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From riches to rags: Elspeth Cameron on the rise and fall of her eccentric Aunt Winnie

Elspeth Cameron is one of two readers evaluating the submissions we received for the Canada Writes BloodLines competition. We thought she’d be a natural fit after she just published a book this fall about the life of her eccentric Aunt Winnie. 

Winifred May Stuart Cameron was the eldest child of one of Canada’s richest families at the dawn of the twentieth century. A Toronto debutante who never married, Aunt Winnie became stuck in time at age 18 and saw the city and times move on without her. She was ridiculed and loathed by much of her family, but she was one of Cameron’s favourite aunts and the merriest person she knew.

Read our interview with Elsepth Cameron and an excerpt from Aunt Winnie.

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Tell us about your Aunt Winnie.
Aunt Winnie’s life is a story of riches to rags. She was born in 1901 with everything a woman could hope for. She was very rich because her father was manager of the first bank to open in Dawson City during the Gold Rush. That’s where she spent her first six years. After that, her family moved to Toronto, where her father rose in the Canadian Bank of Commerce. Winnie was an only child until a decade later when the only other child, her brother (my father), was born. Winnie was pampered, spoiled, and cherished, especially by her father. 

In 1919, when she turned 18, she came out into Toronto Society as a debutante. The elite she moved in was more British than the British. Bankers, like her father, industrialists, lawyers, doctors, and those of the military families that had survived the First World War. She was among the most beautiful, if not THE most beautiful of the debutantes that season. Her dance partners over the next few years were the sons of Toronto’s wealthiest families: the Eatons, the Masseys, the Blakes, the Cassels, the Christies, the Laidlaws, and so on. Yet she never married, despite having dozens of wealthy, eligible, attractive beaux. 

When her father died in 1924, he left her a fortune, which she inherited at age 30. She squandered this fortune bit by bit on a life that resembled that of upper class characters in Downton Abbey. She was presented at Buckingham Palace to King George VI and his Queen Elizabeth (as seen in The King’s Speech). But by the mid-sixties she was bankrupt, without even knowing what “bankrupt” meant. Her life after that was miserable, without her beautiful Chevrolet Impala and money to buy the most expensive clothes, or take cruises down south in the winter. She died alone and penniless in a public Collingwood nursing home in her early eighties.

What did you know about your Aunt Winnie while you were growing up?
Growing up I saw a great deal of Aunt Winnie. I was born during the war and spent my first year and a half with Winnie, my grandmother, my mother, and the maid, Kate, at their house in Rosedale. My father was there only on fortnightly leaves from Camp Borden where he was a military instructor, then Camp Commander. Winnie, who was never to have children, took an interest in me as the baby she never had. Later, I visited her often, taking the bus from Barrie to Toronto. Eventually, at age ten, I spent about four or five summers with my sister at the cabin she rented on Lake Simcoe near Shanty Bay. These were marvellous summers. Even as a student at U of T, I spent a great deal of time with Winnie. No one knew her as well as I did. Yet she spoke little about her past. Nor did my parents. So, until I looked through her scrapbooks, photo and news clip albums, and researched events in her life over the last few years, I knew almost nothing about her life before I was a part of it.

What made you want to tell her story?
I wanted to tell her story because she was ridiculed and loathed (or merely tolerated) by everyone, especially by my family (father, mother, sisters). I was probably the only one who loved her, apart from her parents. It was true, as they all said, that she was ignorant (having dropped out of BSS School, which she barely attended, at age 13). She was racist, rude, stubborn, prejudiced, blindly patriotic, and self-indulgent. She was also the merriest person I ever knew, and a wonderful aunt to me. On the one hand she was a comic buffoon, and there were many times my sister and I rolled on the floor laughing at her outdated sayings and malapropisms. (Example: “If you girls don’t stop reading, you’ll ruin your looks!”) On the other hand, she felt entitled to be treated like a sort of member of the Royal Family, whose lives she followed with a passion. She was a larger-than-life presence wherever she went. Definitely one of a kind.



Aunt Winnie
by Elspeth Cameron

Chapter 11
BISHOP STRACHAN SCHOOL

Aunt Winnie did not believe in education. She would rather have stayed home where she was indulged by Dollie and the servants and could now pass her time playing with the new baby. Rigged out in lace and curls, he was a perfect plaything for his sister.

It was the fall after Donald was born that eleven-year-old Winnie was sent, against her will, to Bishop Strachan School, one of the four main girls’ private schools (Havergal College, Branksome Hall, and Loretto Abbey were the others) that educated the daughters of Toronto’s elite. (There were also a number of privately run girls’ finishing schools in the city.) At BSS girls would learn the basics of literature, math, and history, but also the social skills and manners that as ladies they would need once they married: needlework; a smattering of French (for reading menus and throwing an occasional bon mot into conversation); the correct way to drink from a soup spoon; how to pass both salt and pepper when asked for either; how to plan menus, set tables, and oversee laundry; the principles of childcare — or rather how to instruct others in childcare. The school, Wykeham Hall — an elaborate Victorian building — was then located in downtown Toronto on the corner of College and Yonge Streets facing Buchanan Street, not on Lonsdale Road near Upper Canada College where it stands today. Winnie was driven from Isabella Street to school by the family’s chauffeur. She used to arrive throwing her toast crusts out the window in front of the school, in somewhat the spirit with which Becky Sharp cavalierly tosses a dictionary out the coach window as she leaves her school in Vanity Fair.

Where Winnie learned to read, write, add, and subtract before she attended BSS is a mystery. Ontario law at the time required children between the ages of seven and twelve to attend school. Few girls remained in school after that; they helped at home or were sent out to work. Perhaps Winnie was taught at home by governesses; perhaps her Aunt Pussy taught her in Dawson City; perhaps she attended a small neighbourhood school. It is unlikely that Dollie had the force to instruct her. Yet Winnie had a smattering of these skills when she entered BSS.

The curriculum at BSS when Winnie began at age eleven in 1912 included the basic academic subjects: English grammar and composition, reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic and elementary geometry, Canadian history, and geography. The girls were also taught holy scripture and church catechism from an Anglican point of view. The “extras,” intended to refine the girls into ladies, were recitation, brushwork, nature study, sewing, and class singing. All the students took part in military drill. 

My mother — who had stood top of her matriculating class in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan — enjoyed saying that Winnie left BSS at age fifteen because she refused to read Thomas More’s Utopia. Certainly Winnie rebelled at being sent to school at all. She regarded it with the same loathing as David Copperfield did the Murdstones, and consistently maintained she hated it. Anything that involved work of any kind — especially intellectual concentration — bored or distressed her. When I read Utopia in preparation for my Ph.D. general exams (a five-day ordeal covering everything from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf), I saw her point. It focuses on politics and religion in 1515, during the reign of Henry VIII. Maybe because the book was written in Latin, English versions are heavy, turgid, and numbing. Some sentences are fifteen lines long. Who prescribed it for the daughters of Toronto’s elite? It could not have helped with small talk or planning dinner parties. When More was not much older than the adolescent Winnie he was studying law, wearing a hair shirt, using a log for a pillow, and whipping himself on Fridays. This lifestyle would never have appealed to Winnie. I’m certain she never understood what “utopia” meant, but had she been able to define her ideal society it would have involved playing at home with her baby brother, being waited on and driven anywhere she wanted by servants, and choosing and wearing beautiful clothes.


Excerpted from Aunt Winnie. Copyright © 2013 Elspeth Cameron. Published by Cormorant Books. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Elspeth Cameron is the author of three award-winning biographies: Hugh MacLennan: A Writer’s Life (1981), Irving Layton: A Portrait (1985), and Earle Birney: A Life (1994). Her 1997 memoir No Previous Experience won the W. O. Mitchell Literary Prize. Her book, And Beauty Answers (2007), was shortlisted for the 2008 Toronto Book Awards. She was also the recipient of the UBC Medal for Canadian Biography in 1981 and the City of Vancouver Book Award in 1995. 





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