Date of Award

9-2003

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

Supervisor

Professor James King

Abstract

This dissertation explores the phenomenon whereby a number of deceased Canadian women writers have had their lives utilized in subsequent works of fiction, drama, poetry, film, and biography. The dissertation gives this phenomenon a name-biographical influence-and argues that it represents a challenge to traditional literary canonicity in the Canadian context. Whereas literary canonicity has traditionally been the domain ofliterature professors, the phenomenon of biographical influence may be read as a writer-enacted substitution for traditional canonicity. This writer-enacted canon is comprised of literary heroines who have been elevated to their status not, as is traditional, because of the value oftheir work. Rather, entry to this new canon is reserved for writers whose lives often come close to eclipsing the value ascribed to their work. This is an ironic canonicity that valorizes the writer's life, while claiming to valorize the writer's work. Recent critiques by Lucasta Miller of the Bronte myth, Jacqueline Rose and Janet Malcolm of Sylvia Plath's posthumous status, and by Brenda Silver of Virginia Woolfs iconicity are a manifestation of the cross-pollination of Cultural Studies discourse with English Studies that this dissertation seeks to emulate. While Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" comes closest to providing the language with which to name the phenomenon this thesis describes, his theory does not account for three important differences in the Canadian context. First, instead of re-writing precursors' works, in Canadian literature, writers re-write their precursors' lives. Second, instead of this re-writing coming from a defensive position, in Canadian literature the intention is to aid the precursor's reputation, in many cases to solidify it. Finally, Bloom's theory cannot explain why it is that in Canadian literature, most "precursors" are women and not men. In the foreshortened female literary careers of Gwendolyn MacEwen and Pat Lowther, as well as in Susanna Moodie's life, the dissertation argues that some contemporary Canadian writers have found, among other things, a metaphor for expressing the large odds against literary success in this country. To explain the metaphor, the dissertation elaborates an argument based on Nancy Armstrong's reading of the rise of the novel that sees literary desire as the basis of biographical influence in Canada. It then uses close readings of works in which Susanna Moodie, Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Pat Lowther appear as characters, as well as Carol Shields' Swann and Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assasin-novels where biographical influence is fictionalized-as evidence for the phenomenon of biographical influence.

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