20 July 2009

Pauline Johnson's Forgotten Heir

Canadian Poets, edited by John W. Garvin (McClelland & Stewart, 1926)

Since my piece on The Chivalry of Keith Leicester, I've had to endure some gentle ribbing from a couple of B.C. readers. Yes, I have two. Both (Did I mention I have two? At least!) appear to take issue with my insinuation that Isabel Ecclestone Mackay is something less than well-known. Eleven days later, I'm prepared to state boldly that hers is not a household name. As evidence, I cite the sad fact that Mackay's books have been out of print for well over seven decades. I add that The Canadian Encyclopedia and The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature fail to mention the author though I do recognize that both the very fine Encyclopedia of British Columbia and Encyclopedia of Canadian Literature (edited by Vancouverite W.H. New) feature brief entries.

Mackay wasn't born a British Columbian. A native of Woodstock, her 33rd birthday passed before she first visited – and settled – in the province with husband Peter, a court stenographer. There can be no argument that Isabel Ecclestone Mackay was once well-known. She featured regularly in Harper's, Scribners', Smart Set and other great magazines of the day. Her first book, a collection of verse titled Between the Lights, appeared in 1904. Ten more volumes followed: poetry, novels and a light comedy that placed third in a 1929 American play-writing competition. All are pretty much forgotten. Mackay's lasting legacy lies as the force behind Pauline Johnson's The Legends of Vancouver (1911), published as a means of raising funds for the dying author. After Johnson's death, Mackay not only became executrix, but assumed her role as the leading lady of letters in British Columbia. Her books were published by McClelland & Stewart, William Briggs, Thomas Allen, George H. Doran, Samuel French, Houghton Mifflin and Cassell & Company. The Group of Seven's J.E.H. MacDonald provided 'decorations' for her 1922 collection of verse, Fires of Driftwood.

Mackay was known primarily as a poet, but I find her prose more interesting and inventive. Her first novel, The House of Windows (1912), begins with an abandoned baby in a department store and moves on to create a tale involving kidnapping, white slavery, secret identities and suffragettes. Sex, it seems, is at the centre of The Window-Gazer (1921).

The time has come, I suppose, to add Isabel Ecclestone Mackay to my dusty bookcase. I've ordered an old copy of Up the Hill and Over (1917), which New describes as a novel about drug addiction. What fun! Until it arrives, I'll be dipping into her 1918 The Singing Ship and Other Verse for Children (online here), which includes this mildly disturbing poem.

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