Category Archives: History

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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Smith, Bagshaw, Drone, Pepperleigh, and the Politics of Mariposa

I was pleased to be sitting once more with my host in the bar of his hotel. I had finished my evening’s work and had come in, according to now-established custom, to enjoy his company and stories over a late glass of scotch.

“So,” I said, after a few sips, “we have Josh Smith, dead from being a member of Parliament, and Hector and Zena Smith (née Pepperleigh and relict of Pupkin) and descendants at Smith’s Hotel, and Peter Pupkin, dead from the war, and Peter Junior, rich from lawyering and land development, and … how did you get all these stories, by the way?”

“From my mother. Her father was Mallory Tompkins, the Times-Herald man in Leacock’s day, and a prominent Liberal. He married Miss Lawson, the high-school teacher. Grandfather Tompkins knew everybody’s stories, the ones they printed in the newspaper, and the ones they didn’t. He told them to my mother, who loved that kind of thing, and she told them to me. You get them the way I got them, maybe a little ornamented, maybe not. What difference does it make?”

“So Smith was elected in 1911, and lasted how long?”

“Until 1920. There was going to be a by-election, but the general election of 1921 pushed it aside.”

“And who was elected then?”

“That was a surprise. It was Edward Drone, still defiantly Independent. He didn’t try to run during the war, being a staunch imperialist at heart, but did in 1921, and pulled it off. Drone and Honesty. People were ready for that, after the war and all the death and corruption. They turned on the old parties, or at least enough of them did.”

“How long did Drone last?”

“Not long. He joined the Progressive Party and ran again in 1925 and 1926, but lost to the Conservative both times. The Liberals didn’t get back in again until 1935.

“Bagshaw would have been too old by then. What happened to him?”

“He retired to his farm where he and his wife lived to a ripe old age off the avails of his years in Parliament, surrounded by their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and well loved by a host of neighbours and friends. No gathering in Mariposa was complete without John Henry and his Ottawa stories, which improved with every telling as the years rolled on. He finally died laughing at the age of ninety-eight when they made Mackenzie King prime minister for the third time. His wife followed a few days later. They were a grand old couple, and completely devoted.”

“Judge Pepperleigh must have been a happy man, all those Conservative years.”

“He was a piece of work, that old guy, and as he got older he he just got crazier and more corrupt. And his son Neil, who was killed in South Africa, he was plain vicious, but as Leacock says, the Judge never saw that, although the boy’s mother did. Mrs. Pepperleigh was a decent and kind old lady, and a pillar of the church. How she put up with that old tyrant for all those years remains a mystery. Maybe there was no way out for her. That happened in those days. She must have loved him to start with, maybe she kept on. Maybe the church was her escape. But Miss Spiffkins wasn’t the only one in town who thought she had a hard row. It was notable that when Zena took over the hotel, old Martha spent a lot of time there, helping look after the grandchildren. She never abandoned the Judge, but my mother said she knew very well what he was. When he died there were no tears, not from her, not from Zena, not from anyone.”

“It sounds as if Mariposa was a lot more complicated than Stephen Leacock said it was.”

“More complicated than he ever saw, but then, he didn’t live here. He was just a cottager. He knew a few people, but he never knew the place. To know the place, he would have had to live here, be here all year round. He saw a few things on the surface, and thought they were the depths. He was a great talker, but he wasn’t a great listener, at least, so my mother said.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Sure. He was here in the summer of 1911, in the run-up to the election, and saw Josh Smith pomping around the place and trying to manipulate the voters. He thought that was funny. And then when Smith won, he thought the voters must have fallen for Smith’s tricks. But they didn’t. Smith was an illiterate saloon-keeper, not really fit for the job, and everybody knew it. But they didn’t like the Reciprocity agreement, they were tired of Laurier, and they thought he and Bagshaw were both too old. Smith was the Conservative candidate, and that was the way they wanted to vote. But it was a long way from unanimous. Then in 1917 there was the conscription issue, and people around here wanted to support the government, no matter what. Mind you, my mother heard all this from her father, who was a Liberal through and through. But he also knew everybody, and talked to everybody. Who knows what the real story was?”

Who indeed. Not Stephen Leacock, it seems clear.