Revisiting Sinclair Ross's novel about false fronts and the struggle for authenticity
Welcome to Episode 5 of The Backlist, a series about Canadian novels that have fallen out of public memory — or never got the attention they deserved in the first place.
We never learn the full name of the woman who narrates Sinclair Ross's 1941 novel As For Me and My House. She is known to us only as Mrs. Bentley, the wife of a minister in a small Saskatchewan town called Horizon.
But we get extraordinary insight into her interior world — the small wounds and tensions that define her suffocating marriage, and her hunger for a bigger, freer life.
In her diary, she writes, "Three little false-fronted towns before this one have taught me to erect a false front of my own, live my own life, keep myself intact."
"I think that everyone bears a false front," writer Guy Vanderhaeghe told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright. "I think, for me, the novel is about the struggle that almost every human being has — and that's to be himself or herself."
Novel more relevant than ever
Vanderhaeghe believes the novel's exploration of the struggle to live an authentic life is more relevant than ever today.
"In the 1930s, and in a small Saskatchewan town, the constraints of religious piety, of conventional behaviour — that was the outside struggle that [the characters] have to make," he said.
"I sometimes think that, in the present world that we live in, given social media, Horizon, Sask., is in fact that whole social global media [world] out there, that constantly judges any individual who might step out of line."
Ross spent most of his life in the closet, and his sexual orientation became public knowledge after his death.
I'm assuming that his entire life was a struggle to achieve his being, his own authenticity.- Guy Vanderhaeghe
"For me to imagine being either gay or bisexual, or having any preferences that were considered at that time perverse or sinful … [that] would have been an incredible burden to bear," said Vanderhaeghe.
"I'm not saying that Sinclair Ross wrote a novel to moralize about anything. I'm assuming that his entire life was a struggle to achieve his being, his own authenticity.
"And these characters carry that burden, of him working his way through the strictures that were of his own time, but the strictures that continue for all of us."
Ross's own mother dismissed his work
As For Me and My House got a cold reception when it was first published.
For much of his life, Ross viewed himself as a literary failure — once telling a friend that collecting stamps or butterflies would have been more fun than writing.
"Even his own mother dismissed his work. I think at one point she said, 'Why don't you write something somebody wants to read? The only thing you write about is wind and horses,'" Vanderhaeghe said.
But years later, As For Me and My House was hailed as a classic, and praised for its psychological depth and bleak, beautiful descriptions of prairie life.
Vanderhaeghe hopes new readers will take the novel's themes as a challenge.
"I often think that the book is an argument for human beings to actually look at themselves very closely and discover who they are," he said.
- MORE FROM THE BACKLIST | Hugh MacLennan's novel about a love triangle, fighting fascism and 1930s Montreal
- MORE FROM THE BACKLIST | Revisiting Austin Clarke's novel about memory, migration and a chance encounter
Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.