The power of suggestion

Jean Forsyth and Edith J. Miller seemed doomed to obscurity but for a willing biographer and a tenacious champion of promoting women

By Tiffany Mayer


Elspeth Cameron is open to suggestions.

In fact, the career of one of Canada’s most prolific biographers can be credited largely to others planting seeds of ideas that compelled much of her work.

Take writing biographies as the genre of choice for becoming a published author. The decision to write about other people’s lives happened during an epiphanic moment at an academic conference in 1974.

Then a young professor at Concordia University, Cameron saw an opening in the literary category when poet and critic Frank Davey told the crowd gathered before him that biography was missing in Canadian critical literature.

“I took him at his word and I said, ‘I would like to do that,'” Cameron recalled. “It’s not my idea. I’m very open to suggestions.”

Five years later, Cameron published her first book, Hugh MacLennan: A Writer’s Life and was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for her work. But even choosing MacLennan as the subject for her literary debut happened by way of capitulation.

Cameron had her heart set on writing about Canada’s other ink-stained statesman, Robertson Davies.

Problem was, Davies was in Toronto. Cameron was teaching in Montreal and MacLennan was nearing the end of his career at McGill University. Getting access to him would be easier.

Soon after A Writer’s Life was published, Irving Layton contacted Cameron and suggested she write about him. So she did. It was a proposition he regretted, she recalled as she sat in the sunlit living room of her cottage-like home in Port Dalhousie.

In an effort to paint a fulsome portrait of the Canadian poet, Cameron interviewed Layton’s three ex-wives and partner at the time for her book.

“Irving Layton got crazy mad at me,” she said.

When she was challenged by readers at talks she gave mid-career for not having documented lives of any women, Cameron devoted her next five volumes to them. She even turned her biographer’s eye inward and penned her own story for No Previous Experience: A Memoir of Love and Change.

Her latest homage to important — and often overlooked — Canadians doesn’t stray from the common theme that threads her career. A Tale of Two Divas: The Curious Adventures of Jean Forsyth and Edith J. Miller in Canada’s Edwardian West landed on bookstore shelves in February thanks to someone suggesting Cameron write it.

The idea came by way of an email from a woman named Gail Kreutzer in Winnipeg. Kreutzer, whom Cameron had never met, sat on the board of the Winnipeg Humane Society and to honour the organizations history, she wanted a book written about its founder Jean Forsyth.

It turns out Cameron is just as welcoming of persistence as she is of suggestions, however. Two years later, she finally dug into Kreutzer’s emails piling up in her inbox and the envelopes filled with information about Forsyth stacked in her living room, and starting piecing together the story of a woman who would be her next book.

Cameron had something resembling a manuscript nine months later when she flew to Winnipeg to finally meet Kreutzer, by then a friend. But throughout her research, another name kept turning up alongside Forsyth’s. It was Edith J. Miller.

Forsyth was Miller’s voice teacher in Winnipeg in 1894.

Their paths would continue to cross throughout their incredible careers. Cameron tells how each achieved success. She also brings their stories to life through dialogue, some of it inferred based on her research.

The book, which entertains as much as it informs, also provides insight into the lives of Western Canadian women at the time and their roles in society. Cameron describes it as a book of women’s history, social history and cultural history.

Special to the Hamilton Spectator.

View the article here : The Power of Suggestion, May 11, 2017