AMAZING NEWS ABOUT MAVIS GALLANT’S MOTHER

As you know, I was very proud to be Mavis Gallant’s Canadian Publisher.After I brought out From The Fifteenth District in 1978, we were in constant touch, and I was delighted that my suggested title, Home Truths, won the Governor-General’s Award in 1981, in my jubilant words, “truly bringing Mavis home”.
Over the years, in addition to our regular correspondence, we met and chatted in Montreal, Paris, New York, and Toronto. When she was Writer in Residence at The University of Toronto in 1983-4, we saw a lot of each other.
I thought I knew her.
Yet when I wrote my chapter about her in Stories About Storytellers, I was surprised to find how little information there was about her parents. Recently, however, I came across Stephen Henighan’s essay in the Guernica Editions book, Clark Blaise: Essays on His Works (Edited by J.R.(Tim) Struthers.
What a revelation!
Professor Henighan has researched this area with imaginative care and persistence. He writes: ” At the time of Gallant’s death in February 1914, virtually all newspapers echoed The New York Times in repeating the incorrect statement . “Ms Gallant was born in Montreal to an American mother…..”
He goes on: ” It is astonishing that none of the book-length studies of Gallant’s work, published by Neil K. Besner, Lesley D. Clement, Judith Skelton Grant, Janice Kulyk Keefer, Grazia Merler, Danielle Schaub, and Karen E. Smythe, provides the names of Gallant’s parents. Only Grant offers a more detailed, albeit not entirely correct, account: “her mother, Canadian (but raised in the United States) of mixed heritage- German, Breton, Rumanian.””
Thanks to Henighan’s work we know that Mavis’s father was an Anglo Scottish immigrant to Canada, Captain Albert Stewart Young. His mother was, apparently, Scottish. Mavis, in her semi-autobiographical Linnet Muir stories. all set in her decade living and working in Montreal, played up the Scottish connection by naming the father “Angus”.
But let’s turn right away to Mavis’s astonishing mother.
Benedictine (Bennie) Wiseman was born around 1899 , either in Montreal or Romania. In 1913, according to York University criminologist Amanda Glasbeek, Bennie left Montreal ” cropped her hair, donned her brother’s clothing, and became Jimmy”. She worked by day at a Toronto department store and at night singing at a nickelodeon, once winning a singing prize for young men
Henighan takes up the tale: “After two months in Toronto, “Jimmy” was arrested at the corner of Yonge and Queen Streets by Constable McBurney…..Unmasked as a cross-dresser, she was tried for vagrancy. Newspaper accounts remarked on her defiance in court, and her unrepentant pride at having earned men’s wages of seven dollars a week…..On being questioned about her cross-dressing she answered: ‘What chance is there for a girl?’….As a girl I couldn’t get work, and I’ll just go back to boy’s clothes when I get a chance.”…..
The Toronto World provided this report of the conclusion of Bennie’s trial:” Passing out of the door she encountered the grinning policeman who had arrested her “I am sorry for you, so sorry!” she said, at which the grin disappeared, and Constable McBurney visibly lot two inches of his five foot eleven” (‘ Boy-Girl expresses Pity”)
Mavis was to inherit the ability to employ a devastating put-down,(“I’ll Kill Him!”) and also her mother’s concern for fair pay for both sexes.
Then,in April 1921, Bennie was arrested in New York State, for living with a man, R.O. Earl, to whom she was not married. She served three months in prison in Jamesville, near Syracuse, and then was deported to Canada (proving that she was indeed not American.)
This criminal record alarmed Captain Albert Stewart Young’s father, a colonel in the British army, who opposed his son’s plan to marry Bennie. But by then Bennie was pregnant, and the marriage went ahead, Mavis was born in 1922.

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3 comments on “AMAZING NEWS ABOUT MAVIS GALLANT’S MOTHER

  1. Cheryl Bell says:

    How interesting and surprising!

    • Douglas Gibson says:

      Indeed it is, Cheryl. I’m astonished how long this has remained secret, until James Henighan’s research revealed the amazing truth.

      • Douglas Gibson says:

        Curses.
        My admiration is, of course, for Stephen Henighan,of the University of Guelph, not his phantom relative James.

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