eyes. He smoothed back the fair hair from her cheek and his fingers touched the warm flesh of her upper arm lingeringly. A heavy, using warmth pressed through his veins. He was afraid to move; afraid of her warmth, her sweetness, and her absolute trust. He sat there watching her face, feeling the fierce urge of desire in conflict with an inexplicable tenderness.
     All at once he gave her a rough shake.
     "Get off," he said abruptly. "You're too hard on my rheumatism."
Told you it was unusual.

A bonus:

Abbey and Con as depicted on the cover of the Popular Library edition.
The scene does not appear in the novel.
Another bonus:

Constance Beresford-Howe, Prose Editor, with Richard B. Goldbloom, Ralph Norman, Douglas Archibald, Helen Leavitt and Sheila Mercer in the offices of Forge,
McGill's literary magazine.
Old McGill, 1945
Trivia: Sixty Côte-St-Antoine, the Archer family address, doesn't exist; if it did, their home would sit on land occupied by Westmount City Hall.

More trivia: Like publisher Dodd, Mead, the Intercollegiate Literary Fellowship Prize is pretty much forgotten… with good reason, I suppose. Looking over the list of recipients printed in The Unreasoning Heart, I see no other familiar names. Dedicated investigation exposes Barbara Bentley, Catharine Lawrence and Mary Vardoulakis as one book wonders.

On the other hand, inaugural winner Maureen Daly not only had a real career but a real winner with Seventeenth Summer. It's currently in print with Simon & Schuster. Looking at the cover, you'd never suspect that it's a seventy-three year-old novel.

Could be worse.

Object: A bland-looking 236-page hardcover, lacking dust jacket, purchased in 2013 from a London bookseller back in 2013. Price: $2.00. The second of two copies I've owned over the years.

Access: Though nearly all of our universities have the book in their holdings, it would appear that only the Toronto Public Library and Library and Archives Canada serve the public.

The Dodd, Mead edition enjoyed two printings before disappearing. At some point in the 'sixties Popular Library issued a paperback edition. The Unreasoning Heart last returned to print – briefly – in 1978 as title #66 in Macmillan's butt-ugly Laurentian Library.

Whether the Dodd, Mead or Macmillan edition, used copies come cheap. Pay no more than $20 for a first edition in jacket. Inscribed copies begin at twenty-five.


  1. I am intrigued by your fine posting, and when you use the word "unusual," you said enough to send me looking for a copy of the book.
    BTW, Crimes in the Library, suspended for a while, has been reactivated, and I invite you to visit and comment now and in the future.

    1. I'm with you, R.T, always at the ready to at the very least pick up a book someone describes as "unusual".

  2. I had a hard cover illustrated copy of Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly many years ago and am trying to locate another copy. Does anyone know who did the illustrations? It was published by Dodd Mead & Co.