Author Tags: Biography, Maritime, Women
Cathy Converse of Victoria has taught women's studies and criminology at Camosun College where she and a colleague edited In Her Own Right: Selected Essays on Women's History in B.C. She is also the author of Mainstays: Women Who Shaped B.C. (Horsdal & Schubart), the stories of little-known women such as talented portrait photographer Hannah Maynard and cancer specialist Dr. Ethyn Trapp.
Converse revised, edited and extensively expanded a re-released version of Beth Hill's 1978 book The Remarkable World of Frances Barkley (Touchwood Editions, 2004). [See Frances Barkley entry] She subsequently built upon the research of Edith Iglauer for a full-scale portrait of coastal author M. Wylie Blanchet, Following the Curve of Time (Touchwood $24.95). This book was nominated for the BC Booksellers’ Choice Award in Honour of Bill Duthie. [See review below]
Auntie Vie: A Life of Pickles and Pearls (TouchWood, 2010) is the biography of Pamela Anderson's aunt, who 'burst onto the scene as Pamela's biggest supporter' on the TV program Dancing with the Stars.
[BCBW 2010] "Women" "Maritime"
Following the Curve of Time (Touchwood $24.95)
Having written about Frances Barkley—the first white woman to reach Canada’s West Coast—Cathy Converse examines the secretive life of M. Wylie Blanchet, whose boating memoir The Curve of Time is into its eleventh printing.
Cathy Converse’s Following the Curve of Time (Touchwood $24.95) focuses on where Blanchet traveled and her family background. Although it is not touted as a biography, it leapt quickly onto the BC Bestseller list and has remained there for months.
It would be nice to learn Blanchet was a doting single mom, as well as a generous free spirit, sensitive to First Nations people. It would be nice to believe she and her brood happily undertook idyllic cruises, as a sort of Swiss Family Robinson On The Water.
Artists, however, are seldom exemplary humans. The egocentricity required for originality more frequently produces monsters than saints.
Converse’s well-intentioned profile reveals that Blanchet was admirable but not necessarily likeable. “She was not a Waterford Crystal kind of woman,” Converse writes. The reader surmises that her children must have sometimes felt like captives aboard the family’s crowded 25 ft. by 61/2 ft. cedar launch. One of them openly dismisses her famous book as a false concoction.
Blanchet, as Muriel Liffiton, had a tomboy-ish childhood within a well-to-do High Anglican family in Quebec. She inexplicably left her studies to marry bank employee Geoffrey Blanchet.
Whereas he was highly emotional, she could be intensely pragmatic. This marriage wasn’t made in heaven. After Geoffrey Blanchet fell ill in his early 40s and subsequently retired, the couple and their four children drove west in a Willys-Knight touring car, serendipitously discovering and buying a cottage at Curteis Point on Vancouver Island, near Sidney, B.C., in 1922.
Unoccupied since 1914, this strange and abandoned little house, which they dubbed Little House, had been designed by Samuel Maclure. It was a case of finders-keepers. The ivy-covered home known as Little House was torn down in 1948, beset by dry rot, but it was soon replaced by a new building and ‘Capi’ Blanchet kept it for the rest of her days.
In 1923 the family bought their 25-ft. gas boat, the Caprice, for $600, after it had been sunk at anchor by ice dislodged by the Brentwood ferry. The boat was only one-year-old but its engine had to be overhauled after it was raised to the surface.
Blanchet’s affinity for mechanics and boats was therefore born of necessity. The engine would remain in use for 20 years until 1942.
One more child was born in B.C., then tragedy struck. Geoffrey Blanchet died, or disappeared, under very mysterious circumstances, in 1927, after he embarked on the Caprice and stopped at nearby Knapp Island. The boat was found by a Chinese gardener on the island. It was presumed that Blanchet’s husband drowned while going for a swim, but this remains mere conjecture.
Each summer thereafter for 15 years, the indomitable
‘Capi’, with five children to raise, rented her house to a family from Washington State and Huck Finn-ed it along the coasts of Vancouver Island.
For someone who had capably home-schooled her kids, Blanchet left behind a suspiciously paltry paper trail.
Ultimately the portrait that emerges from Converse is one of a no-nonsense person who stubbornly resisted the advice or charity of others.
When Blanchet developed emphysema and her doctor recommended moving to a drier climate, her response was to stick her head in the oven for twenty minutes a day. “Unfortunately, long-term exposure to oil stoves,” Converse writes, “can cause the very condition she was trying to remedy.
Once, when Blanchet and her daughter-in-law Janet were driving to Victoria and they passed a house with a well-stocked woodpile, Capi Blanchet derisively suggested those people had to be from the Prairies because they had failed to note the beach was littered with wood.
Blanchet scavenged all her firewood from the beach. “Two friends once brought her a gift of Presto logs,” Converse writes, “so that she would not have to burn wet wood and scraps from the beach.
“Capi thanked them but later said it was one of the silliest gifts she had ever received; it was like bringing coals to Newcastle.”
But burning driftwood permeated with salt produces an acid that eats away at brick and causes chimney damage. “Also, burning wood that has not been seasoned for six to nine months generates soot and creosote,” Converse writes, “which can markedly increase the risk of a chimney fire.”
On September 30, 1961, M. Wylie Blanchet was found dead at her typewriter, having suffered a heart attack at age 70. The never-solved disappearance of her husband casts a macabre shadow over Blanchet’s life, even now.
Possibly M. Wylie Blanchet and Emily Carr could have been friends. Neither liked the outside world, and the outside world often responded in kind. And the attentions of men were not at the top of their agenda.
Just as Converse benefited from the work of Beth Hill, who first published The Remarkable World of Frances Barkley 1769–1845 in 1978, this time Converse is indebted to Edith Iglauer for her posthumous profile that appeared in Raincoast Chronicles.
After World War II, the Caprice was sold for $700 to the owner of a Victoria boatyard. It was soon destroyed by a fire when it was in for repairs.
The original version of The Curve of Time appeared in England in the late 1950s, published by Blackwoods in London, the company for which Blanchet had often written freelance articles. Few copies reached the West Coast of Canada. The unusual title The Curve of Time is derived from some writing she had on board the Caprice by the Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949) in which the Belgian Nobel Prize winner considered time as a curve.
Publisher Gray Campbell of Sidney released the first Canadian edition in 1968 after Blanchet had died in 1961. It sold for $1.95. A children’s book by Blanchet was published posthumously in 1983.
[BCBW 2008] "Maritime"