Corresponding Influence: Selected Letters of Emily Carr and Ira Dilworth
November 4, 2013
Review By Sandra Djwa
This wonderful collection of letters describes a special friend ship between Emily Carr and Ira Dilworth between 1940 and 1945. Carr was already recognized as a distinguished artist, but she had just begun to write prose, primarily because she was no longer able to get into the forest to paint. She was to become a forthright and spirited writer in the next few years, in large part through Dilworth’s editorial support. Dilworth, a former professor of English who had taught at the universities of Victoria and British Columbia, was then BC regional director for cbc radio and had excellent publishing contacts. Carr, then acutely ill, was largely confined to bed, but her artistic impulses found expression through recollections of her early life – a continuing autobiography of “Small,” her pet name for herself. During this period she wrote Klee Wyck (1941), The Book of Small (1942), and The House of All Sorts (1944) and began writing sections of Growing Pains: The Autobiography of Emily Carr (1946), which was published posthumously, as was Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr (1966). In effect, Carr rediscovered (or recreated) herself and her past life in the process of writing her stories – stories that her correspondence with Dilworth, and Dilworth himself as editor, helped shape.
Linda M. Morra, who came across their correspondence while writing her doctoral dissertation, is to be congratulated for recognizing their literary value and editing them. What an irascible, impossible, wonderful woman Emily Carr was. These letters show her at her best – and worst. At her best, she is wonderful. She stoically endures pain: “I stayed in bed all day after Xmas & most of yesterday – heart pains – I let the girl have a good deal of time off & did too much” (81); she recognizes her own mortality without complaint and is always concerned for the welfare of the younger Dilworth, whom she views fondly as a dear friend, mentor, and literary expert. At her worst, she makes us quake, as for example when she takes a pot-shot at her younger male rivals when discussing some drawings done by high school students after reading Klee Wyck: “They were indeniably Maxey [Maynard] and Jacksie [Shadbolt] things[,] were all show off[,] no observation[,] no Indian 100 bc studies feeling” (209). Nonetheless, it is Carr’s wonderful honesty that is captivating. “Everyone,” she tells Dilworth, “is tremendously alone in this world when it comes right down to the core & there are so few cores that match – I often marvel how everybody comes to be so different when they see & hear, smell & eat the same things?” (89). Emily Carr died content that she, her alter ego “Small,” her manuscripts, and her paintings were in good hands. “Oh my dear big trustor[,] I am so glad & at peace that ‘Small” & all my M.S. are yours[.] It would have hurt to leave my children in un[-]understanding hands. I’d rather but have burned them than that” (91).
Morra’s editorial selection of letters is excellent in that it represents each stage of the literary relationship. The editing and annotation of this text must have been a substantial task as Carr’s spelling was unique and her punctuation non-existent. Nonetheless, the letters as they are presented here read well, the editorial emendations are not obtrusive, and Carr’s personality rings loud and clear.