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Canadian Authors and the Places That Inspired Them

What inspires you to write? Many of Canada's literary talents have found inspiration in writing about places which held significance to them.  These writers are now stamped in the Canadian consciousness as are the places they immortalized in their works.  Their homes have become commemorative testaments to their creative inspiration, and places of pilgrimage for readers wishing to know more about the basis for this inspiration.  Our literary landscape is celebrated in many designated historic places on the Canadian Register of Historic Places associated with the writers who were members of the Canadian Authors Association in its formative years.

In 1921, the Canadian Authors Association was founded in Montréal by authors who were concerned with promoting and protecting their work.  One of its founding members was Stephen Leacock (1869-1944).  Between 1915 and 1925, Leacock was one of the leading humourists in the English-speaking world, and his Leacock home, Parks Canada / Maison Leacock, Parcs Canadamasterpiece Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) was written near Orillia, Ontario on the shores of Lake Couchiching.  Leacock purchased property on the lake's edge in 1908 and built a small cottage, then constructed a much larger one in 1928.  At this place, which he named "The Old Brewery Bay," Leacock wrote, gardened, hobby farmed, fished, sailed, and entertained.  This landscape, with its mix of woods, open land, and grand lake views, provides a quiet place for artistic contemplation any writer could appreciate.

One of Leacock's contemporaries was Bliss Carman (1861-1929), an internationally recognized poet in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Carman is known for his evocative descriptions of Atlantic Canada's landscape.  Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick Carman spent his childhood in a house on Shore Street, now known as the Bliss Carman House. Many of his early acclaimed works of poetry, included in Songs of Vagabondia (1894) and Low Tide at Grand Pré: A Book of Lyrics (1894), were inspired by this place.  In the 1920s, Carman was recognized by the Canadian Author's Association as Canada's unofficial poet laureate, was elected to the Royal Society, and was awarded the Lorne Pierce Medal for distinguished service to literature.

Another contemporary writer was Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942).  Her books about life on Prince Edward Island are well-loved in Canada and around the world (even the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton is a fan!), and many people know that Green Gables House was the inspiration and setting for her most famous novel Anne of Green Gables (1908).  But fewer people may realize that two other historic houses are also linked to this prolific writer.  One of them is a modest 1874 residence located in the small town of New London, PEI, now known as the Lucy Maud Montgomery Birthplace; the other is the Leaskdale Manse in Uxbridge, Ontario.  This latter place - a somber late-Victorian middle class house - is where Montgomery lived during one of the most productive and successful periods of her career: between 1911 and 1926, it was at this place that she wrote 11 of her 22 novels.  It was also the setting of her unhappy personal life, details of which are revealed in the journals she kept from this period.

Nellie McClung (1873-1951) also belonged to the Canadian Authors Association.  Many know McClung as a political activist: her role in the suffrage movement gave women the right to vote, and as one of the "Famous Five" in the "Persons" court case, she helped bring about a landmark change in women's rights in Canada.  But McClung also had a successful and prolific writing career. Born in Chatsworth, Ontario McClung moved first to Manitou, Manitoba with her husband, and then to Winnipeg in 1911, where she was not only active in the local political scene, but also a popular author.  Her first novel, Sowing the Seeds in Danny (1908) was a national bestseller, and led the way for the publication of 15 more books (nine novels and seven non-fiction works).  In 1914, she moved to Edmonton, was elected to the Alberta legislature in 1921, and in 1923, moved to a Tudor Revival house in Calgary.  Most of McClung's important political and social victories occurred while she lived here (1923-1935), and from this house she penned most of her novels, essays and newspaper articles. Connor House, Parks Canada / Maison Connor, Parcs Canada

By the time the Canadian Author's Association was formed, Winnipeg's Reverend Charles Gordon's (1860-1937) writing career was past its peak.  For over 20 years, Gordon had written under the pen name Ralph Connor, and his novels, including The Man From Glengarry (1901) and The Sky Pilot in No Man's Land (1919), combined melodrama and gripping adventure with the message of religious salvation and hope.  At the height of his career in 1913, he built a grand house in a secluded Winnipeg neighbourhood.  Overlooking the Assiniboine River, the property has a landscaped lawn, shrubbery, flowerbeds and trees, and the interior has marvellous exposed beam ceilings, rich quarter-cut oak paneling with extensive dark woodwork, and many carved details.  It is from here that Gordon wrote a number of his novels and entertained his friends.  In the 1930s, he served two terms as president of the Canadian Authors Association.

Mazo de la Roche, McMaster University Archives / les archives de l'université McMasterDespite their need for a stable quiet home, writers are generally a restless lot.  Mazo de la Roche (1879-1961) certainly embodied this restless spirit.  During her childhood, Roche moved 17 times.  During her productive writing career (which included 23 novels, 50 short stories, and 13 plays), she made 19 sea voyages to various parts of the world; lived in numerous Ontario locales (including Newmarket, Aurora, Richmond Hill, Galt, Acton, Bronte, Clarkson, Oakville, York Mills, Forest Hill, and Toronto) as well as in Québec, Nova Scotia, New England, and in 19 different residences in England!  This quest for a home seems to have found a permanent place in her saga of novels set at a fictional Ontario estate called Jalna.  She wrote the first book of the series in the mid 1920s while living in a cottage in Clarkson (now part of Mississauga) Ontario, located near a house named Benares.  This mid-19th century farmhouse was, at least in part, the inspiration for the fictional Jalna Estate.

Emily Carr House, Parks Canada / Maison Emily Carr, Parcs CanadaAnother restless soul was the artist Emily Carr (1871-1945), who travelled extensively to Europe and along the British Columbia coast in search of artistic inspiration and a place to call home.  As well as being a painter, Carr was also a writer, and drew much inspiration from her childhood home in Victoria B.C.  Built by her father in 1864 in a picturesque Italianate style, the Emily Carr House was where her desire to create and her appreciation of art began. Close to Beacon Hill Park and the shoreline, the landscape played an important role in Emily's appreciation of her natural environment.  The house was featured prominently in all her written work, and Carr provides particularly vivid descriptions of this home in The Book of Small (1942).

Though too young to be part of the founding group of writers in the Canadian Authors Association, Gabrielle Roy (1909-1983) is still worth mentioning because of her groundbreaking work in the French language.  Her first novel, Bonheur D'Occasion/The Tin Flute (1945), was a Gabrielle Roy, LAC / BACcommercial success, and she became an overnight literary star when the book won the Governor General's Literary Award.  This novel, as well as the psychologically dark Alexandre Chenevert (1954), gave gritty realistic portrayals of life in wartime and postwar Montréal.  Roy is also known for her nostalgic chronicle of early 20th century life in Winnipeg's French quarter, St. Boniface (La Petit Poule D'eau/Where Nests the Water Hen, 1950).  From 1950 onwards, she lived in Château St. Louis in Québec City.  Her childhood home in St. Boniface is now a National Historic Site.

These authors - and others - helped bring Canadian writing onto the world stage.  In doing so, they drew inspiration from homes and landscapes that helped define our national identity.  These same places inspire us today as we continue to tell stories about ourselves.

Information about the Canadian Authors Association

Additional Information on Authors and Publishing:

McMaster University Archives and Special Collections:

Historical Perspectives on Canadian Publishing

Manitoba Historical Society and University of Manitoba Archival Collection:

Library and Archives Canada: