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Heather O’Neill recounts the lessons she learned from her father in Wisdom in Nonsense.Julia C. Vona/Handout

A great novel can be an escape from not-great real events. It can also be a lens through which to view them. Montreal author Heather O’Neill’s new novel, When We Lost Our Heads, does both. It is about friendship and love between women, but also revolution: oppressed women in the lower classes rising up.

Set in late nineteenth century Montreal to begin with, the novel was conceived in the MeToo/TimesUp era, written partly during the pandemic, and published at the beginning of February, as a different kind of social unrest was raging a couple of hours down the road in Ottawa.

“It was definitely informed by that idea of young women kind of coming together and forming this collective voice and entity that suddenly became very powerful and terrifying,” said O’Neill, in a recent interview from Montreal. Terrifying, she says, for some men.

This is a novel full of women, where men play only peripheral roles. It would ace the Bechdel test, which tracks the representation of women in fiction: how many are characters unto themselves, with actual names, as opposed to appendages of the main, male characters – girlfriends, wives, hired help.

“I had this idea of writing this novel – and I wasn’t even sure how it would play out – if there were no men. If no men came into the picture and how their lives would kind of just play out and how full they could be,” O’Neill says.

The novel centres on two women who form a deep and important friendship, which sours after a devastating event – and then turns into something else. They are raised in an area called the Golden Mile, based on Montreal’s historic Golden Square Mile, with its mansions at the foot of Mount Royal. Made up by O’Neill for this book is a name for its counterpart down by the river where the lower classes live in grimy poverty: the Squalid Mile.

Marie Antoine is the blond, beautiful daughter of a wealthy sugar magnate. Her silhouette appears on the bags of sugar churned out in the family-owned factory, where the poorly paid workers – including children – are known to lose fingers to the Industrial Revolution-era machinery. Her mother dead, Marie is raised by her doting father and a revolving door of maids.

Sadie Arnett is the unloved daughter of a politically ambitious but financially struggling family. Her mother is indifferent to her, her brother despises her, her father is only interested in his political career. Sadie loses herself in books – reading them, writing them.

Marie Antoine and Sadie Arnett: Marie Antoinette and a female Marquis de Sade.

Sadie will find fame as an adult, writing erotica. Marie will find infamy, after she inherits her father’s factory. Determined to prove herself in business, she does not improve the deplorable conditions for her workers.

“She kind of shows everything that’s wrong with that lean-in feminism,” says O’Neill, about Marie. “You’re just acting like a dude. … Aren’t you supposed to destroy the patriarchy and make things better?”

Other major characters include Mary Robespierre, the poor daughter of an Antoine family maid. And George, an androgynous woman of unknown parentage, who lives at the brothel where Sadie takes refuge and writes a hit pornographic novel. Also Jeanne-Pauline, a pharmacist who helps women deal with difficulties – such as abusive husbands – medicinally.

“I was looking at femininity as an agent of terror,” O’Neill says. “Girls being girls.”

In this novel, women do things for themselves – and for other women. Throughout are poignant, quietly feminist contemplations and exchanges.

“I have been reading The Lady of Shalott,” Sadie tells Marie at their first meeting, in a park. “It’s truly ridiculous what women do for men.”

O’Neill was not quite a teenager when she had her first exposure to erotica. In the apartment building where she lived with her father, another tenant was a hoarder of books. He would often leave Victorian pornography on the building’s stairs.

When We Lost Our Heads, by Heather O’Neill.Handout

“I had no guide as to what one should read, so I just read whatever I came across,” says O’Neill, who was 11 or 12 at the time. “So I came across this Victorian pornography, which I mistook for Victorian novels and I was like, whoa, look at this. And I brought it home and of course became obsessed with it. And I was like, I can’t believe you can read and reading turns you on.”

In her research for this novel, O’Neill dug deep into life for Victorian-era women and came up with some doozies. She reports learning that in Victorian England, a man who cheated on his wife could be charged with adultery. A woman who cheated on her husband could be charged with adultery – and treason.

In Montreal during that era, young girls were in demand for factory work – not just because they could be paid less than others (even less than boys), but they served another purpose. “Because little girls are so nimble and petite, they would be able to jump in between machines and fix them,” O’Neill says. “They took this exquisite quality that little girls have – it’s just so beautiful to watch them move – and then exploited it for capitalism.”

O’Neill’s research helped her nail down details of life for women at that time: how they went to the bathroom, dealt with their periods. But she also uncovered horrors. In some of Montreal’s poorest neighbourhoods, the infant death rate was a staggering 50 per cent.

This had O’Neill thinking about what motherhood would have meant at the time: the possibility of loss so prevalent that the maternal experience became a different sort of animal; one where it might just be pregnancy and childbirth and grief.

“You would have a baby but you didn’t really know if it was going to grow up,” says O’Neill. “It might just entirely exist in this little temporary experience of the world.”

O’Neill is the award-winning author of four previous works of fiction, beginning with Lullabies for Little Criminals, which was published in 2006. In the complex fictional worlds O’Neill creates, including in When We Lost Our Heads, mothers are largely absent.

This is a plot detail straight out of O’Neill’s own life. O’Neill, 48, was raised by her father after her mother left when she was 7.

“I just have this weird thing about mothers,” O’Neill says. “I remember when I handed in Lonely Hearts Hotel, [editor] Jennifer Lambert was like ‘oh I see; another book with characters without mothers.’ And I was like, oh my God I forgot; I always forget that they should have mothers.”

O’Neill had her daughter, Arizona, when she was just 20. They are very close. But she says she found motherhood to be a traumatic experience.

“I just couldn’t believe what it was like to be a mother in society, just how difficult it was and the type of sacrifice. So I’ve always kind of looked at motherhood as slightly this horrific thing that happens to a woman’s agency and autonomy.”

This is an issue explored in the book: how motherhood changes everything, not necessarily for the better. Another detail that struck O’Neill from her research: Sex workers at the time were in better health, had better quality of life and a better life expectancy than their peers who had children.

“Mothers were at the bottom of the barrel; having children would just completely deplete you. It was such an interesting detail to me. It was like wow, if anything, if you live in the Squalid Mile, there’s just no way to have a child and do it in any way that doesn’t just completely consume you and just ensconce you in that poverty.”

One way to bring about change, the book seems to suggest, is that women team up. Early on, brainy Sadie tells Marie that she didn’t think she could have a friend until she began hanging out with Marie. “It makes me think in a more creative way.”

During our interview, O’Neill and I talked about the lack of societal emphasis and attention to what really is a crucial and central life experience: our friendships.

“It’s just something that you’re supposed to engage in when you’re a child until men come along. And then there’s so much information: how do you get a man and how do you make him stay?” O’Neill says. “Oh God; why don’t we worry about our female friends? Those friendships are so based on similar interests and passions.”

As the novel was published at the beginning of February, horns were honking and flags were waving in the capital; protesters making demands. Not women calling for equal pay or an end to physical abuse or the chance to vote – but the so-called freedom convoy demanding an end to vaccine passports, with their hot tubs and bouncy castles and big rigs.

My nose in O’Neill’s book, reading about women who were fighting for life-and-death basic rights they were being denied, it was easy to dismiss what was going on in real time as less important. But also – it became possible to forget about it.

I thanked O’Neill for that, for providing me with a different world to escape into – even if that world itself was imperfect and mean and awful.

She said that’s one of the things she finds interesting about reading fiction. “It kind of subverts that group-think that goes on. Because you go into novels and it’s this other sort of unique space that’s talking about not necessarily the topic of the day and just repeating whatever the slogan of the day is,” she said. “And that just reminds us of larger topics and that we’re individuals – and we can think for ourselves.”

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