The Life and Times of Faith Fenton
by Jill Downie
Harper Collins, Toronto, 337 pages, $27.00
reviewed by Margaret Gunning
"Stories in this world tell themselves by halves," wrote journalist Faith Fenton in her "Women's Empire" column more than a hundred years ago. "There is always a silent side, and none may know the life of another." In A Passionate Pen, historical novelist Jill Downie reveals the "silent side" of an extraordinary life with great insight and a real resonance with the spirit of the times. The strictures of Victorian culture forced Faith Fenton to lead a double existence. By day she was Alice Freeman, a rather plain, unmarried Toronto schoolteacher. By night she assumed the identity of her nom de plume and enjoyed immense popularity as a newspaper columnist whose bold pen dared to explore topics then deemed taboo for women.
The fact that Fenton has been largely forgotten speaks volumes about the perceived importance of women's contributions. Downie painstakingly pieced together Fenton's story from mere fragments in the family archives. This relentless digging yielded gratifying results: the unearthing of a fresh, witty, perceptive literary presence, a "heart friend" to countless women across the country.
Fenton's special talent was to deliver hard-edged messages in a palatable, even pleasing way, expanding the tight boundaries of what was then considered "thinkable" for women. As Downie explains, "That voice still reverberates because so many of the issues she dealt with in 'Women's Empire' -- sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, child abuse, wage disparity -- have not gone away."
Fenton was no armchair journalist. She travelled widely, going undercover to visit a women's workhouse, attending Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, interviewing the likes of Susan B. Anthony, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Catherine Parr Traill. She had friends in high places and even hobnobbed with her hero, Sir John A. Macdonald, in his dotage. How did a humble schoolteacher from a middle-class background ever reach such heights?
Fenton's childhood reads like a chapter from one of L.M. Montgomery's classic novels. The third of twelve children, she was sent away with no explanation at the age of ten to live with a minister and his wife in Bowmanville, Ontario. This harsh exile might have crushed a lesser spirit, but Alice Freeman found a way to make the best of it. Her foster mother, Margaret Reike, provided her with an educational enrichment beyond her parents' modest means. More than that, she loved Alice like a daughter, instilling in her a confidence that would carry her through the rest of her life.
For a woman of her times, Fenton had remarkable courage (a trait that she probably would have preferred to call "pluck"), gameness, and heart. She was a genius at making connections, and after a few years of freelancing landed what we would now call a "women's issues" column in the Empire, a popular Toronto daily. Out of economic necessity she toiled away at her jobs for nearly twenty years, carefully keeping the halves of her life separate.
"Faith Fenton's pen, though brilliant, is never unkind," wrote a critic of her times. Her forward-thinking views were tempered with a deep respect for the institution of marriage (which she secretly longed for) and a real love of Victorian high society. When her long tenure at the Empire ended with the demise of the paper, she met this obstacle in typical Fenton fashion: "She hitched up her skirts and went to the Klondike." At the age of forty she became the first northern correspondent for the Globe newspaper and met a man who would change the course of her life.
It is to Downie's credit that she handles this aspect of Fenton's life story with such sensitivity. Dr. John Brown had been an avid fan of Faith Fenton's column for years, and his awe at finally meeting her in the flesh soon gave way to more ardent feelings. When they married, she largely gave up her writing career to devote herself passionately to the full-time task of being John Brown's wife.
Some interpreters might see Fenton as a kind of turncoat, but Downie sees both the love and the logic in her choice. Fenton had always been a secret romantic, yearned for a soulmate, and deeply valued domesticity. Professionally she had already done it all, sometimes enduring great loneliness and hardship along the way.
Downie's empathy with Fenton's humanness and her ability to create a three-dimensional portrait of a complicated woman and her times make this book a fascinating read. Fenton never quite resolved the tension between respectability and freedom, and Downie leaves the paradox intact, presenting Faith whole. Faith Fenton emerges from the murk of obscurity as a real Canadian heroine, a symbol of what is possible for women both then and now.
Margaret Gunning writes for a variety of B.C. and national
publications and has won awards for her plays, poetry, and non-fiction.