New Women and Working Girls: The Fiction of Jessie Georgina (J.G.) Sime (1868-1958)

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1917 Photograph of a woman working in a munitions factory, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire, England.  By Nicholls Horace [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

1917 Photograph of a woman working in a munitions factory, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire, England. By Nicholls Horace [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

 By Tiffany Johnstone

 

“Hard work. Long hours. Discomfort. Strain. That was about the sum of it, of all that she had gained . . . but then, the sense of freedom! The joy of being done with cap and apron. The feeling that you could draw your breath—speak as you liked—wear overalls like men—curse if you wanted to.”

-J.G. Sime, “Munitions,” 332.

In 1919, one year after most Canadian women were federally enfranchised, feminist writer Jessie Georgina Sime (1868-1958) published a collection of 28 short stories entitled Sister Woman that captured the paradoxical challenges and sometimes bleak realities underlying female emancipation. Sime’s sketches of young urban working women experiencing the freedoms and conflicts of social change have not garnered as much attention as the fiction of other early 20th century Canadian writers of the time such as Charles G.D. Roberts or Duncan Campbell Scott. However, she is increasingly recognized for her bold realism and her gritty, diverse perspectives on Canadian New Women near the dawn of suffrage.

Born in Scotland in 1868, Sime was raised in London by Jessie Wilson and James Sime, both of whom were educators and writers and had notable literary acquaintances including Thomas Hardy (Campbell and McMullen 323). Sime was mostly home-schooled before attending Queen’s College in London and then moving to Berlin for three years to train as a singer. After briefly pursuing a musical career, she turned her attention to writing. Using various pen names, Sime wrote for the Pall Mall Gazette (London), and the Athenauum (London). In Britain’s capital, she also worked as a reader for the publisher Macmillan. In 1895, Sime relocated to Edinburg where she worked for the publisher Nelson and Company. While there, she met Walter William Chipman, a Canadian doctor attending the University of Edinburgh. While Chipman was married, Sime is thought to have begun a romantic relationship with him that continued when she moved to Montreal in 1907 to work as his secretary (McMaster 59; Moran). Sime died in 1958. While her permanent address remained listed as Montreal, she is presumed to have returned to England after the Second World War (Campbell and McMullen 324).

While living in Montreal for four decades, Sime made a name for herself as a writer and lecturer. As was common at the time, she retained her British citizenship, which included privileges such as being able to vote. However, like other British ex-pats, she thought of herself as “near-Canadian” (323) and wrote a significant amount of fiction inspired by her new home’s young working women. In The Mistress of All Work (1916), Canada Chaps (1917), Sister Woman (1919), and Our Little Life (1921), Sime’s main characters struggle for political and professional equality. She also published later fiction and non-fiction including The Land of Dreams (1940), Orpheus in Quebec (1942), Brave Spirits (1952), A Tale of Two Worlds (1953), and Inez and her Angel (1954). In Orpheus in Quebec, Sime wrote about Canadian literature, noting that the disjointed nature of urban life lends itself to aesthetic and narrative innovation, particularly the use of vignettes or sketches (Lynch 24). In its detailed and matter-of-fact descriptions of every-day lives, her style is predominantly realist and makes an important contribution to Canadian modernist culture (Martin). Her writing stands in sharp contrast with the more pastoral and arguably sentimental representations of women in mainstream literature of the day such as Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous Anne of Green Gables (1908), and reminds us of the too often forgotten range of styles, genres, and subject matters explored by early women writers.

Sister Woman (1919) remains Sime’s most heavily anthologized and critiqued text, and in many ways epitomizes her use of the realist sketch to represent contemporary city life and the daily struggles and successes of the New Woman. The collection of short stories is unusually blunt, yet compassionate in its discussion of questions relating to female sexuality, suffrage, and labour. The stories abound with a wide variety of protagonists including maids, factory workers, and seamstresses, whom Sime resists either caricaturing or judging. Single women and extra-marital sex are also treated without moralization. In “Munitions,” Sime explores the daily challenges and social pressures facing the New Woman through the character of Bertha Martin, a maid who leaves her position with an affluent family for a munitions factory. The contemporary shifts in women’s lives are brought to life through Bertha’s internal monologue as she observes street-car passengers on the way to her new job. While not glossing over the hardships of ‘liberation’—the “[h]ard work. Long hours. Discomfort. Strain” (332)—, Sime invokes the equally palpable sensations of “freedom” (332) and “joy” (332) associated with professional, political, and sexual awakening.

Sime was also prominent as an activist in the cultural life of Montreal and Canada. Like many other Canadian women writers of her time including E. Cora Hind and Nellie McClung she turned to professional societies that welcomed such women as equals and that campaigned for equal opportunity. She served as the president of Montreal’s division of the Canadian Author’s Association and as secretary of its Pen Club, and as the vice president of the Quebec branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club. These contributions provided her with a sisterhood of scribblers and activists, and with additional opportunities to understand Canadian culture and history. Given her unconventional domestic arrangements, professional memberships may also have provided an important sign of respectability and belonging. Even as she wrote about and embodied the freedoms of the New Woman, Sime recognized the need for a community of women writers and activists to make sense of the challenges that accompanied social change.

Bibliography

Campbell, Sandra, and Lorraine McMullen, eds., New Women: Short Stories by Canadian Women, 1900-1920. Canadian Short Story Library, Ser. 2. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1991.

Ann Martin, “Visions of Canadian Modernism: The Urban Fiction of F.R. Livesay and J.G. Sime.” Canadian Literature 181 (2004).

Hill, Colin. “Canadian Bookman and the Origins of Modern Realism in English-Canadian Fiction.” Canadian Literature 195 (2007): 85-101, 200.

Lynch, Gerald. The One and the Many: English-Canadian Short Story Cycles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

Martin, Ann. “Visions of Canadian Modernism: The Urban Fiction of F.R. Livesay and J.G. Sime.” Canadian Literature 181 (2004): 43-59.

McMaster, Lindsey. Working Girls in the West : Representations of Wage-Earning Women. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007.

Moran, Rodger J. “Jessie Georgina (J.G.) Sime.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Dominion. Web.

Sime, J.G. “Munitions,” Campbell and McMullen. 326-333.