Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Seven Nineteenth Century Toronto Novels Worth Reading

Share |

Given the number of excellent Toronto novels, story anthologies and poetry collections out this spring (Farzana Doctor's Six Metres of Pavement, Robert Rotenberg's The Guilty Plea, Stuart Ross' Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, Sean Dixon's wonderful The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn, Julie Booker's Up Up Up!, Jessica Westhead's And Also Sharks, Matthew J. Trafford's The Divinity Gene, Glen Downie's Local News, and reissues of Daniel Jones' 1978 and the brave never write poetry, among others), casting an eye across the dusty shelves of century-old city-based literary works might seem a bit backward.

At the same time, nineteenth century literary works tell us a great deal about our origins -- and whether our ancestors were born in this city or elsewhere, we've inherited the city's origins like a collection of unwanted hand-me-downs that we cannot help wearing because they are serviceable and seem to last forever.

In Literary Images of Ontario, literary scholar William Keith remarks that paying attention to literature helps historians trace how 'Muddy York' was transformed variously into 'Toronto the Good,' The 'Rome of Methodism', 'Hogtown,' 'Babylon on the Humber' and 'Queen City.' He contrasts literary images with the sorts of "formal records and reliable documents" historians typically use to produce "accurate" accounts of the past. Literary images, Keith writes, tell us something other sources cannot, namely about how Toronto (and other places) "has been seen to be."

Nineteenth century Toronto novels tell us a great deal about how Toronto "has been seen to be." Perhaps above all, they emphasize its perceived (sometimes desired, sometimes rebuked) connection to England and Torontonians' desire to establish their city as an urbane centre of commerce and culture. At the same time, they reveal the equally complex relationship between the city and the wilderness surrounding it, as well as the tensions between social classes, once separated by rigid hierarchies, now thrown together on the frontier. In short, nineteenth century literature shows how much -- and how little -- Toronto has changed.

Many nineteenth century novels are valuable more as a cultural or historical documents rather than for their literary merit. Still, their their descriptions of nineteenth century Toronto offer historical background, social history and even amusement to the contemporary reader.

1. Bogle Corbet (John Galt, 1831; available electronically here) is not strictly a Toronto novel. Subtitled The Emigrants, it focuses more directly on the lives of farmers and community-builders in rural southern Ontario and engages with Toronto (then still named York) only in passing and as a rather rough-around-the-edges city. Still, the novel represents York as exhibiting an early appreciation of social (and perhaps even cultural) diversity. One character, for example, encountered during a brief sojourn at the Steam-boat Hotel on Front Street, instructs Galt's protagonist to settle among migrants of mixed background, asserting, "society never betters itself without new ingredients" and adding, "where emigrants of different degrees and trades mingle, they do well, and everything about them becomes promising."

2. An Algonquin Maiden (Graeme Mercer Adam and Ethelwyn Wetherald, 1887; available electronically here) is not badly written despite the Victorian verbiage. Set in 1825, in the opening lines the novel does a good job of characterizing Toronto as a town bravely carving a place for itself out of the impenetrable wilderness:

It was a May morning in 1825 — spring-time of the year, late spring-time of the century. It had rained the night before, and a warm pallor in the eastern sky was the only indication that the sun was trying to pierce the gray dome of nearly opaque watery fog, lying low upon that part of the world now known as the city of Toronto, then the town of Little York. This cluster of five or six hundred houses had taken up a determined position at the edge of a forest then gloomily forbidding in its aspect, interminable
in extent, inexorable in its resistance to the shy or to the sturdy approaches of the settler. Man versus nature — the successive assaults of perishing humanity upon the almost impregnable fortresses of the eternal forests — this was the struggle of Canadian civilization, and its hard-won triumphs were bodied forth in the scattered roofs of these cheap habitations. Seen now through soft gradations of vapoury gloom, they took on a poetic significance, as tenderly intangible as the romantic halo which the mist of years loves to weave about the heads of departed pioneers, who, for the most part, lived out their lives in plain, grim style, without any thought of posing as "conquering heroes " in the eyes of succeeding generations.

The novel is also worth reading for its sly humour. Later in the book, a courting couple debates the visual appeal of 1880s Toronto while traversing its wintry streets:

[P]resently Rose remarked upon the beauty of the town. Even in his love wrapt state the idea struck Allan as slightly absurd. “Where do you find it?” he asked in amused perplexity, looking at the little wooden houses and shops, the meagre beginnings of a city that as yet had no time to be beautiful, and noted the vile mud with which the streets were thickly
overlaid. “Though, of course,” he added, “there is scarcely anything to be seen save darkness, and that element is strictly necessary to an appreciation of the beauties of ‘Muddy Little York.’”

“Oh,” exclaimed Rose, “don’t you see the lights flashing in the windows, and
in every little muddy pool on the street? Think of the concentrated life in these little human nests set against the vast wilderness. Look at those faint yellow rays mingling with the slanting lines of snow, with the deep woods and dark sky in the distance. If it isn’t beauty it is poetry.”

Romantics who read this novel through to the end will not be surprised to learn that the young man wins his 'Algonquin maiden' and marries her in none other than the Church of St. James, the "first church of York," now (after several firsts and reconstructions) the familiar cathedral at the corner of King and Church.

3. The Gerrard Street Mystery and other Weird Tales (John Charles Dent, 1888; available electronically here) has its title story anthologized regularly as a kind of curio of nineteenth century Toronto. Set in 1861, the title story is essentially a retelling of a traditional story: a dead uncle's warning to a young nephew of deceit and fraud perpetrated within the family. The young nephew is not believed and falls into a stupor for five weeks, during which time the swindler is outed, escapes, and meets his rightful fate on a ship that sinks in a sudden storm. Toronto appears in each story mainly as a series of streets -- Yonge, Gould, Gerrard, Isabelle, Charles -- along which narrators are carried or rush headlong in their quests.

Another story in the collection, "the Haunted House on Duchess Street," describes a grand old house on the north side of what is now known the east end of Richmond Street that had fallen into disrepute, drink and ultimately became the scene of a famous murder. After that, ill came to anyone who dared to stay in the house, until it was torn down and replaced by a rapidly deteriorating neighbourhood at the edge of old Cabbagetown. Faring no better than the haunted house they replace, the streets, Dent writes, are lined with an "unprepossessing row of dark red brick" deteriorating nearly as rapidly as they are built:

Unattractive as they appear, however, they are the least uninviting feature in the landscape, which is prosaic and squalid beyond description. Rickety, tumble-down tenements of dilapidated lath and plaster stare the beholder in the face at every turn. During the greater part of the day the solitude of the neighbourhood remains unbroken save by the tread of some chance wayfarer like myself, and a general atmosphere of the abomination of desolation reigns supreme. Passing along the unfrequented pavement, one finds it difficult to realize the fact that this was once a not unfashionable quarter of the capital of Upper Canada.

In a kind of urban environmental determinism, the streets, having inherited the curse of the blood spilled upon them, spell doom for anyone unfortunate to live along them. Now, of course, Richmond Street East is lined with auto-body shops and a benighted Coffee Time, suggesting that the curse continues.

4. A Romance of Toronto (Annie G. Savigny, 1888; available electronically here) has little to recommend it except for those fond of the florid prose of the late Victorian era. Set in Rosedale, Savigny's novel is notable for its strikingly corporeal description of Toronto as

a fair maiden with many children, whom she has planted out on either side and north of her as far as her great arms can stretch. She lies north and south, while her lips speak loving words to her offspring, and to her spouse, the County of York; when she rests she pillows her head on the pine-clad hills of sweet Rosedale, while her feet lave at pleasure in the blue waters of beautiful Lake Ontario.

The novel also offers bright descriptions of Toronto society and their preferred settings, describing, at one point, a stroll "down busy Yonge Street to Eaton's; Trowern's, with Mrs. Dale's watch; thence to gay King Street, to Murray's, Nordheimer's, the Public Library, back again west, and to Coleman's for a cup of coffee."

5. I have not taken the time to read A Bad Man's Sweetheart (Edmund E. Sheppard, 1889; available electronically here) in any detail but have glanced through it at various times and will make a full read of it this summer. The novel depicts Toronto just before the turn of the century as beset with the kind of betrayals that underlie desperate efforts to climb the social ranks. A lawyer's widow is courted by her husband's crooked partner: only her son knows the truth, and of course he is not believed until it is nearly too late.

6. Geoffrey Hampstead (Thomas Stinson Jarvis, 1890; available electronically here) is another novel I have not yet read in any detail (although last summer I printed it out -- being unable to find or afford an original copy -- with the intention of reading this summer). For its era it appears a rather modern novel (if a bit derivative of Kipling's Stalky & Company in its tone) about young bankers hoping to make it in a competitive climate. It's an amusing read (so far), although I've peeked ahead and know there's a tragedy in the end.

7. Wild Animals I Have Known (Ernest Thompson Seton, 1898; available electronically here) is one of Canada's most famous literary exports, having been read in translation by children all over the world. Literary scholar Germaine Warkentin calls Seton "the first writer to make the life of the ravines his subject," and indeed, several of the stories, among them “Silverspot, the Story of a Crow” and “Redruff, the Story of the Don Valley Partridge,” are set -- largely unbeknownst to their millions of readers -- in Toronto’s own ravines. One of Seton's other books, Two Little Savages (1903; available electronically here) doesn't quite make the cut as a nineteenth century novel but also describes -- in far greater detail -- the life of the ravines. Both books are highly worth reading.

These seven works -- the ones I've identified so far as part of an ongoing research project on the nineteenth century city -- are not the only literary works produced in and about Toronto in the nineteenth century, but they stand out for their depictions of Toronto during that era. Several of these works came to my attention through the kind of random reading that has been the main approach of the Imagining Toronto project since its inception. Others showed up when I reviewed Lewis Emerson Horning and Lawrence J. Burpee's invaluable Bibliography of Canadian Fiction, published in 1904 by William Briggs. I no longer remember where I came across this volume, but it's been a remarkable resource for nineteenth century literature to date. There are numerous other works (and stories in particular, especially those published in magazines and journals of the era that I'm just beginning to dig into) -- if you know of any, I'd be grateful to hear about them and add them to the list.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris teaches in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Go to Amy Lavender Harris’s Author Page