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  • Fifties VicVol. 42, No. 1, November 1970
  • Margaret Atwood

In 1957 I entered Victoria College in the University of Toronto, straight from Leaside High School and, some of its critics were fond of quipping at the time, not much different from it. Leaside High School was primarily white, polite, middle-class, and United Church, and so was Vic. At that time, the University of Toronto contained four liberal arts colleges in addition to its professional schools, and each was supposed to have its own personality. St. Mike's was Catholic, and we rarely ventured there except to take Classics in Translation from an Irish priest who said "Hairy-stotle." Trinity was Anglican and its students still sported gowns. University College was the bastion of religious non-affiliation and reputed to be radical in politics, insofar as such things were possible in the fifties. Vic? Well, Vic was the place the other three made jokes about.

Except for one or two things, among them the fact that Vic had the most high-powered English Department on campus. That was why I went there. I hadn't heard too much about the outside world when I was at Leaside High School, but I did know for a fact that Vic was supposed to have something called Northrop Frye, and that if I knew what was good for me I should go there to absorb some of it. So that is where I went.

In the late fifties there were two kinds of students at Vic. One kind wore sports jackets and ties, if men, and lambswool sweaters and red lipstick, if women. Pearl button earrings were in. This kind played bridge and drank coffee in the student union, and went to football games. The other kind read Evergreen editions of Sartre and Ionesco, wore black turtleneck sweaters, if men, and black turtleneck sweaters, if women. They too drank coffee in the student union, but instead of playing bridge they scored points on each other in different, more artistic, more existential ways. For this was the age of the Beatniks. I wasn't very good at pearl button earrings, so I drifted by default into the other group. I didn't have a black turtleneck sweater, but I did have an old blue one of my father's which had shrunk. Besides, I wanted to be a writer, and people who wanted to be writers weren't much use at the bridge table.

There are two things to be said in defense of Vic. One is that, unlike the English Department at the supposedly radical and freethinking University College, it hired women. I did not realize the value of this at the time, but it allowed me to witness the spectacle of women who were not only supporting [End Page 214] themselves but thinking. The other is that over the curved doorway on its faintly absurd turreted Gothic building it had a carved inscription: THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE. I wasn't sure what "truth" or "freedom" meant, but a subliminal connection was obviously made, as I still consider it part of a writer's business to try to find out. Vic at that time was staffed by teachers—Frye was one of many—who acted as if, in one way or another, they believed this slogan; a luxury possible, perhaps, only in the days before publish became the alternative to perish. I thought at the time that the attitude towards the study of English at Vic—that it was supposed to make you somehow not only brighter but better, and that it should be undertaken in a spirit of friendliness and mutual co-operation—was the norm for English departments. I've found since that it's the exception.

There was another good thing about Vic. At University College artistic pretensions were de rigeur, at Trinity they were part of the aesthetic life, but at Vic having them was an act of defiance. There weren't very many who went in for that sort of thing, but those who did quickly found themselves involved in almost everything: the magazine, the theatre, the debating union, the works, By third year I...


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