19 June 2014

Misfortune Follows Reverend Knowles

Robert E. Knowles is the very sort of fellow one would expect to have been the subject of a biography. I'm thinking here of those dry, polite stories of a life, often penned by friends, that were published in the early half of the last century. Not only was Knowles "One of Canada's Best Known Novelists" – this according to the March 1909 Canadian Bookman – but he was once Canada's preeminent Presbyterian preacher, a man renowned throughout the Dominion for his sermons and oratorial skills.

That same March 1909 Canadian Bookman positions Knowles as "the Ian Maclaren of Canada", in large measure due to St. Cuthbert's, his wildly popular debut novel.

Unlike Maclaren, Knowles' sermons were never collected. Most were delivered at Knox's Galt Presbyterian Church, which I visited last Sunday.

Literary sleuths will find it on Queen's Square, just across from Central Presbyterian Church, in that awkward composite city we know as Cambridge, Ontario.

Reverend Knowles once preached at St Marys Presbyterian Church, the steeple of which you can see from our garden… in winter.

He stayed in a house that is now owned by friends…

…during which time he worked on his commercially successful second novel:

The Undertow was published by Revell in the autumn of 1906, just months before the reverend's blessed life became less so. On 26 February 1907, Knowles was a passenger on a train that left the track outside Guelph, then travelled a further 356 metres. Mr Charles R. Rankin of Stratford was killed in the accident. It would appear that Knowles' recovery did not proceed as anticipated:

The Globe & Mail, 13 March 1907
The City of Cambridge is cagey concerning the accident's impact on the author – and messes up the year of the accident. Jean O'Grady is more forthright, writing in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature that Knowles, a prohibitionist, likely descended into alcoholism. In January 1915, at forty-six years of age, he formally retired from his ministry, but not before having suffered through two further tragedies.

The Globe & Mail, 8 September 1913
On 7 September 1913, Robert Knowles, Sr, in whose footsteps the popular pastor novelist had tread, was struck by a Toronto streetcar. Rendered semi-conscious, he was first brought to the surgery of Dr Robert T. Noble, and was then "taken to his home by a carriage… suffering greatly from shock."

A larger tragedy, perhaps the greatest in the Knowles family history, occurred one hundred years ago today – 19 June 1914 – when the novelist's brother was killed by a blow to the head with a milk bottle wielded by a drunk named Émile Lebrie.

The Globe & Mail, 20 June 1914
"The blow fell upon a portion of the skull, it is said, where a silver plate had been placed in treatment of a wound received in battle in South Africa", reported the Globe. The altercation between James Knowles and Émile Lebrie was supposedly over a trivial matter. When arrested at the Miners' Hall in Cobalt, Lebrie was unaware he'd killed Knowles.

"MANSLAUGHTER LIKELY CHARGE" reads a headline in the 22 June 1914 Globe. What little I know about our legal system leads me to agree. I've not been able to find out whether I'm right, nor do I know the fate of Émile Lebrie, the Milk Bottle Murderer™.

If only there was a biography of Robert E. Knowles.

Addendum: I don't mean to suggest that the reverend's life had been untouched by tragedy before the train derailment. On 18 June 1905, a few months before the publication of his first novel, Knowles had officiated at the marriage of Mr William Lash and Miss Jane Anderson.

The Globe, 19 June 1905
The Globe reported that eats were served, glasses were raised, and the groom replied to a toast to his bride. The happy couple had then retired to an upstairs bedroom "to prepare to take the 2.45 Grand Trunk train", at which point the newly-wed Mr Lash collapsed. The paper was nothing if not polite: "It is supposed that, unaccustomed to speaking, the strain of replying to the toast had unduly excited him".

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