Skip to main content

The Enthusiast: Reading and getting to know my late mother-in-law, arts critic Carole Corbeil


Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman with her mother Carole Corbeil.

Courtesy of Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman

When you marry, you don’t just marry a person, you marry a family, they say.

Since my wife, Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, and I said our vows two years ago, I’ve gone from being the only arts journalist in my family to the son-in-law of one who meant a lot to the Canadian cultural community not long ago.

Story continues below advertisement

Carole Corbeil was on staff at The Globe and Mail in the 1980s, writing about theatre, dance and visual arts. She later published two novels in the 1990s and contributed a column to the Toronto Star.

And then she died in 2000 at 48. So, unlike others in the family I’ve married, I’ve not been getting to know her through playing euchre or watching baseball, but by reading the words she left behind.

That Charlotte’s late mother had also reviewed theatre at The Globe, had also grown up in Montreal before moving to Toronto, had also fallen for an artist (Charlotte’s a playwright; her father, Layne Coleman, is an actor and director) was an unusual fact to navigate during our on-and-off courtship. At times, I read it as a sign that we were meant to be together; at others, I worried it was too strange a coincidence. Eventually, however, our relationship moved beyond the stage of looking for signs − and Carole stopped being one, and became a person, who once lived and was now much missed.

When Charlotte and I were dating for the second (or third?) time, I ordered Carole’s second novel – 1997’s In the Wings – on Amazon to prove I was really a serious suitor now. But starting to read it was nerve-wracking: What if I hated the writing of my girlfriend’s dead mother?

I was relieved to find the opposite, and quickly went from reading the book as romantic research to simply devouring it. In the Wings is set in the Toronto theatre scene and centres around the relationship between a young, troubled actor playing Hamlet and an older grieving actress playing Gertrude.

Book cover of Carole Corbeil's novel "In the Wings."

The third main character is a theatre critic named Robert Pullwarden – and, perhaps unsurprisingly, my favourite. Pullwarden wrote poetry in his youth, but was held back, in part, by body-image issues, a belief that he was ugly. “His ugliness condemned him to irony, his irony to superiority, his superiority to loneliness,” Carole writes. “Having resigned himself to this fate, he taught himself a rotund language that dodged his cries.”

It’s a devastating portrait of a certain kind of critic (and makes me think of the hidden sadness of so many social-media pugilists). But while In the Wings‘s plot leads Pullwarden through obsession to the edge of self-destruction in a way that must be schadenfreude for theatre artists, Carole allows him forgiveness and happiness in the end. I ended up loving him deeply.

Story continues below advertisement

It was interesting then, in the lead-up to our wedding two years ago, to discover Carole’s own work as a critic. I was searching with my then-fiancée to find words that we could use as a reading.

Diving deep into newspaper databases, I found myself envying Carole’s columnizing skills – particularly the way she would write something tremendously cutting, then follow it up with lines like poetry.

In her criticism, as in her portrait of Pullwarden, she seemed to know how to satisfy a reader’s superficial thirst for blood − and then slake that deeper yearning for beauty.

This summer, while reading her first novel, 1992’s Voice-Over, I came to understand how Carole developed these two distinct sides of her writerly voice and learned to blend them. It’s a tale of buried trauma slowly rising to the surface − and centres around a pair of sisters born into a French-speaking family in Montreal, who are then forced to speak English at home in their teens when their mother remarries.

That part of the story is autobiographical: Carole was subject to a similar attempted assimilation − and I found it fascinating to read how she describes the linguistic shift of the character of Claudine, who, like the author, grows up to become a journalist-artist in Toronto. The anglophone stepfather in the novel corrects her whenever she begins a sentence with “I feel”: “You do not feel, Claudine, you think.”

Carole Corbeil. Voice-Over: A Novel [Book cover].

“The language in that house was the language of power, of reality, of how it was, of how it would always be, of refusal, of no to all the sadness that crept and seeped into the cracks of French,” she writes. “A language of slaps, of cuts, of chiseling, of blocks, of building, of rising above the petty, petty world of feeling, the language of abstraction, history, commerce, of art that hid and hid, and turned seekers into spectators.”

Story continues below advertisement

I have some understanding of how knowing two languages gives you two personalities, two places in the world – and complicates the idea of a singular self. But it astonishes me how Carole mastered her second language and then used it to dissect itself so perceptively.

And yet, Carole found a balance between wielding English as a scalpel and using it as a paintbrush; she was a thinking-feeling critic-artist.

Since my wife and I had our wedding reception at the Art Gallery of Ontario, we, cheekily, choose a 1996 column by my late mother-in-law-to-be criticizing the gallery to read during our ceremony. In it, Carole wrote scathingly about “how contemptuous the [AGO] has become of Canadian artists” and then segued to a gorgeous description of what it is like to stand in front of a Group of Seven painting and “consider how the shadow of pines on snow can look mauve, or how pine bark is reddish, or how bad weather can be evoked by the movement of trees.”

“Looking at a painting is to submit to a state of heightened receptivity,” she wrote. “It is to enter someone else’s way of seeing for no other purpose than to enrich our way of seeing.”

I love that line because marriage, it seems to me at this point anyway, is also about submitting to a state of heightened receptivity − and enriching your life by entering someone else’s way of seeing, and those of her family, too.

Carole Corbeil

Courtesy of Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman


Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons or for abuse. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter