Social Departures: Sara Jeannette Duncan (1861-1922)



By Tiffany Johnstone


Sara Jeannette Duncan, of Scottish Presbyterian ancestry, is one of Canada’s most iconic turn of the 20th century literary figures. Her journalism and novels stand as literary companions to suffrage debates. Raised in Brantford Ontario and trained as a teacher, Duncan went on to write for Canadian and American publications such as the Globe (Toronto) and the Washington Post (D.C.). In 1887, she became the parliamentary correspondent for the Montreal Star. She wrote a column in the Globe addressed to female readers and shared progressive politics on issues relating to nationalism and suffrage. Duncan married a British civil servant working in India where she then lived and worked as a novelist and journalist for her adult life in the “Anglo-Indian community of Calcutta and Simla” (Dean 19). In her lifetime she published over 20 novels and she remains one of the most prolific and influential figures of Canadian literature.

Anon, “You Feel with Wonder that you are not doing Anything very Extraordinary after all,” Duncan, A Social Departure, 96.

Anon, “You Feel with Wonder that you are not doing Anything very Extraordinary after all,” Duncan, A Social Departure, 96.

In 1888, Duncan went on a trip around the world with Canadian journalist Lilly Lewis (1866 or 1867-1929). This led to her first semi-autobiographical novel, A Social Departure: How Orthodocia Went Around the World By Ourselves (1890). One of the most memorable illustrations from this text portrays Duncan and a character based on Lewis perching on a Canadian Pacific Railway cowcatcher as they set off through western Canada. That adventurous spirit also characterized many of the women described in subsequent novels, including A Daughter of Today (1894) and The Imperialist (1904). Duncan is known for her complex and antagonistic heroines and her ironic, cutting wit. It is important to note that Duncan’s subjects remained, for the most part, middle-class settler women and imperial visitors in other lands. The future opportunities associated with the proverbial new woman in Duncan’s texts were mainly limited to a white, middle- class, Anglo female readership in Canada, the United States, and Britain. Women of other nationalities are conspicuously absent from her stories while First Nations women appeared as little more than figures of the past, not the future.

However, while Duncan’s feminist perspective was limited in its treatment of race and class, she firmly avoided a universalizing idea of womanhood in her writing. She often emphasized conflicting layers of identity relating to gender, nation, and empire. For this reason, her body of work is not easy to sum up. For one thing, while she always identified with Canada, she published abroad and represented a more? transnational perspective on gender, politics, culture, and literature. Secondly, while Duncan showed a strong interest in pushing the boundaries of women’s lives in her writing, she neither explicitly nor consistently aligned herself with suffragist struggles. Such ambivalence was common in the work of many women writers of the day. Their professional lives often depended on tempering their personal or political views and tactfully confronting the expectations of publishers and readers.

Contemporary feminists, scholars, or readers with an interest in the history of women in politics in Canada must learn to read between the lines in texts by Canada’s turn of the 20th century female literary figures. Duncan’s expression of impish delight as she rides the rails in A Social Departure seems to express what she could not explicitly say in her writing and even perhaps in her life. Female readers were invited to embark on literal and metaphorical social departures from conventional gender roles and more broadly to question their roles as citizens. On the edge of the train, hurtling beyond the conventionally known at the dawn of a new century, Duncan embodied the complexity of the new woman persona of her day—one that was all the more radical for its very avoidance of a fixed national or political affiliation. Virginia Woolf’s famous observation in 1938 that “as a woman, I have no country” (109) emerged between the lines of earlier women authors in the years leading up to suffrage. Duncan’s invocation of what we now understand as a transnational perspective reveals the recurring struggle of many feminist writers to broaden women’s horizons across national, geographical, and political boundaries. She reminds us that it is such institutional boundaries that keep women off the map by limiting their imaginations and opportunities.

Further Reading & Resources

Dean, Misao. A Different Point of View: Sara Jeannette Duncan. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991.
– – -. Introduction. The Imperialist. 1904. By Sara Jeannette Duncan. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2005. 9-31.
Devereux, Cecily. “Colonial Space/Imperial Identity: How Sara Jeannette Duncan Navigated Victorian Canada, Americanization, and the Empire of the Race by Herself.” Diversity and Change in Early Canadian Women’s Writing. Ed and Introd. Jennifer Chambers. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars, 2008. 36-54.
Duncan, Sara Jeannette. A Social Departure: How Orthodocia and I Went Round the World By Ourselves. London, Edinburgh, Dublin, and New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1890.
– – -. The Imperialist. Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1996.
– – -. Selected Journalism. Ed. Thomas E. Tausky. Ottawa: Tecumseh Press, 1978.
Fiamengo, Janice. “‘Baptized with Tears and Sighs’: Sara Jeannette Duncan and the Rhetoric of Feminism.” ReCalling Early Canada: Reading the Political in Literary and Cultural Production. Ed and Introd. Jennifer Blair, Daniel Coleman, Kate Higginson, Larraine York, Carole Gerson (foreword). Edmonton, AB: U of Alberta, 2005. 257-80.
Milne, Heather. “Narrating Nation, Travel, and Gender: Sara Jeannette Duncan’s A Social Departure and/in the Literary Marketplace.” Popular Nineteenth-Century American Women. 432-450.
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. 1938. New York and Burlingame: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1963.