Which aunt of yours would inspire you to write a biography? After writing about Hugh MacLennan, Irving Layton, Earle Birney and The Girls, Elspeth Cameron turned to her Aunt Winnie.
“Aunt Winnie was born twelve days after the death of Queen Victoria, on 2 February 1901. Mother used to say that though she was born after Victoria’s reign she remained Victorian all her life. That was wrong. If anything, Winnie was Edwardian.”
This is how it begins. And appropriately so. For Aunt Winnie is truly a personal story, the sort one can imagine telling with determination to set the family record straight. Mother was wrong. Now, here’s how it was.
Elspeth Cameron’s tone is unwavering and forthright. She does not hesitate to point out a gap or what she perceives as an inaccuracy.
Nor, however, does she declare a solution when the questions outnumber the known answers. There is much which remains unknown about Aunt Winnie and her choices.
It is interesting, for instance, to read about the woman’s beaux and the details known about her young romantic life; these matters raise interesting questions, and no clear solutions are proposed by her descendant.
Other family members’ ideas are entertained (at least one dismissed vehemently, but with an inarguable explanation) and suggestions are made, but no declarations are made to explain the decisions Aunt Winnie made regarding courtship and marriage when she was young.
“She made being an Old Maid seem like something enviable.” Regardless of the reasons behind it, this observation later in the biography is both revealing and striking.
It’s personal, right? Who can know, really. But, then, what is the value of such a volume as this. Surely this could have been discussed over drinks amongst curious younger family members who cozied up to conjecture. This “Auntness, or Auntism or Auntdom…Winnie’s vocation, her calling in life.”
But Aunt Winnie is not simply a great-niece’s exploration of an ancestor.
Elspeth Cameron does focus on this one woman’s experiences. For instance, in the section about Winnie’s beaux, Elspeth Cameron studies more than a hundred dance cards.
Many of the recognizable dance partners are enumerated. Like Begats, for the nimble and well-heeled. Readers imagine Aunt Winnie dancing with HRH the Prince of Wales (before he met Wallis Simpson) and one of the Massey boys. (In a sentence or two, family histories are summarized: this is Toronto’s elite.)
For those readers who are not Camerons and those readers who have no interest in the elite families of this region, these segments are perhaps less interesting.
But these close examinations stand alongside passages which more generally situate Aunt Winnie’s experiences.
The author’s previous works have given her cause to study historical events in Canada; And Beauty Answers certainly cast an eye on twentieth-century Toronto which I found fascinating, and it was one of my favourite books in that reading year.
Observations about the changing landscape, literally and metaphorically, flow easily. Dramatic changes in the number of motorized vehicles in the city, the starkly different experiences of various segments of society of broader events like the Depresssion, the contrast in the way in which details about social events: Aunt Winnie offers a broader historical perspective than readers might expect.
Winnie’s relationship with her brother Donald also illuminates the different experiences the two children had; the life of a privileged boy, born ten years after his sister, was different from the life of a privileged girl.
The chapters are short. Donald’s entire experience at the University of Toronto is covered in less than three pages. Dates and school subjects: the details one would expect from a historian nestled in the archives. But Elspeth Cameron brings another layer to these segments of the narrative because she can share her father’s experiences directly too. She repeats his declaration that parts of his schooling were very boring.
Far from boring, however, is Aunt Winnie: “She radiated good humour and a delight in life. Looking back, I would say she was the merriest person I ever knew.”