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(UN)BUILDING THE NATION: MARY LESLIE'S THE CROMABOO MAIL CARRIER ANDREA AUSTIN Queen's University I One of the biggest challenges facing early Canadian writers of fiction was that of adapting Old World patterns to New World settings. Carole Gerson puts the case succinctly when she notes, in A Purer Taste, tiiat many writers "overcompensated for their colonial insecurity by cramming their pages with an astonishing array of romantic conventions" — an overcompensation that often produced "ragged, patchwork hybrids" (90). During the Confederation period, especially, and die couple of decades after, a heightened sense of nationalism fostered a surge of literature dedicated to exploring the viability of Canada as a setting for fiction. Out of this movement came such works as Rosanna Leprohon's Quebec romance, Antoinette de Mirecourt (1864), William Kirby's The Golden Dog (1877), also set in old Quebec, Graeme Mercer Adam and Etiielwyn Wetherald's An Algonquin Maiden (1887), and Gilbert Parker's immensely popular Seats of the Mighty (1896). Indeed, these novelists found that the events of Canada's past provided rich material with which to meet the prevailing literary taste for romance.1 Mary Leslie's only novel, The Cromaboo Mail Carrier (1878), published in Guelph, Ontario, under the pseudonym James Thomas Jones, also promises to be a romance. Subtitled "A Canadian Love Story," the novel proposes to tell the tale of a mail coach driver and his lady love. At die same time, though, the novel is shockingly realistic in its portrayal of rural Ontario. In fact, the residents of Erin, near which Leslie lived, reputedly saw too accurate a description of their village in the novel and had die book withdrawn from circulation as libellous. Leslie went on to produce a witty but tame volume of poetry, Rhymes of the Kings and Queens of England (1896), and anotiier of mixed Victorian Review 21.1 (Summer 1995) ANDREA AUSTIN37 prose and verse, Historical Sketches ofScotland (1905), but she never again published die likes of her novel, perhaps because it had caused such a furor.2 Small wonder that the people of Erin were so offended; Leslie begins the work thus: Cromaboo is the most blackguard village in Canada, and is settled by die lowest class of Irish, Highland Scotch, and Dutch. It consists of seven taverns, six churches, and about one hundred shabby frame houses built on little gravelly mounds. Fights are frequent, drunkenness flourishes, vice abounds; more tobacco is smoked diere than in any village of the same size in the Dominion; swearing is so common that it passes unnoticed, and diere is an illegitimate child in nearly every house — in some two, in others three, in one six, — and die people think it no sin. While it is true that few writers took their realistic details as far as Leslie, it is also important to note that a liberal mixture of fact with fantasy was not in itself unusual in nineteenth-century Canadian fiction. According to Gerson, Victorian Canadian autiiors had to "perform the almost impossible trick of meeting the overlapping and frequently conflicting demands for realism, nationalism, and romance" (90). The definition of romance, though, is especially important here since the association of the term with women's amatory fiction and domestic fiction was already becoming well-established.3 Significantly, the association of women's fiction and romance was intimately connected widi issues of class and national identity. Of Elizabeth Hamilton's The Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808), one example of English domestic fiction, Gary Kelly comments that "Hamilton shows . . . how acceptably feminine social roles could be of die greatest national consequence." He discusses how die protagonist of die novel reforms bodi her upperclass employers and die lower-class villagers according to middle-class values; Hamilton's heroine "is a woman carrying out the complete embourgeoisement of society in a small comer of Britain" (225). In reality, the ideological work of women's love stories depends not just on die presentation of women's roles, but on the stereotypical characterization of both heroine and hero and on die formulaic plot diat links die two. Togedier, diese elements form a model, or blueprint, if you will, for building a national identity in...


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