I can’t remember where I gathered the idea that I wanted to read Dorothy Livesay’s memoir, Journey with My Selves, but I bought a copy of it from Macondo Books in Guelph (which has a great selection of literary fiction and biography, second-hand) and the Women Unbound Challenge was the perfect reason to make time for this slim volume.

Had I not already gotten the idea that I’d want to read it, the jacket summary would have piqued my interest anyhow:

“Livesay has never chosen to take the easy path, and she writes frankly about her struggles to free herself from the constraints imposed by family and society. She has always considered the poet’s place to be out in the world, not in an ivory tower; as a young writer, she broke with literary convention to tackle subjects like racism, women’s sexuality and the lives of working people, and much of her inspiration has come from her work as a teacher, social worker, journalist and activist.”

I know, I know: it wouldn’t sound appealing to everybody, but it’s exactly the kind of person I want to read about: imperfect, perhaps, but inspiring. (Anyone else thinking of picking up a memoir that’s been lingering too-long-unloved on their bookshelves?)

Even when she was a young girl, DL noticed differences between the sexes, in terms of the games they played and the chores that they did. In the winter the boys played hockey, threw snowballs and made snowforts while the girls went sled-pulling or sliding and made snowmen and angels; in the summer the girls played with skipping ropes and jacks, which the boys scorned, and the girls babysat and watered the flowergardens whilst the boys cut lawns and delivered papers.

When she was growing up, girls and boys did not spend time together in pairs and she felt increasingly separate from the boys even throughout her teens: “The gap between the sexes became even wider when the boys realized that I was only interested in literature, music and the theatre. Worst of all, it was said that I wrote poetry! Had they seen my diary they would have read these words: “It’s a man’s world.” (30)I think most feminists I know have had that thought (or a variation thereupon) at some point. Despite the generational differences, I’m struck by how easily I feel as though I can relate to DL, across the years. Indeed, even she seems to be inwardly chuckling at the paradoxical nature of her younger self’s romantic visions: “My dream was to combine my childish belief in a fairy-tale Prince Charming who would rescue me, Cinderella, from the shackles of my life, with the mature desire for a purposeful feminist career as a novelist.” (31)

It wasn’t until rather late in her life that DL recognized that her own mother, too, had struggled against convention when it came to social roles and had had to accept many inconsistencies and disappointments. After her mother’s death, DL came into possession of her journals. “It was only as I read the entries from 1902 to 1908 that I came to know that she had been, in her own way, a feminist. A feminist, but sadly restricted.” (187)

She remembered having been impressed by her mother’s decision to omit the word ‘obey’ from her marriage ceremony (agreeing to love and honour her husband, but omitting the part about obeying him) but she hadn’t fully appreciated that her mother had had to set aside her own desire to write fiction and poetry for a career in journalism and then had to frequently put that work aside as well, to focus on her duties as wife and mother. “The concept of wife as helpmeet was strong in the days at the beginning of the century,” writes DL. (52)

Although she was not as close to her mother, undoubtedly some of her spirit influenced DL, and certainly she strongly felt her father’s influence, who passionately discussed progressive literature with his daughters (and also DL’s closest girlhood friend, Gina, who had very fond memories of the Livesay household’s literary-ness).

From novels, she learned that “[t]he social frustrations women faced in the nineteenth century were no less galling than the social freedoms of the twentieth; in neither case could a woman be wholly a human being.” She felt that her father “was unusually sensitive to this problem. Perhaps it was because of his gentle mother, artist aunt and artist sister that he looked upon gifted women in the same way that a Frenchman does: not as rivals to be secretly resented but as phenomena to be appreciated.” (91)

These early influences are discussed at length in Journey with My Selves (I’ll write more about DL’s bookish influences in my next post about her work) and it’s easy to see how growing up in Clarkson took Dorothy Livesay in some unexpected directions. She was, from an early age, aware of injustices and her intelligence and curiosity ensured that her experience of the world enlarged and broadened as the years passed, so that she was often — seemingly continually — challenging social mores.

It is interesting how frankly she discusses some subjects (e.g. her love life, losses, guilt) and the segments about her friendship with Gina are most compelling because they are written in the second person, as though addressing her directly, which makes them very powerful reading indeed. It’s a slim memoir but it feels very intimate, so I am left feeling as though I have a better understanding of her than I would have had with a traditional biography of the same length.

Next stop on the Women Unbound Challenge: Dorothy Livesay’s poetry and other writings. More about this  book here.