Culture & Conversation

Flawed Fifties Feminist Fiction

NOVELS, UNLIKE HUMANS, MAY RISE FROM THE DEAD. Phyllis Brett Young’s first novel, Psyche, has been reincarnated fifty years after its first appearance. Studying the era that nurtured its author offers readers a compelling glimpse into the development of a successful mid-20th century Canadian novelist. Young’s Psyche, a huge bestseller reprinted in many languages, was one of the first Canadian novels to capture an international audience. One year later (1960), Margaret Laurence’s first novel, This Side Jordan, was published and Canadian literature entered a period of intense transformation.

A bildungsroman exploring how the maturing girl/woman, Psyche, comes to understand herself and the distinct social worlds she encounters on her odyssey through a Canadian landscape — knowing nothing of her true origins but her name — Psyche makes for a bemusingly quasi-feminist, if saccharinely romanticized, read.

The daughter of a philosophy professor and an artist, Young was directly influenced by her family background as she developed her first book. Psyche’s major weakness is that it is premised on a flagrantly emotional, class-bigoted plot. A toddler is kidnapped from a wealthy (presumably Torontonian) couple, and then falls into the care of an impoverished, uneducated but warm-hearted couple living among the slag heaps of what appears to be Sudbury, Ontario, who raise her as their daughter. This plot weakness soon fractures into flaws in character development, for although Young’s use of language is assured and her characters are not unsympathetic, these qualities do not equal nuance or deeper psychological understanding. Butch and Mag, Psyche’s adoptive parents, are portrayed as pitifully stupid, even clownish, in the eyes of the sophisticate Sharon, Psyche’s bereft mother. Naivety in the narrator causes many of the characters to emerge as mere stereotypical prototypes — often starkly portrayed as either strictly “evil” or “good” with no contextual reference — particularly in relation to the independent yet, oddly, always protected protagonist, Psyche.

Young’s kidnapping plot may have been strongly influenced by Richard Wright’s Native Son. Young’s use of this trope, however, is far less successful than Wright’s brilliant conception of Bigger Thomas’s dilemma and subsequent attempt to cover up his “accidental” murder. Young’s kidnapper seems evil for evil’s sake, motivated by nothing more than avarice, not any less revolting than the hapless rat that is killed by Bigger in the opening scene of Native Son. Another more romantic influence on Young was likely My Fair Lady (the musical adaptation of Shaw’s play Pygmalion), which had taken Broadway by storm in 1956.

The tough competition with which Young was soon faced — the daunting Margaret Laurence, who displayed a thoroughly convincing psychological and social realism in her much denser fiction — perhaps guides us, however, to appreciate Psyche for its own indelible influence. Young’s Mag, for example, may well have served as a template for Laurence’s Hagar, one of our most beloved of Canadian fictional characters. If so, Psyche deserves its rightful place on the historical Canadian literature shelf.

Montreal writer Kate Orland Bere is currently working on a collection of short stories entitled Shameless. She writes book reviews, film reviews, and world beat / blues reviews for the Rover.

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