The City of Orillia lies about 100 kilometres north of Toronto, as the crow flies, or about 140 if you are driving because you have to make your way around Lake Simcoe. If you were a crow, travelling as crows do, you would fly right over the old Leacock farm just south of the lake. The old Leacock farm, however, was a place Stephen simply passed through and got out as quickly as he could. Orillia was another matter. But what kind of matter?
It is commonly believed that Stephen Leacock ‘came from’ Orillia. He did not. He ‘came from’ four places in the formative sense: the south of England; the dirt farm south of Lake Simcoe; the lake itself where his family spent summers; and Upper Canada College in Toronto. I have found no evidence that he had anything to do with Orillia, at the north end of the lake, until his late teens or early twenties. His mother may have lived there briefly after she left the farm, at about that time. Leacock bought his summer place there in 1908, when he was nearly forty.
I have a database containing some 2,700 titles of books, chapters, stories, articles, lectures, etc. used by Stephen Leacock in the fifty years of his writing and speaking life. One of them contains the word ‘Orillia’. The story involved was not written by him, but may have been translated. He sent it to the Orillia newspaper after finding it in a Swiss journal. The record shows that he spoke there twelve times from 1908 to 1926, although half of these speeches were political, on behalf of Conservative Party candidates.
In sum, it appears that Orillia qua town was not haunting his thoughts to any great extent. His summer place, his own piece of property, probably did even when he was not there, which was two-thirds of the year. He was deeply attached to that particular place, just outside the town proper, now well within the present city. His thoughts about Orillia itself, if any, go completely unrecorded.
Unless, of course, Mariposa is Orillia, as many believe. I do not, although I grant that Mariposa looks like Orillia, to the extent its appearance is described, and contains some people with names that somewhat match Orillia people, but that is a long, long way from saying that the characters in the book are those people, or that Mariposa is that town, or that there is any but the most superficial resemblance. Surely, when we are speaking of a literary work with considerable depth we should not be seduced by anything superficial. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is literature, a witty and occasionally profound caricature of a place and people, not a work of sociology.
In fact, I have found no evidence that Leacock remotely cared about Orillia except as any cottager cares about the nearest town, although he had friends there and cared about them. Nowhere does he write about Orillia the way he does, for example, about Montréal. Cities, for him, whether he knew them by living, visiting, or reading, were centres of economic energy and romance, actual, prospective, or historical. Orillia, in his mind, was not that kind of place, nor I suspect was any small town.
Here’s my hypothesis: To write about a place properly you need to have a feel for it. You get that by growing up there, by living there year ’round when you can take it in with all your senses without thinking much about it or having any opinions. Then, when you combine that in adulthood with a writer’s skill, you can write about it. But you have to stay there. Stephen Leacock never had the chance. He was raised in too many places, and he never did settle. Of his fifty-three books only two are about real places: Montréal, and Canada. And even there he makes them imaginary. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is not really about a place, it’s about people in a place, imaginary people. I don’t think he ever bothered to imagine Orillia.