- Lily Lewis: Sketches of a Canadian Journalist; A Biocritical Study
Peggy Martin's 'biocritical' study of Lily Lewis is an important addition to the study of late-nineteenth-century Canadian writing. Lily's name is [End Page 317] scarcely familiar today, but when one realizes that she was the ambitious, twenty-two-year-old Montreal journalist who accompanied Sara Jeannette Duncan on their un-chaperoned tour across Canada and around the world in 1888–89, she becomes a figure of considerable interest. Duncan (Garth Grafton) sent her columns back to the Montreal Star and Pulitzer's New York World. Lewis wrote for the Toronto magazine, The Week, under the signature 'Louis Lloyd,' but both writers hoped their sketches would find wider distribution through syndication.
Lily Lewis is best remembered, somewhat dismissingly, as Duncan's companion, Orthodocia, in A Social Departure: How Orthodocia and I Went Round the World by Ourselves (1890), which began her high-powered international career. Sadly, Lily Lewis's story is very different from Orthodocia's, and Duncan's. It is a chilling tale of misdirection and failure, of a literary career aborted by insecurity, alienation, and mental illness. Lewis wanted very much to succeed on the wider stage as Duncan was soon doing so spectacularly; her attempts to prepare a larger 'work,' likely about cosmopolitan artistic values and achievements, tortured her with anxiety and self-doubt. She could manage magazine sketches (the book provides ample attestation), but she was haunted by the dread that, in the end, she would be seen to have accomplished nothing. Indeed, such might still be the verdict had not Martin undertaken her research.
What pleases me most about this study is its archival digging and the important lesson it offers about the continuing need to unearth lost aspects of Canada's literary-cultural past. The still-current notion that our early history – particularly our literary history – is tedious and boring is wonderfully challenged by this research. It is a project to be celebrated, though the results are, inevitably, incomplete. Martin has tracked down Lewis family members and personal letters and composed a partial biography; she has discovered at least one penname (L.L.), gathered many of Lewis's sketches, and prepared a bibliography of her known writings.
The findings reposition this forgotten figure as a talented and ambitious journalist even as they offer an intriguing parable about the fate of a headstrong young woman at large in the international world of art criticism and travel writing. As such, Lily offers an unsettling contrast to Duncan, ever the well-directed and self-sustaining author in that same world of literary self-expression to which both aspired. It is a sad reality that Lily provided a model for Duncan's protagonist in her novel, A Daughter of Today (1895). The grim fate of would-be artist and connoisseur Elphrida Bell hauntingly anticipates Lewis's slow and 'unpleasant' plunge into creative apathy and mental illness. [End Page 318]
In their respective sketches of their travels, Lewis and Duncan shared the strategy of playing off against each other. For Lewis, Duncan (Garth) was always the more deliberate, more aggressive, more precise, more scientific of the two in dealing with new experiences and new people. Lily reported that she 'had an exceedingly taking way which makes everybody like her' while 'I am resigned to coming in for the extra beams.' Lily herself was more caught up in the magic of impressions, particularly of an artistic kind; she was dreamy in her inclinations, pastoral in her taste, French in her enthusiasms. Having spent many months in Paris on her own before the world tour, she had become a devotee of French art and writing. When she encountered Japan, which enthralled her, she saw it first through Pierre Loti's novel, Madame Crysantheme (1887). In Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, she found her epitome of artistic achievement, celebrating his work and outlook in a monograph (1895), which appears to have been one of her last pieces of writing, penned during her failing marriage to the...