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Sara Jeannette Duncan
Born in Brantford, Ontario, in 1861, Sara Jeannette Duncan spent her entire career as a journalist and novelist, with her first publications in the Toronto Globe at age 19. By age 23, Duncan had commenced an extremely successful freelance journalism career, writing in various North American newspapers under the pseudonym “Garth Grafton” (Dean 9). She wrote a regular column about literature and politics for the Washington Post in the fall and summer of 1885; all of these articles are featured in this archive.
Duncan released her first novel, A Social Departure, in 1890. It was a fictionalized account of her 1888 travels around the world with a fellow fledgling Canadian journalist, Lily Lewis. After this publication, Duncan began to focus more on being a novelist than a newspaper columnist, though her publications still appeared in various newspapers. She was a prolific writer, releasing approximately twenty-five novels leading up to her death in 1922.
Duncan is perhaps best known for The Imperialist, a novel which addressed issues of race and gender in Canada under English rule. Misao Dean, editor of the 2005 Norton edition, posits the book as a “New Woman” novel, as it, specifically, offers critiques of the limits of marriage and contemporary sexual norms for women (26). Scholars often posit Duncan’s work as a part of the “New Woman” genre. Mandy Treagus writes about her novel A Daughter of Today in this sense, as Duncan was unafraid to portray her heroine, Elfrida Bell, as an unapologetic, artistic “egoist”. Duncan’s work (earlier and later, journalism and novels) often included various “New Woman” ideas and archetypes: critiques of marriage and sexual mores, praise for women’s education, and portrayals of somewhat unusual or socially outcast women.
In addition to these “New Woman” themes, Duncan often commented on colonialism and, specifically, Anglo-India in her writings. Shortly after publishing A Social Departure, Duncan married Everard Cotes, an English citizen living in India whom she met in her travels. After their marriage, Duncan began to spend most of her time in India, which her journalism and novels reflect. Many of Duncan’s novels take place in India, including Vernon’s Aunt: Being the Oriental Experiences of Miss Lavinia Moffat (1894) and The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib (1893). Although she portrays some multifaceted Indian characters (notably in A Social Departure), Duncan’s Indian characters tend to be secondary to her white, English characters. They often serve as archetypal servants for white characters, and Duncan often portrays Indian characters as thieves, swindlers, and misogynists. Still, Duncan’s satirical mode of writing often expressed an equal lack of credence in her white characters’ knowledge of India and basis for their colonialism. Even as Duncan tended to minimize more complex Indian characters in her work, she still often subtly (notably in The Simple Adventures) critiqued colonialism and colonists.
In this archive, I have gathered, primarily, examples of Duncan’s early journalism. Due to the difficulty in finding her earlier Canadian work, these articles come from her 1885 tenure as a columnist at the Washington Post, when she was only 23. Duncan’s early writings reveal her long-standing fascination with topics like gender, colonialism, national identity, and religion. Early in her career, she remains generally uninterested in the thoughts and issues of married women, something which A Social Departure reflects. After she marries herself and relocates to India, where the memsahib was a well-known and, often, reviled cultural symbol, Duncan becomes more concerned with married women and issues of domesticity. In gathering Duncan’s earlier journalism, prior to her global voyage, I hope to illuminate the younger, carefree, quintessentially New Woman Duncan, who often gets lost in the discussions of imperialism and politics in her later, more well-known novels. At the same time, I hope to reveal themes in Duncan’s journalism which her later novels reflect. Such themes include…
Humor/Satire: Duncan was unafraid of bold take-downs of popular figures and institutions. She pokes fun at self-proclaimed scientific geniuses, patriotic Americans, nepotism, and, especially, any sort of male who attempted to extend authority over women. These include men who dictated women’s fashions, attempted to take over women’s typical jobs, and, perhaps most bitingly satirical, offered unsolicited advice for women via newspapers. Duncan rarely speaks sincerely; instead, she sarcastically thanks male journalists for their advice, tells Lutfullah that his justification of polygamy makes sense, etc. Duncan maintains this sense of humor later in her career, with her novels generally being lighthearted in tone. She does become less fearlessly sarcastic, though. Her narrators often poke fun at their characters or suggest that they are not as bright as they would like to think, but she generally does not offer her cruelly acerbic take-downs of sexism and ignorance in her later, novelistic works.
Feminism and Gender: As I mentioned previously, Duncan tends to direct her ire towards men directing women’s lives. She is fearless in writing satirically about her coworkers, bosses, and potential readers. Duncan does not comment on issues of domesticity in the home and only once speaks (favorably) about women’s suffrage. Instead, she expresses anger towards men trying to displace women economically and control their decisions. Her focus recalls the words of Sally Ledger, writing in The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin-de-Siecle : “there was a very real fear that she (the New Woman) may not be at all interested in men, and could manage quite well without them” (Ledger 5). Duncan, in her earlier writings, is not so interested in the plight of the male-partnered woman or how woman can make themselves fit into male-dominated society. To put it crudely, Duncan seems wish for men to leave intelligent, young, single women like herself alone. A Social Departure, with its focus on two single women travelling independently (and negative portrayal of Orthodocia’s ultimate marriage) seems to reflect this attitude; Duncan’s later novels are less radical, often focusing on dynamics between men and women in relationships. As I mentioned previously, her becoming surrounded by stereotypical ideas regarding the memsahib (along with her own marriage), likely helped shift her attitude.
Race and Religion (with regard to gender): Duncan does demonstrate one theme which will become central in her later writings: how gender dynamics vary among different racial and religious groups. She writes twice about the autobiography of Lutfullah, a Muslim man who attempts to sound as “normal” and appealing to the English as he can. Duncan sarcastically puts down Lutfullah’s openness to polygamy, but, in her later article, also puts down Muslim women, suggesting they are not educated enough (as Duncan is) to realize the misogyny they experience. Duncan will express similar sentiments about Indians in her later writings, and, eventually (in Simple Adventures, notably) move on to more complicated writings regarding race and gender, positing Indian people as more progressive regarding gender when it is convenient for her message.
National Identity: Duncan is proud of being Canadian, and, to a lesser extent, an English subject. Her feminism does not lead to egalitarianism regarding ethnicity; she seems to, rather blatantly, consider Canadians (and, specifically, Canadian women) kinder, less gossipy, and overall better individuals. She puts down Americans as hyper-patriotic individuals who fetishize Native Americans and diminish their own dark past. She also considers American literature usually inferior. The fact that Canada is still a British settler colony does not perturb her greatly, though she does gently poke fun at the English aristocracy. Her attitudes towards colonialism, particularly in India, would get a bit more ambivalent later in life. She never wrote explicitly and openly against all aspects of imperialism, but many of her later novels offer subtly critiques of the British mission in India.
In addition to the archive of Washington Post articles, I have included two later Duncan pieces, both of which address themes related to Anglo-India. Her articles maintain their same humorous tone and fascination with national identity, but, in a sense, they seem somewhat sadder in mission and less bold in their satire. Duncan does not address her biting tone towards the social structures which require the memsahib to stay in the home. Instead, she makes fun of Indian servants, depicting them as shallow figures who love their bosses and are not good at their jobs. "East Indian Servants" offers a bit more sympathy, talking about how her readers do not really know the inner lives of their servants but, at the same time, still maintains that Indian servants do not have any rebellious urges nor talent at their positions.
Thus, I would like to offer the conclusion that Duncan, as she became older and more experienced, became a less radical writer with regard to gender especially. Her early writings for the Washington Post demonstrate a fearlessness in her feminist critiques and satire. She diverges from many feminist contemporaries by appearing uninterested in the plight of women in heterosexual relationships and, instead, wishes for men to have less say overall in women’s lives. In later novels, she becomes more interested in what the domestic wife or memsahib must go through. At the same time, Duncan’s views regarding national identity become more complex in her later works. Her journalism and many of her novels offer short-sighted portrayals of Indian people, and often, Duncan would simply use Indian people at her whim in order to make points about gender relations within white society. Still, the Duncan who wrote The Imperialist could hardly be described as a proud Canadian and English subject anymore. Similarly, she slightly softened her view of Americans, portraying them somewhat positively in A Social Departure and An American Girl in London. Duncan’s earlier, Washington Post articles portray an unapologetic, radical, yet somewhat short-sighted writer. As she grows older, travels more, and writes for a broader audience, Duncan, perhaps expectedly, softens her earlier sarcasm, one-sidedness, and radicalism.
Using This Archive
I have divided this archive into two major sections. The first compiles Duncan’s early Washington Post pieces, and the second contains examples of Duncan’s later journalistic writing as means to demonstrate the thematic transition she goes through. I have also included a section devoted to article tags in order to more specifically precisely portray the themes which Duncan writes about. Finally, I have included a works cited page, encompassing both the included articles and supplementary texts I have used.