Always Someone to Kill the Doves: A Life of Sheila Watson
November 4, 2013
Review By Ginny Ratsoy
Like Sheila Watson’s seminal – and quintessentially British Columbian – novel, The Double Hook, F.T. Flahiff’s book takes both its title and its epigraph from a particularly dramatic and thematically relevant moment in its text. Flahiff extracts the title proper from a specific entry in the writer’s mid-1950s “Paris diary,” which he has wisely included in his book: “Picasso had one of his caretakers jailed for destroying his doves … Today when I thought how hard it is for an artist to live at all my heart was filled with compassion. There is always someone to kill the doves” (121).
Ever mindful of the challenges of the task Watson herself set for him (“I want my story told,” she said, although she did not appoint him the teller), Flahiff, in his preface and elsewhere, makes patent his awareness that his book can only be, as the subtitle suggests, fragmentary (here again, fittingly, in the style of Watson’s own prose) and that because of his lengthy friendship with her it can also only be biased in her favour. I found some of the sections in which Flahiff inserts himself into the story of his subject among the most compelling in the book. Furthermore, responsive to memory’s complexity and pitfalls, he contextualizes the recollections of others; notes discrepancies in accounts not only of the same events by different people but also by the same person at different times; and draws on a healthy mix of sources, including interviews (with family, friends, and colleagues), newspapers, books, records of publishers’ queries, and the papers of Sheila Watson’s husband, poet and playwright Wilfred Watson.
As Flahiff also notes, his work is as much about her marriage as it is about Watson’s work, and the reader is again privy to a variety of perspectives (including Sheila’s own) that converge on Wilfred’s difficult, domineering personality. If the outsider cannot resist the temptation to take sides, it is Sheila’s side that will likely be taken, and her husband’s infidelities, periodic lack of support for her writing, and insistence that they abandon Edmonton upon their retirement might figure prominently in such an assessment.
Time has assessed Sheila as the more influential writer in the partnership, and Flahiff does justice to her extraordinarily influential, although conspicuously small (two novels and several short stories) body of fiction in myriad ways. First, he very much evokes the role of place on her writing, not only of her youth in New Westminster and Vancouver but, more important, of the two years she spent as a teacher in Dog Creek, British Columbia, which inform both The Double Hook and Deep Hollow Creek. In addition, he details the evolution of all her works. With respect to her masterwork in particular, we are afforded a sustained and vivid reminder of the business of publishing – the accommodations the writer must sometimes make in order for her creation to reach public distribution. Finally, Flahill discusses the inspiration that the work provided for such writers as Michael Ondaatje, Daphne Marlatt, and, particularly, Angela and George Bowering.
One of the rewards of literary bio graphy is that the backdrop on which it is set often affords the reader rich glimpses into the history of the subject’s times through the prism of the artistic and literary scene. Flahiff’s study does not disappoint: Watson’s Paris diaries, replete with images of birds, flowers, music, and fine art, are further invigorated by incidents such as her attendance at the funeral of Maurice Utrillo, her visit to T.S. Eliot’s office in England, and her flyon- the-wall account of Jean Cocteau’s behaviour in a shop (“His presence filled the whole room – and he knew that it did”) (138). Closer to home, the growth of the Canadian scene is well chronicled: Dorothy Livesay, Margaret Atwood, Northrop Frye, Jack Shadbolt, and, particularly, Marshall McLuhan are a few among the many whose relationship to Watson Flahiff chronicles. Furthermore, because Watson had a lengthy academic career (as both student and professor), the reader receives more than passing glimpses into the business and politics of Canadian universities during a crucial time in their growth (scenes set in and around the University of Alberta’s Department of English in the 1960s and 1970s are particularly noteworthy).
Of interest to literary academics, historians, feminist scholars, British Columbia specialists, book historians, and students of these fields, Always Someone to Kill the Doves: A Life of Sheila Watson, with its thoughtful inclusion of some of Watson’s sketches, photos (all too infrequent, alas), and a bibliography of her writing (fiction and non-fiction), makes a considerable contribution to various fields of study. Perhaps Flahiff succeeds in writing a compelling life story precisely because he does not purport to tell the whole, truthful story; instead, he delights in echoing Sheila Watson’s style, and he shares his subject’s belief in the importance of textual absences.