Mavis Gallant: The Writer as Rapscallion II, by Linda Leith

In a long interview published in Canadian Fiction Magazine #28 in 1978, Gallant comments about her youth in terms that cast some light on how independence mattered to her: "My own desire from the age of about ten was to grow up and become independent and not have anyone try and tell me what to do" (CFM 28).

The two Linnet Muir stories of the 1920s, “Voices Lost in Snow” and “The Doctor,” are full of love and longing. She writes of precious moments with her father, who spent so much of his waking life in his head, “elsewhere” – she never knew where – but who takes her on Saturday outings downtown, sometimes for lunch at the seafood restaurant, Chez Pauzé:

"At Pauzé’s, the only child, perhaps the only female, I sat up to an oak counter and ate oysters quite neatly, not knowing exactly what they were and certainly not that they were alive. They were served as in “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” with bread and butter, pepper and vinegar." (HT 284)

Wistful as Linnet is about those early years, she needs, nonetheless, to escape “the prison of childhood.” Her mother is an erratic figure, for a start. And then Linnet is sent to a strict French Catholic boarding school on Sherbrooke Street – an “iron institution” (HT xvi) called Saint-Louis de Gonzague – when she is four years old.

"I was lifted onto a chair in the parloir, the convent parlor, which contained some uncompromising very hard chairs, and I was told, “Sit there and wait, like a good girl, and I shall be right back.” How the nuns got me off the chair and out of that room i can’t imagine." (CFM 28)

Linnet takes to paying people unexpected visits. This is not “running away,” she insists, though her parents don’t know where she is. “Running away was one of the reasons my parents gave when anyone asked why I had been walled up in such a severe school at such an early age” (HT 302). When she pays such an unexpected visit to Dr. Chauchard, her Uncle Raoul, he is stern and returns her to her parents.

Her father becomes ill – Linnet pieces together the story later on: an illness, a botched operation, his return to England, where he had been born, his death at the age of 32 – and her grandmother dies, too, so that Linnet is left in the care of the erratic mother, who has remarried a man Linnet doesn’t like. Her need now is to escape her mother. In her 1970 novel, A Fairly Good Time, Gallant writes, “Families are worse than total war.”

Linnet, like Mavis, is sent to a succession of schools in Ontario and then New York, and running away becomes a habit. Gallant writes that she herself only stops running away when she understands that her efforts to escape are only making matters worse for herself.
 

When Linnet returns to Montreal in wartime, at the age of 18, she is entirely on her own, with no support other than her own wits. With her she brings a picnic hamper full of books and manuscripts of poems, stories, plays, and journals – and a $5 bill.

"My life was my own revolution – the tyrants deposed, the constitution wrenched from unwilling hands; I was, all by myself, the liberated crowd setting the palace on fire; I was the flags, the trees, the bannered windows, the flower-decked trains. The singing and the skyrockets of the 1848 I so trustingly believed would emerge out of the war were me, no one but me.” (HT 226-7)

Stirring as this is, Linnet soon comes to feel herself confined in new ways. She finds a job in an office, where she rebels against the traditional role of women. During an interview for a job for which she has no training or experience, she points across the wooden balustrade in a long open office and says:

            “'But I won’t sit there.' Girls were there, penned in like sheep. I did not think men better than women – only that they did more interesting work and got more money for it." (HT 226)

The other way in which Linnet wants to avoid traditional women’s roles is in marriage. In "Varieties of Exile," she is getting married, but, as she explains to a friend:

             “I won’t be a married woman,” I said, “because I hate everything about them. Another thing I won’t be and that’s the sensitive housewife – the one who listens to Brahms while she does the ironing and reads all the new books still in their jackets.” (HT 278)

Linnet’s youthful optimism meets up with several obstacles in “With a Capital T,” where she is soon no longer a Miss Muir but a Mrs. Blanchard: "I had longed for emancipation and independence, but I was learning that women’s autonomy is like a small inheritance paid out a penny at a time."

Gallant too had married at the age of 20. Her husband was a musician called Johnny Gallant, and she was no longer a Miss Young but a Mrs. Gallant. The marriage didn’t last long; he went off to war, and they divorced soon after his return. She never married again. When there was anything approaching a serious relationship, she found the need to escape, bolting to Vienna, on one occasion, and to Helsinki on another (CFM, 58). 

To be continued.

© Linda Leith, 2014

An audio recording of the talk was broadcast by CKUT here.

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