The Unknown Journals of Emily Carr and Other Writings
Edited by Susan Crean
Douglas & McIntyre, 249 pages, $35
Susan Crean took generous artistic liberties with The Laughing One: A Journey to Emily Carr. Summed up by one reviewer as part first-person semi-fictionalized biographical narrative and part political tract, her highly personal biography of the West Coast icon irritated some, but went on to win a slew of important nominations and awards, including the 2002 B.C. Book Prize.
As if in penance for the rules she broke, Crean is back with a rigorously factual book that may well do as much as any daring act of the imagination to change the way we think about Emily Carr. Opposite Contraries: The Unknown Journals of Emily Carr and Other Writings brings into print passages which were edited out of the artist's voluminous diaries for the first publication in 1966, as well as several unpublished letters and a strange, rambling essay, Lecture on Totems.
Carr's first public lecture was delivered in 1913, around the time of her first solo exhibition in Vancouver, a pivotal event that established the 50-year-old painter as a significant artist. Crean's introduction notes that most of the factual material was lifted verbatim from the writings of ethnographer Charles Hill-Tout, a casual borrowing which shows the highly instinctive Carr struggling to establish her credibility as a commentator on native art and culture. The contrast between cribbing and Carr's own insights is stark: She was clearly on firmer ground dealing with direct experience and observation, yet did not yet trust her insights.
The letters include a handful of wrenching missives written late in her life to editor Ira Dilworth, chronicling Carr's decline. But it's the once-expurgated diary entries that make this book a thrill to read. In the hagiography surrounding Emily Carr, she often comes across as a perpetually young old lady, somehow less impressive as a person than as a talent. These diaries present a darker, more complex side.
To be sure, there is evidence here that suggests a fiery correspondence with her might have been preferable to living beside or below Emily Carr, Vancouver landlady. She was full of bile for the tenants of an apartment building she tried to run as a means of support "always trying to squeeze something out of you." In one desperate incident, as a widow and her child are leaving, an argument over unpaid rent erupts into a shouting match. The police are called and Carr is advised to snatch enough of the widow's property to cover expenses. In a low point, she writes, "I shall never paint anything. I am just dead bones and venom, and I ache to explain what is really good and beautiful and true and real."
Much of what her first editors thought fit to cut out of Carr's published diaries shows the artist struggling with precisely what is not really good or beautiful, though it is true and real. Her descriptions of native people are blunt and sometimes unflattering, though never patronizing. She was ruthless in her pen portraits of humanity in general. On a boat home from her last trip to native sites on northern Vancouver Island, she notes, "I breakfasted opposite a drunk which disgusted me so I made a very scant meal. I was afraid he'd be sick. The dried-up dame next to him seemed oblivious. She chewed calmly as a cow and ordered everything. She had coarse straight hair, half long and hanging, a yellow skin, and a red and black garment that looked like a uniform and wasn't. I should say she was a missionary connection. . . . The men all look so fleshy, so very material, as though what minds they had were full of dinner and money."
On the subject of men, these diaries both enhance the mystery of Carr's sexual self and offer blunt comment. She writes of one brief youthful passion, though the object of her love is not named. She never married, but had intense, long-standing relationships with both sexes as well as her pets, including a particularly affectionate white rat, whose death she deeply mourned. Of her father, she says, "Coming at the end of a big family, I only knew a cross, gouty, sexy old man who hurt and disgusted me." His brutal explanation of the facts of life apparently turned her off the opposite sex for life, though she admits that all her deepest creative and intellectually satisfying friendships were with men. As for sex, "What can one do? It's sickening, unclean. Oh, how splendid it will be when there is no more sex. It should be beautiful but we've spoilt it . . ."
As a single woman and an artist living "on the edge of nowhere," as British Columbia was described then, Carr, of course, had a hard life. Her complaints include rude indictments of the environment, but also savage self-criticism. "I just detest the entire world, I want to snap and yap like a mean chained pup. I don't care if my teeth and claws are sharp. I'm glad. I want to be left alone and go to my kennel and sulk because everyone's unreliable and mean and does you up and kicks you down . . ." Women friends her own age are "all snarled up with grandchildren or W.A. or teas or bridge or society. . . . A lunatic, a prostitute, a Chinese artist -- these are among my friends."
Rigorously annotated by a top-notch cultural critic, Opposite Contraries is a valuable addition to the vast bibliography pertaining to an important Canadian artist. It also offers fascinating reading to the non-specialist. Carr's words leap off the page with uncensored honesty. To the extent that they were the very words her respectful editors chose to cut from the first published edition of her diaries, they may well be the most important words, being impressions and outbursts she was compelled by strong emotion to unburden in her diary, a life-long friend.
Marianne Ackerman is a novelist and playwright. Her most recent play, Venus of Dublin, deals with the lies and inventions behind the celebrated portrait of actor Edmund Kean, dressed as the Huron prince Alanienouidet.