Elspeth Cameron on Writing Lives and Aunt Winnie
Elspeth Cameron is an award-winning biographer and memoirist, and she blurs the two genres in her latest book Aunt Winnie. Winnie Cameron, Elspeth's aunt, was born in Seattle, raised briefly in Dawson City, and then moved to Toronto to live in Rosedale with her family in the 1910s. Over the course of her life, she saw the city change from one dominated by the English and Scotish immigrants, horse-drawn buggies, to a multicultural city where the car reigned supreme. But Winnie wasn't able to keep up with the times: she remained a perpetual debutante, and eventually became a bankrupt, unable to cope with the demands of her changing times.
Elspeth Cameron talked to us about her book, Toronto in the early 20th century, the difference between men's and women's archives, and about how a biography takes shape.
49th Shelf: Your Aunt Winnie skirted the edges of history in some fascinating ways—her early life in Dawson City during the Gold Rush and that dance with the Prince of Wales, for example. But you make clear that she was never of her history, always just outside of what was happening around her. What made her a compelling biographical subject anyway, beyond your close personal relationship with her?
Elspeth Cameron: I actually see her at the centre of some things. She was in one of the families that acquired tremendous wealth at a certain stage of Canada's history. Dawson brought her father vast wealth. He was one of the capitalists who was at the centre of Toronto's economic zenith from 1907 to the beginning of the Second World War. Being the son of a wealthy banker Scot who married the daughter of another wealthy banker Scot, he was among the Toronto social elite that expected to turn Canada into another (possibly better!) Britain. As an officer in the 48th Highlanders, he identified thoroughly with Britain's regimental military.
So what, you say? That's him, not his daughter Winnie. The point is that Winnie was raised at the centre of this intensely British era in Toronto. The values (elitist), the social life (snobbish), the loyalty to royalty and especially Scotland (almost religious) was what Toronto WAS in those days. She seems to me a symbol of this life. A sort of Canadian version of Gatsby.
So, Winnie's education was sorely neglected. Her attention was focused on social opportunities available only to the very rich. Yet even the middle and working classes did not yet question this class system. It was a given that Winnie would "come out" as a debutante. That she would marry into another wealthy Toronto family. All very Downton Abbey.
She did not marry, despite endless debutante balls and other events where she met virtually all of Toronto's rich, eligible young men. That's when she started to be marginalized. And that's when Toronto and Canada itself began to move away from Anglophilia towards democracy.
Winnie stubbornly held onto all those values she had been raised to cherish. These values became more and more "old-fashioned" and reactionary. I see it as sad, funny, touching, and eccentric that she never adapted to social change. By the 1980s, when she died, she was a ridiculous, pitiable figure.
What fascinates me is that her blind force of character and unwavering convictions about how life ought to be, made her a larger-than-life character. If I hadn't documented her life, no one would believe it was possible.
49th Shelf: Aunt Winnie is a unique blend of memoir and biography. Was it possible for you to situate yourself as an objective biographer in your depiction of Winifred Cameron? How did your understanding of her character and experiences change as you learned more about her during your research?
EC: I understood her much better after learning so much more than I knew. I could easily understand why she became "crazy Aunt Winnie" to the rest of my family. I also understood things she could never have articulated, such as the unpopular values she held and broadcast.
In my book I keep asking why my parents, and Winnie herself, never spoke about most of the information I discovered in my research. I still don't know why. But my research uncovered a great deal. I'd say about three-quarters of the information in my book was pure discovery for me.
So, the biography part of the book was done exactly as I have done my other biographies. I am a good researcher and knew where to look for information that would reveal the various contexts for Aunt Winnie's life. The photos and Winnie's large scrapbooks I already had, thanks to my mother's cleaning out her attic. There were other memorabilia too—like the hundred or so dance cards from her debutante days with Winnie's partners' names in them. It took arduous research to figure out from first names who these young men were. Turns out they were from well-known families, such as Eaton, Cassels, Blake, Massey, Christie, and Beardmore.
The memoir part also relies on research to some extent, though the book increasingly depends on my memory. Some of that is objective. Other parts are infused with feeling, mine and those of Winnie, my parents, and others. Readers tend (wrongly) to think of biography as fact. Yet biographers deal in emotions just as much as memoirists. Memoir is usually more personal and emotional than biography, yet it hopes to reveal the truth, too.
I have given many lectures and written extensively about truth in life writing. It is never attainable. Yet a sort of truth is revealed in good life writing. Sometimes that truth is factual; other times it is emotional. Most often, it is a blend of what various people think is the truth.
49th Shelf: What would she think of being the subject of a biography? Do you think this would have surprised her?
EC: It would have been completely incomprehensible to her. She might have said things like: "hogwash" or "bilge water". She might have asked questions such as: "Is this a book just for the family?" Or, "People can't buy this, can they?" Or, " Who'd want to read that claptrap?"
49th Shelf: Oh, I liked that claptrap! I was interested to see that Aunt Winnie contained a reference to Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, the subjects of your previous book, And Beauty Answers. What are other connections between Aunt Winnie and what you’ve written about before?
EC: The connection to Loring and Wyle is Toronto. They shared the same era as Aunt Winnie. In fact you could walk between their two houses in half an hour. Other than that, they couldn't differ more from Winnie. They were talented, educated, sophisticated, creative, hard-working, and bohemian, all of which Winnie wasn't. She was just beautiful and rich. Yet all three were part of the same exciting Toronto zeitgeist. The city was dynamically taking shape, moving quickly from Winnie's world of stuffy colonial Anglophilia towards it's odd and unique combination of Britain and American. Loring and Wyle were forging this new identity. That identity underlies our present multicultural society. It is not lost.
Winnie as subject is a departure for me because she was not a famous public figure. Far from it! In some ways, this book is more like my partial memoir No Previous Experience. Both are personal stories set in their contexts. MacLennan, Layton, Birney, Loring, Wyle, and Winnie (note the first name, not the surname) were all born around the same time. I didn't set out to write about this era. In each case the accessible and voluminous materials gave me the means of documenting this era in Canada. And the subjects were partly chosen by publishers who approached me. Happenstance. I don't think biographers in the future will be able to write so fulsomely about their subjects because transient email and social media have replaced the letters I was able to locate in archives and from individuals. I find that sad.
49th Shelf: Have you noted a difference in response to your biographies about women subjects and your biographies about men? A difference may stem from how the men loom larger as public figures, of course, but is there more to it than that? And was the research process different too?
EC: The first three were men. Before MacLennan (1981) there were no biographies of Canadian literary figures except short, old-fashioned, complimentary ones. By the time I did [Earl] Birney, I'd done three men, no women. I faced quite a bit of criticism (especially from feminists) about why I had not chosen a woman. My choices had not excluded women. They were the result of publishers approaching me with a project (subject) in mind. [Irving] Layton asked me to write about him. Birney's partner had a publisher lined up and together they asked me to write about him.
I could see the point though. So my next was definitely going to be a woman. Women, in fact: Loring and Wyle. I found it easier to research men than women. Ambitious and successful men often come with mothers who save stuff, or who instill a sense of future greatness. Successful men preserve their papers much more than successful women, in my experience. Layton's mother convinced him that he was the Messiah. Birney's mother kept the blonde hair from his first haircut and his first baby shoes. I found these in the archives. MacLennan's mother kept his childhood letters from camp and his grade school essays. That's the research side of things. Biographies depend—far more than most people realize—on the materials available to the biographer. There was some archival material for Loring and Wyle, but nothing like the vast amount of holdings on Earle Birney, who duplicated some material and sold it both to UBC and U of T. I'm not commenting on interviews here, which is another subject.
The same research methods apply to men and women. The writing depends on the kind of character(s) depicted. I could not use the steady, regular chapter method I used for MacLennan for the erratic, unpredictable Layton. Loring and Wyle posed challenges that resulted from writing an intertwined biography of two people more than any difficulties presented by their being women.
I don't think there was much difference in response to my biographies of women as opposed to men. Unfortunately, reviewers tend to regard biographies as indisputable truth, and summarize biographies instead of looking at how this particular biographer sees the subject's life and what methods are used in presentation. There is no such thing as a "definitive" biography. That's why there are often many biographies of the same subject. There are upwards of 75 biographies of Mary Queen of Scots, for instance.
49th Shelf: Can you talk about the structure of Aunt Winnie, which also uses something apart from steady regular chapters and features little in the way of overview at the beginning or end as a reader might expect. How did the shape of your book come to be? How does it suit its subject?
EC: I did not have a chapter plan. I wrote it more by feel and intuition than by intelligence. Sometimes a chapter would occur to me around an image or situation—especially the chapters after the point where I remembered things that happened or that were said. One such chapter was "THAT Chair." The chair, and who did and didn't sit in it—represented so much about my family and the way Winnie disrupted my family.
I never thought to give an overview at the beginning or the end. Even now, as you draw attention to it, it feels wrong. Such overviews are suitable, even necessary, in biographies of famous people. I leave it to the reader to form an overview or opinion of Winnie. Readers may respond differently. Quite differently. Depends on views of class, women's lives, feelings about Winnie herself. I like that freedom for the reader. I don't like telling people what to think.
So, Aunt Winnie simply IS. I hope I present her from many points of view and just let her be the intransigent character she was. Let the reader meet her.