THE Canadian Encyclopedia says of Sir Wilfred Grenfell that although he was "famous in his lifetime, he is now largely forgotten." The statement that someone is largely forgotten is likely to provoke demands for an explanation of how such a thing can be proven. Certainly, only a few decades ago the astonishing feats of this heroic missionary doctor in providing medical treatment and a wide range of social services for the destitute fishing populations on the shores of Labrador and northern Newfoundland were still being taught in Ontario primary schools. At any rate, the evidence for the fall of Grenfell's reputation begins to look questionable, given that here are two new books on Grenfell for review.
Ronald Rompkey's Grenfell of Labrador is a minutely researched scholarly biography. If the reports about Grenfell being forgotten prove untrue, the Rompkey volume will provide an abundance of essential data for many a future writer. Beyond this, I am afraid that my conclusions about it are thoroughly unfavourable.
First and foremost, and in the most grating and wearisome way, the image of Grenfell presented here is wrong. He is shown as dull, sour, dried Lip: a clishe-ridden spokesman for obsolete opinions. Such human-interest material as the volume contains is mostly at the beginning. In the later chapters, Grenfell of Labrador shrinks into a dreary chronicle of Grenfell's travels about the world and his fund-raising campaigns. Since Grenfell is minimized so much throughout, it is not surprising that Rompkey has so little to say about his personal development. How did the hyperactive and intolerably brash young man of his early years on the sea emerge at last as the mellow and ironic elder statesman of the missions? In fact, beginning as an Englishman of the Golden Age of the Empire, how did he become at last - become in every sense I suppose except the legal one an American?
Grenfell was capable of resentment towards colleagues, had an aptitude for malice, and was not always an attractive human being. But as his own wonderfully entertaining autobiographies show, he was intriguingly interesting and unfailingly alert.
What has gone wrong in this biography? Much of the problem seems to be that Rompkey is embarrassed by his own subject. He evidently fears that Grenfell is not a favoured name in fashionable intellectual circles. Without using the dread word "Fascist," he trembles at the thought that so many of Grenfell's opinions were not of the kind that are considered enlightened today. Sometimes the results of these anxieties are decidedly odd. Even if Grenfell had been a monster and not a noted humanitarian, it is hard to see why his opinions need to be reported with flurries of dismay that stand out as period pieces - not of the 1920s, but of the self conscious and guiltridden 1990s.
Having assumed these limitations, Rompkey could not write the good biography we needed -nobody could. Does his dilemma represent a trend? If so, biography is heading into an eclipse, and readers need not bother much about it until it emerges again.
There is a fair amount in this volume about Newfoundland politics. But why is a suggestion made on the book's dustjacket, and in its early pages, that one of its features will be an investigation of Grenfell's role in changing the social customs of the people - with the hint thrown in that these outside influences were not entirely to the good? I can find nothing in the book that corresponds to these proposals.
In Grenfell and Christmas, D. W. S. Ryan argues that Santa Claus and Christmas trees and Christmas festivities in general were little known in norther Newfoundland and Labrador until brought in by Grenfell. He has gathered in this little volume a collection of charming and idyllic writings about Christmas in those areas - some by Grenfell himself, and the rest by Grenfell's associates in the mission. The most pleasant surprise is the collection Christmas illustrations produced by Grenfell. One of the most striking of these is reproduced on the cover. But what is one to make of the sinister-looking collection of northern animals who with toothy heads uplifted join Sir Wilfred and Lady Grenfell in singing Christmas carols? Grenfell not only had a skilled hand as an artist, he had a decidedly weird sense of humour. Which brings us back to an essential point about Grenfell -that there was plenty of sub stance there!