I’m a discerning reader. Well, okay, some might call me picky. For many years I maintained that I didn’t like contemporary fiction at all, and I only read old books (not always classics—I had, and still have, a deep love of the so-called “middlebrow” novel).
Of course, I was simply looking in the wrong places. Once I discovered some contemporary authors that I loved, it was like falling down a rabbit hole into new worlds. I now no longer maintain that I only like vintage books, and my TBR list has started to feel like a never-ending cosmic expansion, which is all very exciting.
However, my love for old books has also led me to discover a lot of relatively unknown authors whose work has long been out of print, and is now being revived by excellent small publishers like Persephone Books, Handheld Press, Slightly Foxed, and Canada’s own Invisible Publishing. They all print what Persephone Books describes as “neglected classics,” and I love these books so much.
My most recent neglected classic has been Prologue to Love by Martha Ostenso, originally published in 1931 and republished by Invisible Publishing in 2020. It is the story of the exceptionally named Autumn Dean, who has returned home to her father’s vast sheep farm in Kamloops, BC after having been sent off to Europe for her education. Autumn is stunningly beautiful (of course she is), kindhearted (because, obviously), and both wilful and sensitive (aren’t we all). Upon her return home, she grapples with love, family loyalty, and deep, dark secrets, all painted in lavish (dare I say purple?) prose.
To the north and west the great hills slept darkly with their brows against the stars, the majestic and awesome sleep of the colossal spawn of earth. The vast, silent flood of darkness in the valley below her seemed to be a mystic emanation from the heart of the mountains, for the sky was luminous as a green jewel.”Martha Ostenso, Prologue to Love
I admit to having a soft spot for such extravagant descriptive writing, very possibly from having grown up on a steady diet of Lucy Maud Montgomery. This might be part of why I love old books so much. That, and the fact that neglected classics are almost always stories about women, by women. You know—the stories that male publishers didn’t really think were worth much. Prologue to Love contains much that could be pulled apart in terms of its representation of women, its main conflict that revolves entirely around male ego and fragility, and such wonderful exchanges as this one between Autumn and her father:
“He sighed heavily. ‘It’s no business for a woman, my girl.’
‘That’s a man’s opinion, Da.'”
However, there is a down side to reading forgotten fiction, and that is that it almost always contains some problematic elements, due to the time period in which is was written. Happily, one feature of these new reprints is that they typically contain introductions that help to contextualize the books. Prologue to Love (to my delight) includes an Introduction by Dr. Hannah McGregor, and readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of her work.
The introduction discusses several things, among them the juxtaposition of modernity and the cosmopolitan life rarely seen in early Canadian literature, with the more common rural and domestic themes, as well as the problematic discourse in this book about Autumn’s sense of belonging in Kamloops and her sentimental attachment to “her” land:
The descriptions of the landscape surrounding Kamloops both as appealingly empty (as opposed to the overcrowding of Europe) and as part of Autumn’s racial inheritance suggest the role popular literature played in the project of settler-colonialism.”Hannah McGregor, “Introduction,” Prologue to Love
This is certainly a part of early Canadian literature. The preoccupation with the creation of a national identity and the way that literature played a significant role in this project is worth learning more about, especially as we work towards a decolonial future. This is also something that I tackled in an episode of my podcast on the early Canadian author Isabella Valancy Crawford.
I think that it is important to read these vintage books with a critical eye and awareness to such things, and I also believe that such a reading does not in any way distract from the enjoyment of discovering a once-forgotten piece of writing. In fact, I think it makes it better. It’s also important to note that these issues aren’t just a part of the past. Contemporary CanLit is just as problematic, but that’s a topic for another day.
For now, my TBR list is rapidly expanding into both the past and the future, and I couldn’t be happier about it.