274 pages,
ISBN: 077159156x

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Cabbage Rolls and Queens

THERE IS A DELICIOUS and pertinent anecdote concerning that consummate sycophant, gifted novelist, and charismatic British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, and Queen Victoria. The latter had just published a fatuous, flaccid little book of Highland reminiscences, and she showed the volume to the author turned states-man. A pause from Dizzy, a smile of satisfaction, and then a purring, "Ah, we authors, ma'am, we authors." I cannot help thinking of the ranks of biographers who lecture at the Lives and Times series at Harbourfront each year, and of one of them turning to Sally Armstrong and saying, "We biographers, my dear, we biographers." In other words, this ain't biography, it is blubber. The editor of Homemaker's magazine has appointed herself - or been appointed - the Boswell of the bland.

Should she, however, be blamed and harangued? Not at all. As a working journalist Armstrong did what any other professional would do, and accepted the task of chronicling the life of someone who is certainly not a national treasure but is perhaps Canadian Fool's Gold.

Armstrong was placed in an impossible situation. She could hardly have eviscerated Mila Mulroney or attempted anything more than a flatulent puff piece. The book's writing is crisp if not inspired, and the author has a convincing empathy for her subject's difficult, ambivalent position. The misleading aspects of the book lie in its purported intentions, and in its hubristic and absurd claim to have interviewed opponents of the Mulroneys. There are only the most innocuous of criticisms in evidence here, emollient reservations that drown in a sea of flattery and fawning.

And then there is the banality. "In this house Mila isn't the wife of the prime minister of Canada. She is Milica, the Pivnickis' first-born child," writes Armstrong of Mila at her parents' home. "A voice from the kitchen calls her: 'Come. Stir.' Mila settles in at the stove, sniffs the cabbage rolls in the huge pot, and pushes them around with a...." Enough! My mother did the same, but nobody intends to write her biography. The paradox here is that the only thing remotely interesting about Mila Mulroney is that she is married to the prime minis, ter; therefore any attempt to swerve around this and explore her other sides would produce a commercially unsuccessful book. A serious treatment of this issue would involve arguments about feminism, and questions about the role of women in politics - as well as the role of men; cabbage rolls are simply not the point.

If Mila Mulroney does have a genuine influence over her husband and his politics, then Armstrong should have written a very different book. If she has no influence whatsoever over national trends and policies, then Mila should not have been written in the first place. Yet even when it touches on areas of specific disquiet in Mila Mulroney's life, the book is far from helpful. There have been valid and damaging attacks on the Mulroneys concerning their over-spending and hauteur, but this perfunctory response is pointless. As Disraeli might have said, "We cabbage-roll makers, ma'am, we cabbage-roll makers."


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