Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Foredoomed Entanglement of Zena Pepperleigh and Peter Pupkin

Following my host’s warning, I re-read the relevant portions of Sunshine Sketches, checked the archives, and asked around. Many of the older folks could remember the mature Zena, but the Peter Pupkin part of her story took place well before the lifetimes of extant Mariposans. Their memories of what their parents and grandparents had told them were, however, largely consistent, and I conclude that we can rely on them, especially as the documentary evidence, such as it is, seems to back them up.

Stephen Leacock tells us four important things about Peter Pupkin: that he was not very bright, at least not bright enough to qualify as a lawyer in “the Maritime Provinces” (we are never told which one); that his father was hard-driving, property-developing provincial robber baron; that he liked pretty girls and was chivalric by nature; and that when depressed or discouraged he would think of suicide. Leacock makes fun of that, which was very wrong of him.

Zena, we are told, was romantic, somewhat educated in a world outside Mariposa, and inclined to defy her father, at least within the limited scope possible to her and generally to middle-class young women at that time. I soon saw what my host meant by the “job” that Leacock did on her. He (or rather his narrator) never lets her speak for herself, of course, any more than he lets any other woman speak for herself in that book. Her thoughts are always filtered. (Come to that, Peter Pupkin never speaks for himself either.) We are told almost nothing about Zena’s mother, certainly not about their relationship.

Before she becomes close to Peter, we learn enough for her to begin to emerge as a character, but the closer they become, the more she fades from the narration. At the end of the story, when we are vouchsafed a brief snapshot of their “enchanted house on the hillside in the newer part of town,” she is invisible. Only Peter appears, cutting the grass in a gaudy blazer.

But the end of Leacock’s story is of course not the end of hers. There she was, in her comfortable house, with her fond, insensitive, role-burdened husband and her baby, grappling with the conundrums of a lightly educated wife and mother in a small town of her day, from which she had been partly alienated by her schooling. Stephen Leacock could have told that story, of course, with real bite, had he not been oblivious. There is no excuse for him; the story was common enough, had he chosen to see it. Added to Zena’s turmoil of mind was the awareness, which came upon her suddenly in the dark of one night, that she and Peter had been thoroughly manipulated by their two fathers into what amounted to an arranged marriage. She did not blame Peter, nor stop loving him, but everything else soured in mounting resentment. Without her child she would have been lost.

Devoted Peter was just bright enough to realize how unhappy she was, but not nearly bright enough to know why, or what to do. He put it down to female complaint. He would have spoken to himself of hormones had he known anything about them. His constraint was cultural. He was a thoroughly moulded young man. In order to free her, and him—them, for they were a family—he would have had to break his mould and start again, to crawl out from under the overbearing influence of his time, his place, his job, his amour-propre, his father, and his up-bringing. Not a chance. Thoughts of suicide returned, but not very effectively. It seemed such a cowardly thing to do. They clung to each other, emotionally and physically, in mounting desperation.

To cut the sad story short, they were rescued by the Great War, as it came to be called, later “World War One”. Peter never admitted, even to himself, that he was enlisting as a way out for them both, nor did Zena ever allow herself to imagine that she would be better off if he did not come back. To fight the Hun was to perform nothing less than his patriotic duty. Sam Hughes was a figure of note in the world around Mariposa, and so he preached. Peter went, commission in hand, and was killed leading his platoon, with exemplary bravery and complete military ineffectuality, over the top at the Battle of the Somme.

It was easier to mourn, and get on with life, in such plentiful company. Zena then broke her mould too, and with a measure of style. If you want to know how she did it, go back three or four posts.

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The Speculations of Jefferson Thorpe: Continued

I said to my host one evening: “There are some things that bother me about Leacock’s story of Jefferson Thorpe. Do you know the rest of it?”

“Some of it, for sure. What bothers you?”

“Two things, primarily: There’s the statement that Thorpe was made to pay back Johnson’s five hundred dollars. Johnson was his neighbour, and his investment partner. How did he come to pull a stunt like that and get away with it? If the story is told right, Johnson himself made the decision to put his money into Cuban lands. How did he come to think that Thorpe should pay him back?”

“He didn’t think any such thing. It was all Jeff Thorpe’s idea. He knew he’d done a stupid thing, and was sad that his friend had got caught in the machinery. So he said he’d pay him back. Johnson tried to talk him out of it, but Thorpe wouldn’t budge. And he did pay him back. It took a while, but he did it. And Johnson gave the money to Myra, Jeff’s daughter, because she was a victim too. Johnson said to my grandfather: ‘I blame myself, you know. I’m in the horse business, which is full of crooked people. Buyer beware every day. I should have known that Cuban thing was crooked. Jeff’s my friend, and I let him down. But he insisted on paying me back. So I gave the money to Myra, so she could go to drama  school.’ Which she did, although she never really made a go of it as an actress. Desire and good looks and training are one thing, talent’s another. She came back here after a few years, but that’s a long story.”

“Did Thorpe recover?” I asked.

“Very well. He told my grandfather not long after the debacle the he was doing just fine. For twenty-five years he had shaved faces and cut hair and his wife had raised chickens and sold eggs. Then for six months he was rich. Then the money was gone and he went on shaving faces and cutting hair, and his wife went on raising chickens and selling eggs, just like before, holding their own. In fact, they both did better afterwards, even while they were paying off Johnson, because Jeff worked longer hours, and his wife got more chickens. People were sorry for them, so they went to his barbershop, and bought their eggs from her. But that had consequences too. There were four barbers in Mariposa before then, and two other chicken barns. One each went out of business afterwards. A place like Mariposa only needs so many haircuts, and so many eggs. What’s the other thing that bothers you?”

“It’s the way Leacock treats Thorpe’s womenfolk. His wife doesn’t even get a name, she’s just The Woman. And how does Leacock know that Myra gave up her acting dream so easily. He says she didn’t care, but I bet she did.”

“Of course she did,” said my host. “She just didn’t want her Dad to feel bad. Of course she cared. And then Johnson came along and made it possible. Jeff Thorpe never knew how that was done, that it was really his money. Myra told him she got a scholarship. A Whisker-and-Egg Scholarship channelled through a horse barn.  Pretty funny, but then that’s Mariposa.

“Stephen Leacock was a bit funny about women, you know. He liked them, and he didn’t like them. You’ll notice that he never lets them speak for themselves, not in Sunshine Sketches at any rate. He speaks for them, and they say what he thinks they should say, whether they actually said it or not. If you think he was a bit careless with Myra Thorpe’s point of view, just take a good look at the job he did on Zena Pepperleigh. It’ll make your hair stand straight up on end.”

“Tell me more!” I said eagerly.

“Not tonight. I’m neglecting my other customers.”

My First Conversation with Stephen Leacock’s Ghost

In a corner of the corner of the big room that serves as our office and literary workshop, I have placed a chair where I like to sit and read. I was working late one evening, grafting a few new shoots onto the gnarled trunk of Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa, when the man himself—or rather an ectoplasmic residue thereof—manifested itself into the aforesaid chair and sat scowling, moustache a-quiver.

“Ah,”, said I, a little startled but not very much, because I had been half expecting such a visit, “you have found out what I’m doing! Are you able to speak? If so, will you tell me what you think? I would very much like to know.”

It turned out that he could not speak. He could frown, move his mouth, waggle his bushy eyebrows, quiver his moustache, wave his hands, but make no sound. As I concentrated on him, however, trying to discern his message, I gradually became aware that just as ghostly ectoplasm, which is not matter in the physical realm, forms in its own realm and becomes visible to the receptive eye, so there exists what I might call “ecto-vocalism”, or “ghost-sound”, in the aural realm. I could sense its vibrations, but not interpret them, or at least not yet.

“I can’t hear you,” I said, “but I can detect that you are speaking. I will have to learn how to hear you. Please quote me the first sentence of the Preface to Sunshine Sketches. I will ‘listen’, if that is the correct word, carefully, and match the waves to the text. That will give me a kind of Rosetta Stone which will start me on the way of interpreting what you say”

I tuned myself carefully in his direction, hoping that my ear would find a way to do with his voice what my eyes could do with his form. I am no lip-reader, but I watched his mouth carefully. I knew beforehand what he was saying:

“I know of no way in which a writer may more fittingly introduce his work to the public than by giving a brief account of who and what he is. By this means some of the blame for what he has done is very properly shifted to the extenuating circumstances of his life.”

He had to repeat it three times before I was able to match the ecto-sound with the words and the sense, but I soon got the hang of it, and before too long we were prattling away like a couple of veterans.

“You have identified yourself as a literary grafter,” he said. “Why did you do that?”

“I’ve been doing it for years,” I replied. “It is my artistic métier.” His eyebrows shot up and his  mouth twitched. “I graft new lyrics onto old music,” I continued. “I graft new words onto old poetic forms. I graft new stories onto old mythologies. Grafting them onto your book is a natural extension. Besides, I think the book is often improperly read, and I wish to set the record straight. Grafting is my method, the best one for the purpose, I think. People will remember better if they are entertained as well as informed.”

“So I believed,” he said, “although I did learn that it could be overdone. If people are laughing too hard they don’t remember anything else.”

“My mother-in-law said that when she heard you at the University of British Columbia they laughed so hard they nearly wet themselves.”

“And she remembered little else, I expect,” said he. “The humorous lecturer is a Cassandra-like figure. That is why clowns are sad. But what gives you the right to graft onto my book?”

“Well, it is in the public domain,” I reminded him, “and it is a Canadian classic, almost a mythical story, in multiple senses. That makes it fair game. And people do mis-read it, which makes correction a worthy cause. They think it’s about Ontario small towns, which it is not, although set in a fictional one. Some of them even think it’s about Orillia, which is absurd. I mean, Mariposa is absurd, which Orillia was not. Eccentric in its own way from time to time, I expect, and with its just share of human weakness, but not stupid, and not absurd. I grew up in Huntsville, and I am sure about that. Besides,” I added, “I am Herbert Thaxter Shaw’s first cousin twice removed, which makes me almost a relative of yours.”

“Are you really?” he said, and his scowl softened. “Well well well. Dear Fitz. I loved her, you know, and would have married her, my wife being deceased some years by then, but his mother refused to allow a divorce. And besides Herbert was a friend of mine, they were both good friends. Trix and I stood up at their wedding.” He looked at me intently. “So you must be Worrell and Jenny Conway’s son. I met them at the wedding, and a few times since. They had an exquisitely beautiful young daughter. Dead now, I suppose, although I haven’t seen her around.”

“I’m their grandson actually, and you are speaking of my Aunt Barbara who is still going strong at the age of ninety-something, and still beautiful.”

“Ah yes, she had that kind of beauty. She was just a child when I knew her.” He fell silent, reminiscent. His ectoplasm began to fade. I decided to give him a prod.

“So why did you say all those misleading things in the Preface, making it sound like the characters might be based on real people, and why why did you call it Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, when it’s really a set of corrosive sketches of a totally impossible town?”

“For the fun of it, mostly. To make people laugh.”

“Well, fair enough I suppose, almost, although I do think the humorist must take responsibility for what he encourages them to laugh at.”

He arranged his facial ectoplasm into a frown. “I don’t think you can get away with blaming me for writing a funny book about a few silly people because you think that a great many people, including some academics, are too silly to read it properly. People are either silly, or they are not. If you’re going to write about them, you have to make a choice.”

“Not necessarily,” I rejoined. “They are occasionally silly, sometimes sharp, and often noble. I think that to write properly about them and the places they live one must enter the realm of “both-and”, not “either-or.”

He was about to reply when the rooster across the road crowed. He simply shook his head, and vanished.

Since then he appears regularly in the night watches, and we converse with edification. Unfortunately he is not a humorous ghost, but a sad and reflective one. I suppose two awful wars and a Great Depression knocked the jokes out of him even before he died, not to mention what has happened since. He was an economist, remember, and a rigorous student of political affairs. There are times when melancholy is the only valid response to the world as it is.

I will tell you more stories of his visits as we go along.