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Marian Fowler.

Toronto, Anansi Press, c1983.
333pp, cloth, $19.95.
ISBN 0-88784-099-X.

Reviewed by Chris Kempling.

Volume 12 Number 3
1984 May

Marian Fowler has once again proved her entitlement to the 1982 Canadian Biography Award in this well-written account of one of Canada's best woman novelists of the turn of the century.

Redney, the childhood nickname of Sara Jeannette Duncan, was a Brantford product who started her career in writing as a journalist. Her eye for detail and scintillating writing style brought her success, advancement, and responsible editorial positions in Washington, Toronto, Montreal, and India, where she married and continued novel writing in earnest. Trapped in the stratified and reactionary atmosphere of the fading Raj, Redney flitted between Calcutta, Simla, London, and Brantford, seeking a personal setting that would enhance her art. The most successful and enduring of her novels, an ardently nationalist work called The Imperialist, was poorly received in Canada, a reaction that caused her much grief.

Fowler's treatment of Duncan is competent and impartial. Her praise of The Imperialist and Memsahab, a novel of life in India, is balanced by her panning of the mediocre works The Path of a Star and Vernon's Aunt, both of which suffer from contrived plots and poorly drawn characters. Fowler explores Duncan's writings, critically evaluates them, and relates the impact of the author's personal frustrations on their development.

The biographer follows a chronological line in her analysis of Duncan's career, separating it into six eras: "Brantford," "New Orleans," "Washington, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa," "World Travels," "India," and "Final Years." The notes are arranged by chapter and are quite useful. Fowler's bibliography reflects a wide range of original materials including personal letters (some quoted at length), contemporary periodicals, and works of scholarly criticisms. The acknowledgements indicate a very thorough search for the necessary materials.

Fowler's best writing is in the first two chapters, where lines like "the engine chugged past the. . .violet smudge of woods" and "Behind her were the cold, blue-shadowed boredoms of school teaching" evoke ethereal images and display a writing talent that could well be exercised in areas other than biography. This account of Sara Jeannette Duncan sustains the reader's interest and is recommended for those wishing to explore the development of one of Canada's rare literary gems of the previous century.

Chris Kempling, Quesnel, BC.
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