Sara Jeannette Duncan’s The Imperialist is not my favorite work of Canadian fiction. Truthfully, it is difficult to conceive of it hitting a list of my favorite Canadian novels at all. And yet, when taking up the challenge to hypothetically pick a novel to defend as part of the Canadian literary exhibition that is Canada Reads, The Imperialist is the only novel I could envision to hang my fighting hat on.
It is a conundrum of wits to be sure, to conceive that a novel I have only read once because I had to, would be the recipient of my flexed championing muscles. Surely the intent of Canada Reads is to select a novel that impassions a retention of its prose, that spurns forth proclamations of its literary excellence in conveying morality, nationality, emotionality, pick an –ality. But, alas, that is not to be the case here.
No, my championing roots itself in a singular movement of time when my embracement of our nation’s past and its seemingly stagnant stances on Canadianness moved from respectful distance to a warmth-filled bear hug.
The Imperialist came to my attention back in the early 1990s, during a course on Canadian intellectual traditions. During that same time, my University adopted a new slogan – “…it makes sense.” One day, our professor proclaimed the slogan as the ideal example of the themes portrayed within The Imperialist. Puzzled by her enthusiastic outburst, we began to contemplate her proclamation and turned the classroom into our own version of Elgin, the fictitious background to Duncan’s, and now our, play acting.
Some took up the positioning of the Murchisons, finding within themselves identification with the family’s yearning for the top of the social strata but coming up short against reality. Others cozied up to Lorne – who exists to personify the novel’s title - and his struggles to reconcile his imperialist ideals with his burgeoning romanticism towards the stoic Dora. Then there was me, who aligned stoically with Elgin itself.
The Imperialist is not a novel that seeks to define a Canadian identity anymore than I have ever sought to establish my own definition of such a thing. Duncan is enviously confident in the concept of a Canadian identity though, of a Canadianness that eases through all the nation’s participants. But there is no ‘one size fits all’ cloak to be worn, her novel betrays. Rather, The Imperialist is charmingly elegant in its portrayal of a kind of Canadian identity, that which swells within a legacy of…common sense?
Post-Confederation it was thought that imperialism was the best means for fulfilling Canada’s national destiny. This thought informs the basis for Duncan’s thesis, and it is the challenge she puts forth to her inhabitants. Lorne is charged with taking up the imperialist movement wholeheartedly in Duncan’s narrative and his reward is to be summarily and crushingly rejected for his willing sacrifice. Imperialism was too elitist then for longevity, and today it does no more than niggle in our collective consciousness. Its promiseful engagements are relegated to the back seat in our lingering trans-country quest for a true and steady destiny, for something that makes sense.
Our infant country embraced the Social Gospel movement instead, which brought forward the principle of common sense. The movement became an overt influence in the day-to-day lives of people through education and activism. Supporters believed the mind to be more important than the emotions and the body, and common sense its reasonable and rational understanding. The understanding was accepted as universal in its applicability and in its aspiration to unite for a better quality of life because it made sense.
Yes, this means that we are a country centred on, around and through common sense. Ours is not an in-your-face passion-filled ‘clutch your breast in pride’ existence. We are but a country of high hopes and slow lopes, of lofty dreams and starry visions, of mighty pragmatism and irreproachable logic. This is our Canadianness – to weeble wobble in any and all directions yet yielding to what is right, to what makes sense.
Duncan, with her deft hand, gets right to the heart of this with Elgin being the embodiment of our yearnings and yieldings. To my eyes, Elgin reflected back the vibrancy of my own contemplations on existing between individualism and collectivism; practicality and romanticism; yearning and attainment; distinction and commonness; passion and duty; idealism and realism; and on and on. She streamed a Canadianness before me that I had not conceived of as tradition, and I winked welcomingly, knowingly, upon its passage as it all began to make sense.
Yet I have never sung the praises of The Imperialist or reflected upon some memorable passage. I have never loaned out the book or admitted to have even read it. Partly my actions (or lack thereof) speak to the snob within me, the one who highly favors contemporary fiction over anything published in 1904. Moreso though, I have never felt words captured the engulfing presence of The Imperialist in my small world. After writing those previous words, I am feel more sound in this belief than ever before. My focused efforts at articulation are too slight and too plain.
My championing comes from living The Imperialist’s brand of passionate influence, its yearning consciousness, its quietest contemplations each and every day. All Canadians do. It makes sense that I know exactly where the novel resides on my cluttered book shelves, but not necessarily where it resides in the Canadian canon. It makes sense that I remember the moments of its reading, and the moments of its discussions in class all those years ago, but not to write such moments into the spotlight for personal validation or acknowledgment.
And yes, it makes sense that I could conceive of championing within the hypothetical Canada Reads arena a novel – this novel - that I have only read once because I had to. The Imperialist continues to weeble wobble within me an affection and affectation like no other work of Canadian fiction. And like any true Canadian, my head yielded to that which is reasonable and rational, and auspicously so too did my heart and imagination.
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