TURNING TO page 198 in Heather Robertson's More Than a Rose: Prime Ministers, Wives and Other Women is like opening the window in a stuffy Victorian drawing-room and taking a gulp of fresh air. Not that the preceding portraits of the wives of Canada's first prime ministers arer* interesting. They are fascinating. Isabella -and Agnes Macdonald, "Plain Jane7' Mackenzie, Frances Tupper, Zoe Laurier, Laura Borden, and Isabel Meighen were as different and individual as, well, any group of women are. This bunch is connected solely by the coincidence of their husband's careers and the curious spotlight public life affords. It was then a softer limelight, somewhat less critical and piercing than the highly focused beam directed at some politicians and their spouses today.
To the extent that "Devoted Wife, Loving Mother and Gracious Hostess" are epithets found somewhat less frequently on late 20th-century tombstones than they were 50 or 100 years ago, the discreet, supportive, and almost entirely derivative role of "wife of" our first prime ministers has changed indeed. From the sexy and saucy Annie Thompson to the prudent and dependable Joan Patteson, mistress of William Lyon Mackenzie King, these women's lives make for delicious reading amid a veritable feast of period detail and Canadian social history.
Robertson has compiled an astute, well-researched, and intimate account of an intriguing supporting cast in Canada's history. Her plausible extrapolations about their longings, "conditions," ambitions, and machinations - are both enlightening and entertaining. She enlivens her text and enhances her evidence by employing the breezy, confident voice Of the journalist. Besides, there are few among us - save the odd dull or contradictory historian - to take issue with an alleged malingering invalid here or a putatively depressed soul or closet alcoholic there.
These women, their friends, and family are, after all, all dead. Who knows, who cares if there are other sides to their stories? But white at one level I enjoyed becoming immersed in their secrets, their own and their husbands' "affaires," their guarded pain, on another I occasionally felt as if I were prying or intruding, uninvited, into someone else's private space. Was I peeking into a meant-to-be-kept-private diary, or someone's very personal letters? Might there be just a whiff of voyeurism in the (unquestionable) pleasure of reading this history - the gleeful whoomph, perhaps, of a "scoop" of exposure or scandal? Charging along, swept Lip in a good read, it is sometimes difficult to apprehend where history stops and gossip takes over.
Agnes McPhail's appearance, midway through the book, as a freely elected Member of Parliament representing the riding of South East Grey, marks a turning point, both in the text and in our national history. From the -ashes of Joan Patteson's burned letters, and her forerunners' careful euphemisms and intensely private lives, emerged a woman unafraid to stand alone and speak her mind. McPhail made an enormous impact on Canada's politics for nearly 30 years. She was ahead of her time: feminist, progressive, outspoken, on no one's arm, lapel, or coat-tails.
McPhail did not shun politics - as the messy and confusing "men's business" so many women then (and even now) presume it to be. Nor did she attempt to wield power or patronage through a husband. She refused several offers of marriage because of her determination to be taken seriously Oil her own merit. Manipulation, 11 suggesting" appointnients as Zoe Laurier did in her coaxing role as the prime minister's "Minister of Public Chant)," was not for her.
McPhail embraced political life and participated in it eagerly, and with considerable skill. Still, it seems unfair to compare her, as Robertson does, with a group of women who (save to some extent Maureen McTeer) were not and are not active in political life. Most of her subjects could not even work (in the traditional outside-the-home sense) because of prevailing social custom. They were individuals, but products of their time, and what choice did 19th- and early 20th-century women really have? Little, to say the least.
Robertson's chapters on the Diefenbaker women and the tart, funny Maryon Pearson (from whom she includes some terrific one-liners) ring true. They mark another transition - a step towards independence -in political wives. It wasn't matched by a parallel coming-of-age in the media, who continued to "cover" our leaders' spouses in a mundane and trivialized way. Much to the frustration of Maryon Pearson and others, banal questions yielded nothing more than banal answers. It wasn't until much later that (some) journalists began to take the role of the spouse a little more seriously.
The problem is, of course, that no woman, whether modern or remote, should be judged by her affinity, aptitude, or degree of participation in her husband's professional life. Robertson, thankfully, recognizes the changing expectations of a spouse of a practising politician in recent decades, and her analysis is all the better for it.
In the later chapters, Robertson the social historian becomes Robertson the interviewer. This was an excellent and effective stylistic decision. The "modern" wives were invited, and agreed (with one exception), to speak for themselves. Mila Mulroney understandably (she'd recently been burned in the press), but unfortunately, declined. In reducing her own narrative role, Robertson adds credibility to her thesis. Stereotypes fly out the window. Speculative analysis is reduced to a minimum, and in its place are substantial and illuminating quotes, sober reflections, honest admissions, real emotions.
It is not surprising that Robertson concludes that the role of political spouse has played itself out. Since Agnes McPhail, women so inclined have embraced, in ever-growing numbers, the political process. As Robertson documents, there are now female cabinet ministers, Opposition critics, senators, a (former) premier, and Audrey McLaughlin, the first woman to he elected leader of a national political party.
Wives who campaign, make speeches, or participate in partisan or government work do so only if they enjoy it and in response to the urging of numerous invitations and requests. That Robertson recognizes and even advocates this freedom from perpetual wifedom is one of her book's many strengths. But then again, there's the everpresent natural curiosity of the public, and that penetrating spotlight...