The Manitoban Nellie McClung (1873-1951) is now remembered more for her role campaigning for female suffrage than for her fiction. As a journalist she wrote some sketches; later, she wrote three novels. Marilyn Davis has collected her short stories, which were published in various magazines around the turn of the century. This handsome volume, Stories Subversive: Through the Fields with the Gloves Off (University of Ottawa Press, 227 pages, $21 paper), reclaims work that could easily have been forgotten, had it not been for Davis's scholarly diligence.
How subversive these stories were in their time is open to debate. In comparison to some of the late Victorian "New Woman" fiction, they seem quite tame. For the most part they depict women in their traditional roles, constructing domestic spheres in which men and children must behave in a more civilized way than they would if they were left to their own devices. Matriarchs hold tea parties at which politicians campaign. Aboriginal women protect their men from alcohol and rough treatment by the law. And females view their male counterparts with detached irony.
If there is a didactic message in McClung, it is her gentle advocacy of an inclusive, democratic ethos. The Western frontier at the turn of the century is depicted as an environment in which sectarian and class lines must be put aside in the larger interests of building a community. In "The Grim Fact of Sisterhood", a purse-proud Eastern matron refuses to help the nurse and the more educated women who are teaching hygiene to the villagers. Her daughter dies when an epidemic hits the town and her family is unable to leave due to a quarantine. Life on the prairie is precarious, and the forces of nature can instantly cause social levelling. But McClung delivers most of her admonitions with a humorous light touch. After the bleak view of some of her Victorian forerunners, she is quite refreshing.