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Lucy Maud's club Add to ...

The year 1907 was a good one to start a book club.

On the literary front, Rudyard Kipling won the Nobel Prize for literature, Joseph Conrad published The Secret Agent , Robert Service released The Cremation of Sam McGee , Oxford University gave Mark Twain an honorary degree and James Joyce found a kindred spirit when he met Italo Svevo.

In Canada, one of the country's most famous writers was a year away from publishing the book that would make her an international household name, and four years away from moving to the tiny Ontario village of Leaskdale.

Meanwhile, a few miles down the road from Leaskdale, the town of Uxbridge was thriving. It had a growing population of 2,000, boasted more than 100 business and at least nine hotels, and was home to a well-educated class of affluent citizens that included doctors, military officers, lawyers, newspaper owners and politicians.

It was that same year that seven local women, the fashionable cream of Uxbridge society, founded the Hypatia Club "for the purpose of stimulating literary taste and intellectual culture, and for social intercourse," as the preamble of the club's constitution puts it.

The women named their literary club after Hypatia of Alexandria, who was born in the fourth century and is considered to be one of the first female scholars in history.

The name reflected the women's seriousness of purpose. At the first annual meeting (and every one since), a programming committee assigned a book to each member for the coming year; the member had to read the book and present her findings to the club at one of two meetings every month.

The rules were strict. Failure to be ready for an assigned presentation could result in a 25 cent fine; arriving late to a meeting cost a nickel; miss three meetings and you could be expelled; new members had to be voted on by secret ballot and were only accepted if the decision was unanimous.

The original constitution even included a creed in which the members promised to obey the club's bylaws and - small towns being what they are - to "discountenance unkindly gossip in all its forms."

"When I first joined in '61, we wore hats, and we stood to give our presentation of our paper," recalls Ruth Wade, one of the longest-serving current members and the author of a thoroughly researched club history published in 2007 for the centennial. "That's just what was done."

The club quickly became the talk of Uxbridge, and its activities were regularly featured in the local newspaper. "They were grand affairs," Wade said of the twice-monthly meetings and extra-curricular "at-home" gatherings the members occasionally threw.

Grand enough that when Lucy Maud Montgomery, an international literary star thanks to the publication of Anne of Green Gables in 1908, moved to Leaskdale in 1911 with her husband Ewan Macdonald, she almost immediately joined the Hypatia Club.

Montgomery, referred to as Mrs. Macdonald in the club's records and programs, was an active member until 1926, when her husband, a Presbyterian minister, was assigned to a new parish in another town; she remained the club's honorary president until 1937.

By all accounts, Montgomery was a social butterfly. She often went to Toronto, where she would visit friends and go to the theatre. And she was an active member of the club, giving papers on "The supernatural in modern fiction" and "The Goddess Pasht," among others.

"The stories abound of her coming [into Uxbridge]with the horse and carriage herself," Wade says. "She always wrapped up. She'd always be wearing a hat and she loved hats with veils, but she would tie that all up with a scarf of some kind and off she'd come into town.

"I think she looked at the club as a good social outlet for her because it was different than the things she did in Leaskdale," Wade adds. "The Hypatia Club were all prominent members of the town at the time. All of these ladies were well situated and ... would provide her with the outlet for socializing that she enjoyed so much."

Having the creator of Anne of Green Gables as a member "has been a source of pride for the club. We just feel we know her."

The club has relaxed its bylaws somewhat in recent years, as it has become harder to find members, Wade says. Expelling someone because she wants to spend January and February in Florida is no longer an option. And no one gets fined a nickel for arriving late.

There are 14 members currently; the youngest, who joined last year, is in her sixties.

But, Wade says, "We're all very keen about serving some of those original rules."

It is those rules, clearly laid out in its constitution, that has allowed the club to continue uninterrupted for more than a century, she believes. Every member pays a $10 annual fee and knows what is expected of her - and they know it well in advance, too. At the annual meeting, held at the end of the season, the club hands out the upcoming year's printed program.

In it is a schedule that spells out who is talking about what book when, and in whose house. No member is spared.

Many of the members read all the books; all are expected to have read up on the author and book being presented.

"There was no deadwood in the club - that's what the older members said when I joined," Wade says. "Everybody pulled their weight and that was how it succeeded.

"When I joined the fees were only a dollar a year and I thought it was the best dollar I spent in the whole year," she adds. "Always thought that."

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