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371 Afterword “He won for his characters approval, for himself affection. The affection remains, although for this generation . . . the spectacle [is] dulled.” –Andrew Macphail, “Sir Gilbert Parker: An Appraisal” (135) P ublished during the author’s meteoric rise from a backwoods Canadian schoolteacher to an internationally renowned author and long-standing member of British parliament, The Seats of the Mighty is one of thirty-two volumes that constitute the ample corpus of Sir Gilbert Parker’s fiction. As the epigraph by Andrew Macphail suggests, Parker created literary characters of whom readers not only approved but whom they adored, from the steadfast and principled Robert Moray, the Scottish hero of The Seats of the Mighty, and Moray’s fiancée, the seductive yet morally upright Alixe Duvarney, to Moray’s rival, the Byronic villain Tinoire Doltaire. The following effusive observation by Canadian literary commentator W.J. Thorold captures the eulogistic tone that defines much of the popular response to Parker’s fiction: “The men and women of his pages are no mere shadow shapes flitting across the landscape of a dream. They live. Your blood warms while you enter into their li[ves]” (118). Like their Canadian counterparts, foreign reviewers applauded 372 Parker’s skill in creating memorable characters. An anonymous review of Seats, published in the prestigious British literary magazine The Athenaeum, declares Doltaire “the great creation of the book”: “His character is drawn with quite masterly strokes, for he is a villain who is not altogether a villain, and who attracts the reader, as he did the other characters, by the extraordinary brilliancy of his gifts” (710). As studies in contrasts, from heroism and virtue to villainy and imperfection, the characters of Seats contributed to that novel’s popular success. Not only did The Seats of the Mighty sit on numerous bestseller lists for the year 1896,1 it was also produced as a play by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in 1896–97, with Tree himself playing Doltaire,2 and as a silent film in 1914 starring Lionel Barrymore (1878–1954). As a result of the tremendous popularity of The Seats of the Mighty, together with his other works of fiction, Parker reached unprecedented heights of literary celebrity for a Canadian author in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The timing of Parker’s remarkable authorial success corresponds in part to the phenomenal rise in popularity of the form of historical romance in the decades that bracket the turn of the twentieth century. While Parker arguably remained popular throughout much of his literary career, he began to fall from critical favour beginning in the 1920s with the gradual institutionalization of Canadian literature and the concomitant rise to prominence of literary realism. Literary historian Archibald MacMechan summarizes the growing critical disaffection with Parker in the following terms: “it cannot be denied that [Parker’s works] have attained to popularity; and therewith the distinguished author ought to rest content. They have never pleased the critical” (141). According to Macphail, by the end of Parker’s life, the “spectacle ” the author had created in the lively characters and colourful historical backdrops of such novels as Seats had “dulled” (135) in the eyes of many readers. As the twentieth century progressed, literary nation builders turned their attention away from historical romance and 373 toward social realism in their efforts to define an emergent canon of Canadian literature. Robert Lecker notes the decline in Parker’s reception by examining the author’s rate of inclusion in Canadian literary anthologies over the course of the twentieth century: “Gilbert Parker is very popular through the 1950s (inclusion rate of 80 percent), then he takes a plunge and disappears by the 1980s” (133). The “plunge” to which Lecker refers has its roots not only in the changing institutional response to historical romance but also in changing readerly responses to Parker’s robustly pro-British conception of Canada’s dual English– French identity. The concluding remarks about The Seats of the Mighty in the second edition of The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature arguably represent the most succinct summary of the current critical stance toward Parker’s book: “No other novel quite sums up with such vigour and aplomb the imperialist view of Québec’s role in Canada” (Toye 487). Taken together, the two prongs of Parker’s positive and negative reception prompt the question of which aesthetic and cultural standards have predominantly shaped responses to Parker’s authorship over time. Subsequent reissues of Parker...


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