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Fiction Historical

The Whirlpool

by (author) Jane Urquhart

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
May 2011
Historical, 20th Century, Literary
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2011
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2002
    List Price

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Written in luminous prose, The Whirlpool is a haunting tale set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, in the summer of 1889. This is the season of reckless river stunts, a time when the undertaker’s widow is busy with funerals, her days shadowed by her young son’s curious silence. Across the street in Kick’s Hotel, where Fleda and her husband, David McDougal, have temporary rooms, Fleda dreams of the place above the whirlpool where she first encountered the poet, a man who enters her life and, unwittingly, changes everything. As the summer progresses, the lives of these characters become entangled, and darker, more sinister currents gain momentum.

The Whirlpool, Jane Urquhart’s first novel, received Le prix du meilleur livre étranger (Best Foreign Book Award) in France and marked the brilliant debut of a major voice in Canadian fiction.

About the author

Jane Urquhart was born in the far north of Ontario. She is the author of eight internationally acclaimed novels, among them The Whirlpool, which received France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger; Away, winner of the Trillium Award, The Underpainter, winner of the Governor General’s Award and a finalist for the Orange Prize in the UK and The Stone Carvers, which was a finalist for the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award and Britain’s Booker Prize. She is also the author of a collection of short fiction and four books of poetry. She has written a biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery and was editor of the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. Her work, which is published in many countries, has been translated into numerous foreign languages. Urquhart has received the Marian Engel Award and the Harbourfront Festival Prize. She is a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Urquhart has received ten honorary doctorates from Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto, University of Western Ontario and the Royal Military College of Canada. She has served on the Board of PEN Canada, on the Advisory Board for the Restoration of the Vimy Memorial and on several international prize juries including that of the International Dublin IMPAC Award, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the American International Neustadt Award.

Her most recent novel, The Night Stages, was released in 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US, McClelland and Stewart in Canada and Oneworld in the UK.

Urquhart lives in southeastern Ontario with her husband, artist Tony Urquhart.

Jane Urquhart's profile page

Excerpt: The Whirlpool (by (author) Jane Urquhart)

At Halstead in England, during the last half of the nineteenth century, employees at Courtauld Limited wove secret cloth on secret looms in secret factories. Warp, woof . . . warp, woof. Like makers of Venetian glass they were devoted to their craft and frightened of their masters. They took, therefore, the coveted recipe for crape with them to their graves. The Courtaulds held the monopoly in mourning garb; it was the key to their immense fortune, and they wanted to make absolutely sure that they kept it.

The workers – mute, humble, and underpaid – spent twelve hours a day, in hideous conditions, at their steam-powered looms pounding black silk threads into acres of unpleasant cloth. In ten years, enough crape had been produced to completely cover the province of Quebec. In twenty, the whole empire could have been wrapped; a depressing parcel with a black sheen.

Still, death being what it is, there was often not enough cloth to go around. After major epidemics, or during wars, women would be forced to have their mourning attire made of less prestigious fabrics; bombazine or, in desperation, black cotton or wool. Men never had this problem. The same black hat-band did well for each bereavement.

Real crape did not hang down in smooth, graceful folds like cotton. It did not cuddle like wool. It encased the female body, instead, in a suit of crumpled armour, tarnished to a dull black. It scraped at the neck and dug at the armpits. It clung to the limbs and rasped at the shoulder blades. It lacerated the spine if that series of bones ever dared to relax. And it smelled, always, of grave mud and sorrow.

In Niagara Falls, Canada, the undertaker’s widow, Maud Grady, was forced to wrap herself in real Courtauld crape. No cheap, comfortable imitations for her; she felt duty bound to set an example. The perfect symbol of animate deep mourning, she wore crimped crape for two full years, adding, when the first few months had passed, some jet beads and a small amount of fringe to her costume. Much of her average day was spent organizing the paraphernalia of bereavement: black parasol, black stockings, underwear edged in black ribbon, black-framed stationery, black ink making black words, black sealing wax, black veil, black bonnet tied under the chin in a menacing black bow. The child, too, she dressed in crape for the first six months, moving to greys and mauves when that period was over.

It hadn’t been at all pleasant. Apart from the physical discomfort, there was the accompanying fear of weather; of heat and of precipitation. The smallest bit of moisture, fog, or even minor amounts of perspiration would cause the colour of the fabric to bleed through to her skin until, some nights when she undressed, her body looked as if it had been the victim of a severe beating. For a while she made use of a smelly concoction of tartar and oxalic acid in an attempt to remove the stains. Finally, however, despite a liberal sprinkling of rosewater, her whole bedroom reeked of chemicals. At that point she decided to let the black marks on her skin accumulate. Who would know? Who would care? She could fix it all later, if she survived.

At night, she dreamed dreams about her dead husband. Often he appeared in the very bedroom where she slept to announce that he had just died and would be busy for the next few days embalming himself and arranging his own funeral. He always had a black band wound around his hat out of respect for his own passing and a look on his face of profound sorrow. Maud would offer him a cape made of crape but he would reject it, outright, as if it had been something intended for the opera. Guiltily, in the dream, after this refusal, Maud would once again drape the heavy material on her own shoulders realizing, as she did so, where it rightfully belonged.

He walked through her dreams in a shroud of thick webs. There was nothing ghoulish about this, nothing even surprising. Apart from the art of embalming, his only interest had been in the habits of spiders. During his short adulthood he had studied them obsessively, collecting members of the species, recording their activities in a growing series of notebooks.

After two or three months of widowhood and strange dreams, Maud decided to have an elaborate brooch made out of a lock of her husband’s hair, his dead hair; an oval frame of gold would surround two desolate hairy willows which would, in turn, flank a hairy tombstone with his initials on it. All of this was to be placed under a bubble of thin glass; a sort of transparent barrier between that tiny hairy world of graves and weeping and the one that Maud walked around in every day. A barrier, but one that was easy enough to see through nonetheless.

Once the piece of jewellery was fabricated, she pinned it, after nightmares, at her gradually blackening throat each morning. Looking at herself and at the oval jewel in the centre of her collar in the mirror, she had to admit that one of the hairy willows looked remarkably like a spider that had been captured, chloroformed, and kept.

He had died on the same day as his parents. The epidemic, carried by him into the house after contact with a corpse, had spread like a fog into the three related sets of lungs, leaving Maud and the child (then two) completely untouched – not even a sniffle.

Maud, shock having cancelled fear, had nursed them all . . . had watched them die. She would always remember how the child stared from three separate doorways, his eyes widening when the convulsions set in. It simply had not occurred to her to remove him from the scene. Besides, there was no one to tend to him. The staff had decided to remain at home rather than risk the disease.

Oddly, she would also always remember the colours each of the dying faces had turned during the throes: Charles’ green; her mother-in-law’s red; and her father-in-law’s purple. Emotional, really, she had thought at the time, and quite in keeping with their personalities: Charles resigned; her mother-in-law flustered; her father-in-law furious with anything he couldn’t control. While one half of Maud’s brain turned to ice at the horror, the other remained curious and alert. Details, such as the way that hands picked at bedclothes or the way heads dented pillows, absorbed her. She found herself counting the number of seconds which passed between one dying breath and the next. Until there was no breath left at all.

All over town, behind shades drawn against the sun, people were dying. Maud knew the significance of the repetitive knocking at her door, knew parents and children were seeking the services of the undertaking establishment. She did not, could not, answer with three of her own dying upstairs and her heart inhabiting some other land where explanations were impossible. She found herself thinking of burial practices during medieval plagues; carts filled with bodies destined for huge, hastily dug pits. Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead.

Charles died first. He inhaled deeply and smoothly, his first unlaboured breath for hours, opened his eyes, looked directly at Maud with an even gaze and, just as one heartbeat of hope reached her breast, he shrugged and disappeared, leaving behind a body that she hardly recognized.

His parents were more conventional. They gurgled and rattled appropriately before collapsing into absence. Maud left each of them alone, untouched, in their separate rooms with their eyes open.

Outside, the glorious weather of late spring continued as if nothing at all had changed – shadows of low, white, fluffy clouds on the garden and all the fruit trees in full bloom. For the first twelve hours after those dramatic morning deaths Maud spent her time at windows, the child near her skirts, silent, almost forgotten. She watched the yard all afternoon, noting how the sun moved, lending light to first one, then another of the flower-beds. The wind changed at some point and all the plants that had previously bent to the west began to bend to the east. Birds arrived and departed. A rabbit ate a third of the first crop of lettuce in the vegetable garden, unhurriedly, as if he knew he would not be disturbed.

In the early evening she walked into the sunroom at the opposite side of the house and looked down at the street, very empty now because of the epidemic. The breeze had picked up considerably and little whirlwinds of dust, mixed with a few petals from apple blossoms, moved quietly down Main Street. Most of the shops were closed and the rocking chairs on the verandah of Kick’s Hotel were all vacant. For a moment or two Maud wondered if she and the child were the sole survivors, if bedrooms all over town were filled with corpses. Then a streetcar rumbled into sight, occupied by three or four apparently healthy passengers.

She was still gazing through glass when the gas-lamps were lit. These sudden illuminations caused her to stir and stretch and begin to move around the house. Wandering from room to room of the building that had never belonged to her, lighting lamp after lamp, Maud stared at the possessions of her inlaws which, in their haphazard placement, had become a kind of testimonial to the rapidity of the disease. The account book open on the desk in the sunroom where Charles had left it, her father-in-law’s pipe resting in a bowl in the parlour, her mother-in-law’s unfinished embroidery, the needle halted in mid-stitch. She decided to visit, for the first time, the storage room at the back of the building where the strange, relatively new embalming equipment was kept. Just three years ago, Charles and his friend Sam had received an embalming certificate, each, from the school in Rochester. In order to avoid the inevitable loss of income that would be the result of Charles’ friend opening up his own business, the elder Mr. Grady had immediately hired him. Now Sam would be the only licensed embalmer in Canada.

In the small manufactory adjacent to the storage room, Maud examined coffins. She ran her hands along the smooth wood and downy velvet she had never dared to touch, wondering if Jas the carpenter had survived the sickness and, if so, what kind of boxes he would choose, or prepare, for her husband and inlaws upstairs. Humorous stories she had heard Charles repeat ran inexplicably through her mind: coffins too short or too narrow for certain individuals; dignified military officers with maggots crawling out of their ears; the time that Charles’ father had backed accidentally into a grave, smashing the coffin and causing even the most grief-stricken mourners to titter.

During that first long night, while the child slept, Maud brought every moveable source of light into the parlour and there, surrounded by scores of candles and several coal-oil lamps, she began to play the piano – loudly, fiercely. By four in the morning she had exhausted her entire repertoire; all of the Canadian Hymnal and the few pieces of classical music she had learned as a girl. At regular intervals she played and sang “God Save the Queen.” Once she rose from the piano bench to close the doors of the three rooms where her family lay. She didn’t, somehow, want to disturb them.

At six a.m., after playing the hymn “Unto the Hills” for the ninth time, Maud abruptly left the piano, washed her face, ran a comb hastily through her hair, and descended the staircase that led to the world. Soon she was at Sam the embalmer’s door, offering him a substantial raise in pay and a position as manager of the business. From there she went to the housekeeper’s, to Jas the carpenter, and to the home of the man her father-in-law had hired to help in the garden and in the stables. Her conversations with these individuals were terse, perfunctory. Everyone was dead, she said, except for her and the child. She intended to survive, and it was her wish that the business should continue as usual. If they did not want to retain their positions they should tell her now so that she could replace them. If, however, they wished to stay on they should report for work in exactly one hour.

The house looked entirely different to her when she returned, as if the colours of the upholstered furniture had deepened, as if the patterns in the wallpaper had become more pronounced during her short absence. When she entered the child’s room, vivid colour lithographs of harmless lambs and ponies seemed to leap at her from the walls in a menacing fashion. The child’s own little face among the bedclothes was so startlingly beautiful, so vehemently alive, even in sleep, that, for a minute or so, Maud was afraid to waken him. By seven-thirty, however, she had him dressed and in the kitchen. There she quickly located the utensils which, until that moment, had been touched only by the housekeeper. While the child attacked a plateful of toast and jam and swallowed mugfuls of milk, Maud fixed herself a cup of strong coffee.

Half an hour later she was walking down the long, dark hall, past the three separate doors, into the brightness of the sunroom. She situated herself at Charles’ desk in front of the open ledger. She flipped up the silver lid of his inkwell and lifted his pen in her hand.

When at the end of the morning she heard the men climb the stairs with their canvas stretchers, she leaned back exhausted in her husband’s chair and surveyed her labours. She was amazed to see that she had brought the account book almost entirely up to date.

Today, exactly two years after the fatal date, was her first of halfmourning. Maud was able, therefore, to dress herself in a black and white cotton stripe, with long sleeves and a high neck, not neglecting, of course, the special brooch. She sat now in the sunroom, surrounded by the pungent aroma of the tartar and oxalic acid, which she had been scrubbing into her skin for most of the morning. The results had not been entirely satisfactory but she had succeeded, at last, in turning her upper torso from mottled black to spotty grey. Short of removing two layers of skin, she knew she would have to stop there for the time being.

She leaned back in the chair and felt the uncorseted part of her back respond to the cool cotton. Her greatest joy would come in the afternoon when, veilless, she would venture into the streets to do a few errands. For the past two years she had looked at the world beyond her walls through the permanent cloud of her black veil, occasionally latticed, when the wind blew them to the front, by the black ribbons, or weepers, from her oppressive bonnet. Not that she had gone far. Crape was not made for strolling about in. It clung to her blackstockinged thighs (her petticoat was made of the same fabric), while the weepers stuck to the material around her shoulders, making it impossible for her to move her head. This, combined with the partial blindness caused by the veil, had led her, more than once, into the path of an oncoming streetcar or carriage. Had it not been for her acute sense of hearing she might have joined her husband in Drummond Hill Cemetery months ago.

Just as she had done for the past two years, she was spending the morning working on accounts. But now she held the pen as easily as a teaspoon in her hand, and the scratch, scratch of the nib was as familiar as the sound of her own breathing. The dreams had subsided; Charles visiting her bedroom, now, only once or twice a month. It was as though he was forgetting her, she thought, rather irrationally, for, in truth, she was forgetting him. Not their time together but his physical actuality.

She could no longer bring his face clearly into her mind. As time went by, in fact, Maud found it more and more difficult to believe that she had ever been married at all, more and more difficult to believe that the pen she held in her hand had not always been her own.

Disaster had not disappeared, but it had diminished in size, had become, in a sense, manageable; no larger than the words one might use to describe it.

Editorial Reviews

“A spell-binder, in the literal sense. . . . Urquhart has brilliantly evoked the texture of a late Victorian summer and created within it a strange, yet entirely believable tale of obsession.”
–Sandra Gwyn

“A tightrope walk across the marvellous. . . . In a tour de force of Canadian fiction, she plunges into the mysterious whirlpool of our collective psyches.”
Canadian Fiction Magazine

“A jewel of a book: its finely polished facets are full of light, yet suggest numerous depths.”
Globe and Mail

“She is clearly a courageous stylist with a unique vision.”
–Timothy Findley

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