Dear Marian, Dear Hugh:
The MacLennan-Engel Correspondence

by Christl Verduyn,
144 pages,
ISBN: 0776604031

Post Your Opinion
Over Their Shoulders
by Patrick McDonagh

I love to read other people's correspondence-a pleasure I no doubt share with many. There is something about that privileged entry into the lives and relationships of others that cannot be experienced in any other form of writing. Unfortunately, because most of the letters in this volume are from MacLennan, it provides only slightly more than half of what the title promises. While the young Marian Passmore Engel knew to save his letters to her, MacLennan did not hang onto those he received, except for five from between 1976 and 1984. Christl Verduyn notes in her introduction that while Engel's letters, as well as selections from other relevant works (her MA thesis, supervised by MacLennan, and two short memoirs of McGill and MacLennan), "form part of the presentation of [the collection], the principal focus is MacLennan's missives." The presence of only one side of the correspondence means that while the reader's appetite is aroused, it is never fully satisfied.

That aside, the letters included will meet the criteria of the most stringent literary voyeurs: they are gossipy, chock full of literary insights, and revealing of the writers' characters. As Verduyn suggests, we can infer much of what Engel has to say by MacLennan's responses to her. The earliest letters identify her both as a graduate student writing a thesis on Canadian literature and as a budding fiction writer, and MacLennan is full of advice and encouragement for both projects, especially the latter. As he says of another writer, "no man can choose two masters, and if he is a university professor first, he is a novelist second." And although he congratulates his student on producing "the best piece of critical writing.in the field of Canadian writing," he follows this a few letters later by observing, "I doubt if you will end as an academic writer." "Possibly," he suggests at one point, "the short story, which never suited me, will suit you. I rather guess that it may." Engel must have been glad of the criticism and advice, for she sent many of her early efforts to him for his comments. While MacLennan clearly was pleased by the praise Engel lavished on his work, he seemed to prefer, not so much a distant relationship, but one in which their positions were fairly clearly defined. Even in 1981, when he writes to Engel that "we are both pros," his tone suggests he is writing to a pupil of whom he is exceptionally proud.

While a pupil-teacher relationship is the foundation of this literary friendship, a sublimated sexual element surfaced in the late 1950s, after Engel had graduated. But MacLennan was quick to oppose this once it became overt, writing, "Naturally I am fond of you, attracted by you, and naturally also I feel a certain responsibility to you, for you were my pupil, and I do not under-rate my mind and knowledge, and know perfectly well that for somebody like you I, at the moment, appear more interesting and unusual and even gratifying than I will ever seem after a year or two have passed." A few letters later, after the tension had dissipated somewhat, the correspondence resumes its more general discussions of life and literature. However, the letters also start to peter out, ending in 1964 and not resuming until 1976. The later letters, which present both sides of the correspondence, are written as between "pros" commiserating over the vicissitudes of the writer's life.

The success of any collection of correspondence is dependent on the editor, as well as on the letters themselves. For the most part, Verduyn (a professor at Trent University) has succeeded in presenting a coherent package-her generally unintrusive editorial practices are defined in her introduction, which is itself useful and accessible. However-and here come the inevitable quibbles-I would have been grateful for an index, and bio/bibliographical chronologies to help me place the events in each writer's life as they relate to the letters.

At one point in the correspondence, MacLennan writes, "I was so glad to have your two newsy, vibrant, delightful letters. I never was a good letter-writer myself and I enjoy the talent in others." While we may regret that these two letters are no longer extant, MacLennan is being too modest. His letters also have that easy vitality that admits readers into the correspondents' world, and allows us to indulge in the conceit that we are reading over their shoulders.

Patrick McDonagh teaches at Concordia University.


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