The power of sug­ges­tion

BIOGRAPHY Jean Forsyth and Edith J. Miller seemed doomed to ob­scu­rity but for a will­ing bi­og­ra­pher and a tena­cious cham­pion of pro­mot­ing women

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - BY TIFFANY MAYER Special to The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor

El­speth Cameron is open to sug­ges­tions.

In fact, the ca­reer of one of Canada’s most pro­lific bi­og­ra­phers can be cred­ited largely to oth­ers plant­ing seeds of ideas that com­pelled much of her work.

Take writ­ing bi­ogra­phies as the genre of choice for be­com­ing a pub­lished au­thor. The de­ci­sion to write about other peo­ple’s lives hap­pened dur­ing an epiphanic mo­ment at an aca­demic con­fer­ence in 1974.

Then a young pro­fes­sor at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity, Cameron saw an open­ing in the lit­er­ary cat­e­gory when poet and critic Frank Davey told the crowd gath­ered be­fore him that biography was miss­ing in Cana­dian crit­i­cal lit­er­a­ture.

“I took him at his word and I said, ‘I would like to do that,’” Cameron re­called. “It’s not my idea. I’m very open to sug­ges­tions.”

Five years later, Cameron pub­lished her first book, “Hugh MacLen­nan: A Writer’s Life” and was nom­i­nated for a Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s Award for her work. But even choos­ing MacLen­nan as the sub­ject for her lit­er­ary de­but hap­pened by way of ca­pit­u­la­tion.

Cameron had her heart set on writ­ing about Canada’s other inkstained states­man, Robert­son Davies.

Prob­lem was, Davies was in Toronto. Cameron was teach­ing in Mon­treal and McLen­nan was near­ing the end of his ca­reer at McGill Univer­sity. Get­ting ac­cess to him would be eas­ier.

Soon af­ter “A Writer’s Life” was pub­lished, Irv­ing Lay­ton con­tacted Cameron and sug­gested she write about him. So she did. It was a propo­si­tion he re­gret­ted, she re­called as she sat in the sun­lit liv­ing room of her cot­tage­like home in Port Dal­housie.

In an ef­fort to paint a ful­some por­trait of the Cana­dian poet, Cameron in­ter­viewed Lay­ton’s three exwives and part­ner at the time for her book.

“Irv­ing Lay­ton got crazy mad at me,” she said.

When she was chal­lenged by read­ers at talks she gave mid-ca­reer for not hav­ing doc­u­mented the lives of any women, Cameron de­voted her next five vol­umes to them. She even turned her bi­og­ra­pher’s eye in­ward and penned her own story for “No Pre­vi­ous Ex­pe­ri­ence: A Me­moir of Love and Change.”

Her lat­est homage to im­por­tant — and of­ten over­looked — Cana­di­ans doesn’t stray from the com­mon theme that threads her ca­reer. “A Tale of Two Di­vas: The Cu­ri­ous Ad­ven­tures of Jean Forsyth and Edith J. Miller In Canada’s Ed­war­dian West” landed on book­store shelves in Fe­bru­ary thanks to some­one sug­gest­ing Cameron write it.

The idea came by way of an email from a woman named Gail Kreutzer in Win­nipeg. Kreutzer, whom Cameron had never met, sat on the board of the Win­nipeg Hu­mane So­ci­ety and to hon­our the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s his­tory, she wanted a book writ­ten about its founder Jean Forsyth.

It turns out Cameron is just as wel­com­ing of per­sis­tence as she is sug­ges­tions, how­ever. Two years later, she fi­nally dug into Kreutzer’s emails pil­ing up in her in­box and the en­velopes filled with in­for­ma­tion about Forsyth stacked in her liv­ing room, and started piec­ing to­gether the story of a woman who would be her next book.

Cameron had some­thing re­sem­bling a man­u­script nine months later when she flew to Win­nipeg to fi­nally meet Kreutzer, by then a friend. But through­out her re­search, an­other name kept turn­ing up along­side Forsyth’s. It was Edith J. Miller.

Forsyth was Miller’s voice teacher in Win­nipeg in 1894.

Their paths would con­tinue to cross through­out their in­cred­i­ble ca­reers.

The book, which en­ter­tains as much as it in­forms, also pro­vides in­sight into the lives of Western Cana­dian women at the time and their roles in so­ci­ety. Cameron de­scribes it as a book of women’s his­tory, so­cial his­tory and cul­tural his­tory.

A Tale of Two Di­vas: The Cu­ri­ous Ad­ven­tures of Jean Forsyth and Edith J. Miller by El­speth Cameron.

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