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2007 03 20
Imagining Toronto | Reading Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians (1960)

Reportedly the first novel to feature Toronto's nascent City Hall on its cover, Phyllis Brett Young's The Torontonians (Longman's Green & Company, 1960) was an international bestseller in its time. Half a century later, the novel (published and reprinted in international editions for nearly a decade and its rights sold to Hollywood film producers) is almost entirely forgotten, as is Phyllis Brett Young herself. And yet, the rapidly changing city Young depicts -- beset by sprawl, rapid redevelopment, and a veritable revolving door of cultural and architectural changes -- seems very close to Toronto today. Nearly equally importantly, the novel announces that a very clear shift in Canadian literature toward the urban occurred decades earlier than is generally acknowledged.

In a profile published in the Toronto Star in 1961, Young comments, "What I wanted most was to send some of Canada abroad -- the vibrant, vital country I know; not the dull, gray-tone backdrop it so often seems to come out." This comment seems to foretell the rise of urban Canadian literature, although its rise has never, to my knowledge, been associated with Young's work.

It is likely that later writers and literary scholars eschewed novels of this era for their slightly mannered, establishment-era characters and settings. It is likely, too, that such novels were dismissed because, ultimately, they were 'women's' novels. Early references to The Torontonians appear almost always in the fashion and lifestyle pages of the newspaper in articles written in a breezy and gossipy style. In one especially telling review published in the Toronto Star titled "Coiffures and Books", the hairstyle of The Torontonians' cover artist (Jean Miller) receives as much attention as the book itself. The City Hall cover image is described as having been "dreamily sketched in with a cocktail glass motif." In an article dedicated to form and style, almost nothing is said about the novel's substance.

And yet, The Torontonians is an enormously subversive novel. Its opening pages, depicting the bored suburban housewife contemplating suicide, may be seen as a direct precursor to Betty Friedan's revolutionary Feminine Mystique, first published in 1963. Reading The Torontonians, I am struck most vividly by what seem like clear connections to subsequent works authored by Canadian women, particularly Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. Indeed, Atwood's 2003 Toronto novel, The Blind Assassin (McClelland & Stewart) seems to have been written very much in the spirit of Young's work; Atwood's superb first novel, The Edible Woman (1969), invokes startlingly similar landscapes and social conditions, albeit to different narrative ends. Whether these homages are inadvertent or planned, it is my view that such connections are not accidental, but instead provide evidence that Toronto's literary genealogy stretches back further and more firmly than we have come to think.

Because commentators generally imply that Toronto-focused literature does not precede the 1970s (indeed, sometimes they are unable to reach further back than the 1987 publication of Michael Ondaatje's iconic Toronto novel, In the Skin of a Lion), I am always eager to push the horizon back further. The findings, though, have been slim so far. Writer Anne Denoon (author of Back Flip (Porcupine's Quill, 2002; a novel set in late 1960s Yorkville's art community) told me about Joyce Marshall's Lovers and Strangers (1957), a long-out-of-print novel I finally managed to track down a week ago. There is also, of course, Morley Callaghan's fiction, including Strange Fugitive (1928), a novel literary scholar Justin Edwards describes as "Canada's first urban novel."

I do not think it is so difficult to find earlier Toronto novels because few were published. On the contrary, I suspect a great many novels with Toronto settings were published, but because they were popular novels directed at general audiences in the years before Canada's literati rewrote Canada's meaningful literary history as having begun with their own works (and coinciding, perhaps, with the establishment of the Canada Council for the Arts), they appeared to brief acclaim and vanished almost as quickly. Canada's literary history since about 1965 has focused very much on works of 'high' culture (novels exploring the great literary themes) rather than acknowledging the equally important role played by popular fiction in mirroring our own culture(s) back to us.

It is worth remembering, too, that Phyllis Brett Young's portrayal of Toronto stung some of its readers. A rather scathing review lambastes the author for her unflattering portrayal of Toronto's circa-1960 suburbia:
Don Quixote tilted at windmills, Phyllis Brett Young tilts at the sacred cows of suburbia, poking fun at the ranch-type bungalow, the bigger and better electrical appliances, the strange tribal customs of the natives such as the barbecue and the "inverted snobbery (which) dictated that servants did not belong to the Good Life. ..." All these things are satirized with a lively, sophisticated touch, and in this category the book is excellent, even if the suburban pack will be in full cry after Mrs. Young, anxious to nail her hide to their knotty pine walls. (Joan Walker, writing for the Globe & Mail, Saturday October 22, 1960; page 16)
The reviewer goes on to aver that Young's suburban satire "fails dismally," commenting on its "stock characters" and "slick dialogue" and its apparent "nostalgia ... for the Toronto of Rosedale." This may well be true, but I have the feeling Young's reviewer protests a little too much. Published in 2007, The Torontonians might well elicit similar disapprobation. And yet, in many respects the novel predicts by nearly half a century the return of our gaze to the city core. Near the the end of The Torontonians, the novel's protagonist gazes upon Toronto's downtown from the Park Plaza hotel:
Beyond the museum, Karen could see the wide green circle of Queen's Park, and farther to the south the downtown skyline of the city, blurred a little by haze and smoke. Looking at that skyline, she was caught up by the quick excitement -- quite unlike any other -- that was the measure of her own spontaneous identification with its growth. A city with a future, like an individual with a future, could never remain static for long, could not afford to expand indefinitely along the lines of least resistance. The suburbs, as they now existed, were the city's lines of least resistance. The towering buildings to the south were the real yardstick of its stature.
A few pages earlier, and from the vantage point of another high downtown building, Karen's companion asks her to point out familiar landmarks to the north. She does so easily. He then turns her to the west, where century-old neighbourhoods are being razed under the new City Hall.
"What do you see?" Lewis asked.

"The city," Karen said, and was fully aware of her difference in designation.

"And this, too, is familiar to you?"

Earlier, Karen would, almost without thinking, have said yes, simply because she could see the Bank of Commerce Building and, to the south, a part of Lake Ontario.

"No, Lewis," she said. "It's not familiar to me."
Interested in knowing more about how the Toronto we encounter daily took its shape, and how past and present changes affect the experience of living in Toronto? You could do worse than dig up a forty-seven year old copy of Phyllis Brett Young's The Torontonians.

[In conjunction with the Imagining Toronto project, Amy Lavender Harris writes regularly about Toronto literature and urban culture for Reading Toronto.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 03/20 at 10:40 AM

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