5 surprising facts about Emily Carr and Kitty O'Reilly, who inspired Kit Pearson's YA novel

Kit Pearson's A Day of Signs and Wonders was a finalist for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.
Kit Pearson's book A Day of Signs and Wonders is inspired by the childhood of Canadian artist Emily Carr. (TD Canadian Children's Literature Award)

Kit Pearson's A Day of Signs and Wonders is an imagined account of a day in the life of a young Emily Carr. The YA novel, which was a finalist for the 2017 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award, imagines the artist spending a day with Kathleen "Kitty" O'Reilly, a child of Victoria's upper class.

While A Day of Signs and Wonders is fiction, Pearson was inspired by the lives of two very real women. Here are a few facts about Carr and O'Reilly that might surprise you. 

1. Emily Carr was much more than a painter

As a writer, Carr penned several autobiographies and journals about her travels and experiences across the province. Her writing drew on her fascination with B.C.'s Indigenous people and their art. In The Heart of a Peacock, Carr tries her hand at ethnography and muses on the significance of the birds carved onto totems, dedicating a chapter to the craftsmanship of Indigenous sculptors. 

2. Kitty O'Reilly wasn't the only Victorian unimpressed by Emily Carr's art

Emily Carr and Kathleen "Kitty" O'Reilly both spent their childhoods in Victoria, B.C. (Point Ellice House)

When Emily Carr spends time painting the shores of Victoria with Kitty O'Reilly in A Day of Signs and Wonders, O'Reilly is unimpressed by her friend's work. In her autobiography Growing Pains, Carr writes that most other Victorians "never approved" of her painting either, although they loved her 1941 Governor General's Literary Award-winning book, Klee Wyck. Still, Carr says that even once her painting was accepted by eastern Canadians, few western Canadians embraced it. 

3. Neither woman ever married

Marriage perplexed Carr. She wrote as much in her 1939 journal entry, Shadow of War. Having refused a proposal in 1900, Carr distanced herself from women who chose to dedicate their lives to their husbands and often remarked on the social pressures this created for unwed women at the time. 

O'Reilly also never married. Instead, she dedicated her time to hosting Victoria's socialites at her home. Among her guests was Robert Falcon Scott, the explorer who would later venture to the South Pole.

4. The trees of British Columbia inspired Carr — and Kit Pearson

The Emily Carr painting "Yan, Q.C.I." (1912) (The Canadian Press/HO-Art Gallery of Ontario)

In her novel, Pearson lines the path between Emily and Kitty's houses with trees. She recently told CBC Books that the province's trees amazed her when she first moved there from Edmonton as a girl. British Columbian forests seem to have had the same effect on Emily Carr herself. The artist painted trees constantly, and her 1942 short story collection The Book of Small offers an intimate look at life in a turn of the century Victoria filled with greenery and plant life. 

5. Kitty O'Reilly's childhood home may be haunted

Point Ellice House, Kitty's childhood home in A Day of Signs and Wonders, is now a National Historic Site owned by the Province of B.C. Those in charge of the estate have preserved the family's Victorian furniture and household items. However, visiting tourists may not be the only ones walking the halls of Point Ellice House. According to Robert C. Belyk's anthology, Ghosts: True Tales of Eerie Encounters, the manor is known for its sightings of deceased residents like Kitty. 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Robert Falcon Scott died before reaching the South Pole.

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