CanLit Challenge Book #45: The Imperialist by Sara Jeannette Duncan
Filed under: Book Reviews,CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 2:32 pm on Thursday, May 19, 2011

Book 45, The Imperialist (1904) – Sara Jeannette Duncan
“Sara Jeannette Duncan’s classic portrait of a turn-of-the-century Ontario town, The Imperialist captures the spirit of an emergent nation through the example of two young dreamers. Impassioned by “the Imperialist idea,” Lorne Murchison rests his bid for office on his vision of a rejuvenated British Empire. His sister Advena betrays a kindred attraction to the high-flown ideals in her love for an unworldly, and unavailable, young minister. Nimbly alternating between politics and romance, Duncan constructs a superbly ironic object-lesson in the Canadian virtue of compromise.

Sympathetic, humorous, and wonderfully detailed, The Imperialist is an astute analysis of the paradoxes of Canadian nationhood, as relevant today as when the novel was first published in 1904.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for Sara Jeannette Duncan

My thoughts:
Before I started, I thought that from the description this sounds like it’s the same kind of book that Edith Wharton or perhaps Henry James would write, but with a distinctly Canadian twist. But I found that she writes a little more like George Eliot or even Elizabeth Gaskell but with a Modern burnish, almost anticipating Virginia Woolf at times.

The middle of this book was rather tedious as the author went on and on explaining Lorne’s positive support of imperialism* and his party’s wavering position on the issue. I wish Duncan had spent more time on her characters, their relationships, and a little less on political philosophy. But the parts she spent on those things were very good.

From the setup, the natural ending would have been an electoral success for Lorne and romantic disappointment for Advena, but Duncan switches things up and at the last minute, Lorne’s political career crashes and burns (along with his proposed marriage, but good riddance), and Advena’s marriage suddenly becomes convenient as well as desirable.

There are threads in this book that we can see working their way through Canadian identity in the future…

*In this book “imperialism” does not refer to colonial oppression and extermination of indigenous cultures and peoples as it is used today. Rather, it refers to protected, preferential trade agreements between the mother country and daughter countries (in this case Britain and Canada).

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