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.