06 September 2012

Back to School with Miriam of Queen's

Miriam of Queen's
Lilian Vaux MacKinnon
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1921

Imagine, a Canadian college novel published just one year after This Side of Paradise.

I expected nothing quite so impressive from Miriam of Queen's. That said, what I'd thought would be a light fin de l'été read turned out to be the year's toughest slog; it took three runs at the first chapter before I found my footing. The opening pages bring Elizabeth Danvers, Aunt Laura, Mrs Roderick Campbell, Pauline, Sedley, John Hielanman, Aunt Hannah, Cora Hotchkiss and, of course Miriam. Many more will follow. Most, though not all, are related in some way to one another – but how? It's much like being thrust into a wedding reception at which one knows no one. Indeed, a wedding is in the offing, as Mrs Roderick Campbell reveals:
"You're getting another son, Ellen. Isn't that the modern form of consolation? And a bookish sort like Sedley, too." She turned suddenly to listen. "That is not his voice now is it? Mr. Rutherford's, I mean. It sounds familiar, though."
     "And so it should be, my dear," Mrs. Danvers rejoined, rising and leading the way across the hall. "It should be familiar, since it is your own nephew's – Fyfe Boulding, you know. He is to have a little part in tomorrow's ceremony, just a bit of distraction because of his connection."
I'm of the opinion that there's much to be learned from bad writing. In Miriam of Queen's lessons come  on every page, and are of such clarity that I feel no need to do anything but present. This paragraph comes at the end of Miriam's first year:
And at last came the days of the trial, when Convocation Hall was turned into a vast arena, where the competitors gathered in mortal combat and the witnesses were those bygone seers on the wall who, unmoved, had witnessed many a struggle, from their eventual element of calm, and whose lofty gaze inspired the frantic souls below to fight on. Elbowed by a science man on one hand, by a theologian on the other, Miriam wrote away. All her store of hardy-won knowledge was registered once and for all on paper, before the cares of this work-a-day world should have blotted it out. There was something fitting in the act, and a feeling of triumph visited those well-doers who were enabled to give an account at last of the laborious days they had lived.
Prose such as this leaves little room for plot. Miriam, our heroine, attends Queen's and looks on as dramatic events envelope others. Kind-hearted Cousin Sedley makes the mistake of marrying a vicious and vacuous flirt. Cousin Fyfe, a ne'er do well, is arrested, tried, and sent to Kingston Penitentiary. But before this takes place, in the most dramatic scene, both fall in the drink whilst playing hockey:
They are coming from all quarters. The ice is blackening with fleet figures. Will it be too late? The girls are lying flat and Elizabeth has caught Sedley's foot and Miriam, Elizabeth's, and the living chain moves nearer. Slowly, slowly, and oh, how carefully! Up, up and cautiously, cautiously! Out of the deathly waters, over the treacherous edge, Fyfe Boulding is drawn to safety. Then, just as the cry of thanskgiving rises to their lips, the ice gives way under double strain. there is an ominous crack, the sound of heavy body splashing down, and as Boulding creeps to safety Sedley Danvers goes down, down, into the icy waters of Lake Ontario.
     Stretch out your stick to save him now! If he can come up! Will he strike under the ice? Will the current bear him away? Or is there a chance, one chance in a thousand, that he may be seen again? The crowd presses nearer, strong arms stretch out to aid. Yes, there it is, that dark, struggling, helpless object at the edge of the break. Too late! Down, down it goes, while a cry of anguish breaks from the lips of the onlookers. Once more, once it comes. Now, men, now! They reached him , they drag him out, white and sodden and spent. Miriam, turning in horror from that death-like form, looks into Hugh Stewart's face.
     "Oh, Hugh,!" she screams. "Take me home! Take me home! Sedley is drowned! Don't you see? Sedley is drowned!"
    But no! It is a collapse, consequent on shock and exhaustion.
As I say, there's much to be learned from prose such as this.

The Regina Leader-Post, 17 December 1921
Any value in Miriam of Queen's lies in what it captures of student life at Queen's University during the earliest years of the last century. Though their debut novels were published so close together, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lilian Vaux MacKinnon were of different generations. Mrs MacKinnon graduated from Queen's in 1902, a decade before the petting parties of Princeton. Her university experience – and Miriam's – consisted of muscular Christianity, college songs and fleeting glimpses of the Very Reverend George Monro Grant.

Modest mention in the 12 September 1942 Regina Leader-Post has Mrs MacKinnon as the author of two novels: Miriam of Queen's and The Guinea Stamp. I can find no record of the latter. The Queen's University Archives holds the manuscript of an unpublished romance "set near Brockville"  with the rather ribald title Hard by St. Lawrence.


I'm not at all surprised.

Object: An attractive hardcover in mustard cloth. I found my copy nine years ago in a Vancouver Salvation Army Thrift Store. Price: $2.

Access: A very scarce title, it appears that the only public library carrying the book serves the good folks of Toronto; Kingston's has no copy.

Miriam of Queen's enjoyed a single run, split by McClelland & Stewart and George H. Doran. All of two editions, the latter is by far the least common. One copy of each is listed for sale online. At US$75, the less expensive is a "Fair to Good, Reading Copy" McClelland & Stewart edition. The other is the one to buy: a Near Fine copy of the American first in "Very Good plus dustjacket" for US$175.

Great price! Take note, Kingston Frontenac Public Library.


  1. Many years ago I inherited my great-grandfather's book collection. I don't have much of it left, but this novel reminds me of it.

  2. How intriguing! Mrs. MacKinnon was my grandmother, and my father, her son, was lending his copy of Miriam, to a friend just this week. (He's 98 1/2, and he was given his copy by his mother in 1921, the year of publication.) His copy includes a kind of decoding of who are the characters are, in our family....hardly "semi-autobiographical" it seems!

    He also told me this week, that the reason Gran wrote the book was that he has contracted Scarlet Fever, and had to be quarantined, and so did she. So, to pass the time, she wrote this "novel". Carol MacKinnon

    1. Many thanks for your comments. Your father's copy is invaluable. It would be interesting to know just who inspired Miriam's doomed friend Rachel, wandering wife Cora or the criminal Fyfe Boulding (and what became of him).

      I must say, your grandmother made good use of her time laid up with illness - not only recording these memories, but (presumably) making money in the process. There weren't many Canadian novels published in 1921 - and to think that there was also an American edition.

    2. I have a copy of this book (McClelland & Stewart) and have always wondered what the print run was. And as I downsize, what to do with it.

    3. Judging by 2017 prices, there's a market for the book, Unknown. I imagine prices are best in Kingston... if you happen to live close-by.