EMILY CARR, A TALENTED AND BRAVE REBEL

The following excerpt is from my book that was published last July: “Home Study Projects and New Ideas for English Language Arts”. This passage is taken from Chapter seven in which I discuss various art forms that deal with the problems of adolescence. The autobiographer I have chosen to include is
Emily Carr (1871-1945).

Emily Carr was born in Victoria, British Columbia, a city which for many years was widely considered to be “more English than the English”. Her
family of origin was typical of the Victoria upper middle class of that era: conservative, snobbish about their English background and determined
to preserve it, and racist (towards the local aboriginals and Oriental Canadians).
Throughout her life Emily was in conflict with these attitudes. She did not see herself as British; she was proud of being something quite different: a Canadian, and she counted among her closest friends several aboriginals and Chinese-Canadians.

She was a free-thinker, adventurous by nature (In her twenties and thirties she studied painting in San Francisco and then London.) and an animal-lover (for years her live-in companions were a monkey, a few dogs and cats, a pet rat and several birds).

These days Emily is considered one of Canada’s foremost landscape painters. Some of her best paintings depict abandoned Indian villages at the edge of the wild, unsettled forest on the coast of northern Vancouver Island. Emily is now recognized as a fine writer as well. One of her books, Klee Wick, won the coveted Governor-General’s award in 1943. Several of her books tell of her
early life and her problems at home: an overly-strict father and a much older sister who beat her often.

What were the problems of adolescence in Emily’s life? The main one was the cruel treatment that she received from a much older sister, Edith. The extract below will show you something of that. It is taken from “Growing Pains”, an autobiography that Emily completed just before her death. Here is Emily in her own words.

After Father and Mother died [in 1886 and 1888 respectively Ed.] my big sister [Ethyl] ruled; she was stern like Father. She was twenty years older than the youngest of us. (…) Little Dick and I got the riding whip every day. The most particular sin for which we were whipped was called insubordination. Almost always it arose from the same cause— remittance men or remittance men’s wives. Canada was infested at that time by Old Country younger sons and ne’er-do-wells, people who had been shipped to Canada on a one-way ticket. These people lived on small remittances received from home. They were too lazy and too incompetent to work, stuck up, indolent, considering it beneath their dignity to earn but not beneath their dignity to take all a Canadian was willing to hand out. My two elder sisters were born in England. The one who ruled us felt very much ‘first born’ in the English way [it was the custom of
the first born to inherit everything. Ed.], feeling herself better than the rest of us because she was oldest.

She was proud of being top. She listened to all the hard-luck stories of
the remittance people and said, ‘I too was born in England.’ She sympathized with their homesickness and filled our home with these people. Dick and I hated the intruders. Lizzie and Alice resented them too, but quietly. My sister tried to compel my brother and me by means of the riding whip.

A couple called Piddington sat on us [lived with us and sponged on us. Ed.] for six months. The wife was a hypochondriac and exploited ill-health. The man was an idle loafer and a cruel bully. Anger at his impertinence and sponging kept the riding whip actively busy on our young legs. Things came to a climax when we rented a sea-side cottage in the holidays. The man took a party of boys and girls out in the boat. The sea [the Pacific Ocean, specifically the Strait of Juan de Fuca separating Vancouver Island and America’s Olympic Peninsula Ed.] was rough. I asked to be put ashore. Seeing my green face the man shipped his oars and cried delightedly, “We’ll make the kid seasick.” He rocked the boat back and forth till he succeeded. I was ashamed before all the boys and girls. He knew, too, how it infuriated me to be called ‘kid’ by him.
“You are not a gentleman anyway!” I cried. “You are a sponger and a bully!”
Purple with rage the man pulled ashore and rushed to his wife saying, “The kid has insulted me!”

For insulting a guest in her house my sister thrashed me till I fainted, but I refused to apologize, and the bully and I went around glowering at each other. I said to my sister, “I am almost sixteen now and the next time you thrash me I shall strike back.” That was my last whipping. (Growing Pains, to be found in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr. Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 1993, p. 306)

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