Remembrance Day. Is it enough to remember those who lost their lives fighting in the First World War? Sharon Johnston’s novel, Matrons and Madams (Dundurn 2015), asks us to consider what happened to the survivors. The question of what happens after has always interested me, and I think it is the question that separates newspaper stories, which report the accident, death, or tragedy, from literature, which asks how those involved got to that point and what happens to them because of it. .Johnston writes about what happens to two main characters, Clara and Lily, after the First World War, and how war affects their families.
Are you wondering why Sharon Johnston’s name sounds familiar? Yes indeed, she is one and the same, the wife of David Johnston, the Governor General of Canada. The pair visited Jordan, Jerusalem, and the West Bank recently, demonstrating amazing energy and boundless interest in all that crossed their paths.
What lovely timing that she sent me her novel in time for a Remembrance Day post.
The novel’s story arose from a family find: a dozen letters from 1929 that praised Sharon Johnston’s grandmother. Off she went to Lethbridge to find out why doctors and public figures felt compelled to heap praise on the matron of Galt Hospital.
The novel opens in 1919, the day the war ended, in London, England. Clara Durling lost her husband during the war, and experiences further loss in the first few pages of the novel. A Canadian surgeon encourages her to relocate to Canada, which she does. She accepts the challenge to whip Galt Hospital into shape, and takes her five-year old daughter Ivy with her.
Three years before their arrival in Lethbridge, a newlywed couple from Nova Scotia moved there: Lily (née White) to teach and her husband Ed Parsons to work in the mines. But events change their plans. Suffice it to say that Lily ends up running a house of prostitution to support herself and her son Teddy.
But there’s more, ever so much more. Johnston embeds her characters in a context that includes pregnancy out of wedlock, venereal disease, phantom limb pain and amputee rehabilitation, speech therapy, rationing, prohibition, gambling, bankrupting hospital bills, American union organizers, hepatitis, a Catholic priest who rapes a boy, revenge, suicide and deaths at Indian residential schools.
While the strength of this historical novel is the research that Johnston has put into it, there are moments when the prose, rather than dancing, thunks the floor with the heaviness of a wooden leg. Which simply means too much exposition at times, as in this piece of conversation that takes place in a pub soon before Clara’s departure. Clara is explaining Lethbridge to her sister and brother-in-law:
Lethbridge began as a mining town filled with amorous bachelors, so it tolerated prostitutes. The segregated area is a red-light district for brothels and some Chinese merchants that citizens refuse to have in the downtown area. Prohibition complicates things, according to Dr. Orr. He indicated that brothels are also a place to have a drink and as such most prosecutions are for liquor infractions. The ladies of the night themselves are rarely charged. I won’t know much more than that until I arrive.
It turns out that she knows more than that before she arrives because she meets the mayor, Alistair Harwood, en route. Were this novel taking place now rather than just after the Great War, Clara and Alistair would have been lovers. The two are friends who work together to establish a venereal diseases clinic in Lethbridge.
In one of the novels of Sara Jeannette Duncan the word “tweenie” is used, which left me a bit puzzled. Sharon Johnston has Clara clear that up for me: “Her goal as a young woman had always been to avoid the fate of being a tweenie, a job that was higher than a scullery maid, but lower than a cook.” (p. 42)
As the matron of the hospital, Clara has a job that is more important than a cook. Yet as the bridge between English and Canadian values, between the prostitutes and the condemnatory community, between the mayor and his opponents, between war and peacetime, she is a tweenie of the best sort.