Jane Urquhart: Cultural Context
by David Staines
As a young girl, Jane Urquhart wrote poems, stories, and plays, all the time reading voraciously. In 1986, she recalled, "The books I read as a child still influence me the most … I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights when I was nine and I feel precisely the same way about those books today as I did then" (Hancock 1986:25).
Later, in her afterword to L.M. Montgomery's Emily Climbs (1989), Urquhart reflected on her childhood world:
Montgomery, Urquhart recollected, "stamped the Canadian rural landscape indelibly on my brain and gave the landscape a time frame -- late nineteenth, early twentieth century. I'll simply never be able to look at it in any other way" (Hancock 1986:26). Emily of New Moon (1923), Emily Climbs (1925), and Emily's Quest (1927) are "books about a young girl who wants to be, and eventually becomes, a writer and this young girl is a Canadian. It was wonderful for me. It felt so familiar" (Hancock 1986:26).
When a successful New York editor offers Emily the chance to move there, she comments: "Some fountain of living water would dry up in my soul if I left the land I love" (Montgomery 1989:316). Urquhart noted in her afterword to Emily Climbs, "Trite though that line, out of context, may seem, I wept when I read it at eleven and a half, I wept when I read it at twenty-five, and I weep when I read it now for the simple reason that I know it is the truth" (Montgomery 1989:334).
Urquhart's undergraduate degrees in English Literature and Art History are central to an understanding of her creativity: "Learning to see and visual memory are really so important. Learning how to compose a landscape, for instance; to eliminate what doesn't need to be there and to add what does. Almost any painting is a combination of memory, fantasy and actuality in varying degrees. Exactly the same thing is true of writing" (Hancock 1986:30).
Urquhart began her writing career with three poetry volumes: False Shuffles (1982), I Am Walking in the Garden of His Imaginary Palace (1982), a deluxe limited edition done in collaboration with Tony Urquhart, and The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan (1983). Sight and visual memory are central to these works. Urquhart explains, "Usually a visual image, or a remembered visual image, or a remembered imaginary image begins a poem for me" (Hancock 1986:33).
In False Shuffles, Urquhart reveals her obsession with the past: "The narrating daughter is the speaker and the oral tradition plays, and has played, an enormous role in that both the grandmother and the mother have passed their interpretation of events down to the narrating daughter. I was dealing with the idea that in many works of literary art, a thousand stories have filtered down to the person who has either the skills or the inclination to record, after they have passed it through their own imagination, what they have heard of the past" (Hancock 1986:38).
The landscape of France, in particular the gardens at Versailles, taught Urquhart about the nature of power. "The grounds of the Palace are gorgeous, but they have been controlled to such an extent by a single individual, Louis the XIV, that they are frightening. It's the difference between chaos and order, which is negative and which is positive. At Versailles the idea seems to be that everything has to be under control: the paths have to be straight, nothing, except monuments and certain trees can grow higher than three feet, all the flower beds have to be the same flower, the same colour. This goes on for acres. This fascinated and kind of appalled me and triggered two collections of poems" (Hancock 1986:36). Thus in The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan, she set Louis XIV, "that great orderer of the landscape, stumbling through the forest at the edge of Niagara Falls in a nightmare. I just knew that that particular geography would be a nightmare for a man like that" (Hancock 1986:38).
In 1984 Urquhart submitted the manuscript of what would become her first novel, The Whirlpool (1986), to the Seal First Novel Award. Although she did not win the prize, her submission came to the attention of Ellen Seligman, who worked for McClelland & Stewart and was one of the readers for the award. Seligman called Urquhart and suggested that they meet to discuss her work. Seligman, Urquhart said later, is "a great nurturer, a great coaxer. … I believe that she has the extraordinary ability of being able to understand the whole vision, the whole imagination of the writers that she deals with. She looks from the inside of the writer out, rather than the other way around. This ensures that, no matter what happens, the book will always belong to the writer. With her I find myself coming up with solutions to problems that I didn't know existed" (Hancock 1986:27, 29). Problems, for Urquhart, arise from "the difficulty of describing my own tiny perfect inner world to the reader. The important thing is not to change that world but to somehow give the reader access to it" (Hancock 1986:29). After The Whirlpool, Seligman continued as Urquhart's editor through all her subsequent work.
In The Whirlpool, Urquhart turned to her husband's family, which had managed an undertaking business in Niagara Falls, Ontario. She discovered a little notebook, written by her husband's grandmother, with descriptions of the various bodies, and parts of bodies, that were found in the Niagara River from 1909 to 1938. The notebook was written by her husband's grandmother. Urquhart, fascinated by this woman she had never met, began to construct her character.
The Whirlpool, acknowledged now as a classic, received France's prestigious Prix du meilleur livre étranger (Best Foreign Book Award) in 1992 when it was published in France; Urquhart was the first Canadian writer to be so honoured. In 2002 the novel was added to the New Canadian Library with an afterword by Lynn Coady.
In 1987 Urquhart published a collection of her short fiction, Storm Glass. "It seems to me now that the word 'other' is important in that it was an attraction to the mysterious 'other' that started me writing short fiction in the first place: that wild desire to explain, if only to myself, a landscape, an era, a human being, an event, about which I had little knowledge and to which I had but limited access," she writes in her preface to the volume. "Hence from 'Five Wheelchairs,' which I wrote eight years ago and which was my first attempt at fiction of any kind, through 'The Death of Robert Browning,' which was composed as a Prologue and Epilogue to a novel, to a more recent story such as 'Italian Postcards' I have leapt without so much as a 'by your leave' from voice to voice, period to period, gender to gender, landscape to landscape" (Urquhart 1987:).
Urquhart's second novel, Changing Heaven (1990), pays homage to the world of the Brontës by interweaving the stories of a Brontë scholar's love affair with an art historian and a nineteenth-century balloonist's conversations with the ghost of Emily Brontë. The lyrical novel continues Urquhart's fondness for the Victorian period and the Gothic, elements of which are embedded in her story.
Away (1993), Urquhart's third novel, which was on the best-seller list of The Globe and Mail for more than two years, recounts the experiences of an Irish woman, Mary O'Malley, and three generations of her descendants in Canada. In outline the novel recalls Urquhart's perspectives on her poetry in False Shuffles. Away won Ontario's Trillium Award in 1994, the same year Urquhart received the Marian Engel Award.
In The Underpainter (1997), Urquhart's fourth novel and the recipient of the Governor General's Award for Fiction, Urquhart returns to the land of her youth, the north shore of Lake Superior, to relate the travails of Austin Fraser, an American minimalist painter, who uses his art to isolate himself from human involvement; he keeps himself at a removed distance from everyone he knows. As an artist, however, he needs to understand others around him.
In her fifth and most recent novel, The Stone Carvers (2002), Urquhart examines the dreams and the dislocation of late nineteenth-century German immigrants to rural southwestern Ontario. She traces the struggles with memory and a difficult past that lead them ultimately to Toronto sculptor Walter Allward's in-process war memorial at Vimy, France. The Stone Carvers further explores Urquhart's fascination with the past, both of her own home in southwestern Ontario and in France.
In all her writings, both poetry and fiction, Urquhart has built up a reputation as an inveterate chronicler of the old world and its impact on the present.
Hancock, Geoff. -- "An interview with Jane Urquhart". -- Canadian fiction magazine. -- No. 55 (1986). -- P. 23-40
Montgomery, Lucy Maud. -- Emily climbs. -- With an afterward by Jane Urquhart. -- Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 1989. -- 334 p.
Urquhart, Jane. -- Storm glass. -- Erin, Ont. : Porcupine's Quill, 1987. -- 127 p.