restricted access Canadian Women in Print, 1750–1918 (review)
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Reviewed by
Carole Gerson, Canadian Women in Print, 1750–1918 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press 2010)

Carole Gerson established her authority on early Canadian literature with A Purer Taste: The Writing and Reading of Fiction in English in Nineteenth-Century Canada (1989). Around that time, she took a feminist stance in two important articles: in “Anthologies and the Canon of Early Canadian Women Writers,” from Re(dis)covering Our Foremothers: Nineteenth-Century Canadian Women Writers, ed. Lorraine McMullen (1990), she demonstrates that the representation of women in the first anthologies of Canadian literature was diminished by the “decanonization” of subsequent editors; in “The Canon Between the Wars: Field-notes of a Feminist Literary Archaeologist,” from Canadian Canons: Essays in Literary Value, ed. Robert Lecker (1991), she argues that “one formative dimension in the construction of the Canadian canon has been the valorization of national themes (e.g., man against the land) which implicitly exclude the work of many women writers active before the current era.” (46) After much other work, including collaborations with Veronica Strong-Boag in a critical study (2000) and an edition (2002) of Pauline Johnson, Gerson was involved with the [End Page 264] History of the Book in Canada project, which “situates literary and other writing within the larger cycles of authorship, production, dissemination and recep -tion in print.” (xii) All of these interests inform Canadian Women in Print 1750– 1918, which won the Gabrielle Roy Prize in 2010.

The book is a meticulous survey of all aspects of the subject, from the role of women in early Canadian publishing to the interest in the New Woman at the end of the 19th century. Gerson focuses on writing in English, but she is careful to refer to writing in French as appropriate. She provides comparisons with women writers in England and the United States, and a late chapter, “Addressing the Margins of Race,” moves away from the assumptions of most of the writers she celebrates in the rest of the book. She discusses both general trends and such surprising details as Marshall Saunders’ Beautiful Joe (1894), the “first Canadian novel reputed to sell over a million copies” (98), and Tried! Tested! Proven: the Home Cook Book (1877), “selling over 100,000 copies by 1885.” (74) As before, she challenges the idea that women writers have flourished in Canada: “Canada takes pride in the prominence of its women authors, noting the first Canadian-born author was a woman (Marie Morin), the first novel set in Canada was written by a woman (Frances Brooke), and the first native-born author of a novel was likewise female (Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart). Yet other data belie the notion that the country’s print culture has particularly favoured women.” (43)

Often using statistics to prove that women succeeded as printers, binders, librarians, teachers, and writers of many kinds, Gerson emphasizes the resistance they faced. Active in Canadian publishing from the beginning, women were often paid less, since they “were not seen as family breadwinners.” (7) By the end of the 19th century, women were prominent among librarians, but “James Bain, the Toronto Public Library’s first chief librarian, earned an annual salary of $2,000, while the women’s salaries ranged from $300 to $600.” (14) Most of the volunteers in Methodist Sunday schools were women, yet “women remained in subordinate positions within the schools’ management.” (141) The very idea of writing for money was in part determined by a lack of other options: “Chronically undereducated, barred from professional training, and conditioned to remain within the home circle, middle-class women who needed to earn money or desired relatively respectable self-expression exercised their pens, whether in Europe or North America.” (91) For Gerson, however, publication is itself suspect, since “presenting her work in the shape of a book both valorizes an author and violates her, simultaneously giving her an enduring identity and subjecting her to discomforting public scrutiny.” (68) The word “violation” seems extreme for such indomitable writers as Susanna Moodie and Margaret Atwood, both mentioned at this point. Gerson’s understanding of gender is similarly one-dimensional in her account of the animal story: “Male writers...