WATSON, Sheila

Author Tags: Cariboo, Fiction

Sheila Watson's first novel in 1959, The Double Hook, is renowned in Canadian literature as a breakthrough into modernity. It was also the first title in McClelland & Stewart's new original paperback series designed by Frank Newfield. Prompted by her experiences as a teacher in the community of Dog Creek near Ashcroft, this 116-page novella was actually preceded by another novel-length, Cariboo-based manuscript, Deep Hollow Creek, which was finally published in 1992. In Deep Hollow Creek a spinster schoolteacher goes 'to find life for herself' but encounters instead a claustrophic valley and enigmatic Shuswap Indians.

Born in New Westminster on October 24, 1909, Watson grew up in the vicinity of the Provincial Mental Hospital at Riverview (Essondale) where her father Charles Edward Doherty was chief doctor. In the 1930s she taught school at Dog Creek until the school was closed by the provincial government. She subsequently taught school at a high school at Langley Prairie for several years until she and other teachers were dismissed for trying to start a union. She then taught in Duncan on Vancouver Island. She persuaded a young sawmill worker and poet in the Victoria area to attend UBC. His name was Wilfred Watson. Educated at B.C. Catholic schools, she herself studied English at UBC and married Watson in 1941. The Watsons moved to Edmonton in the mid-1950s and she visited France in 1954. Attending the University of Toronto, she continued her graduate work under the supervision of Marshall McLuhan, who became a major influence on her husband's work as a poet and playwright. She wrote a thesis on Wyndham Lewis. She joined the English faculty at University of Alberta in 1961 and completed her doctorate in 1965. She later published two slim collections of short stories, Four Stories (Coach House, 1979) and Five Stories (Coach House, 1984). She retired from teaching in 1975. The couple moved to a bay north of Nanaimo in 1980 where she died in February of 1998, less than two months before her husband died. Appreciations of her work have been published by Angela Bowering, George Bowering, Frank Davey and Stephen Scobie, among others. Few Canadian writers have achieved as much critical renown on such a slim body of work.

F.T. Flahiff's biography Always Someone to Kill the Doves: A Life of Sheila Watson (NeWest Press, 2005 $34.95) emanates from their meeting as students in Marshall McLuhan's graduate seminar at the University of Toronto, where Flahiff taught at St. Michael's College until his retirement in 1999. 1-896300-83-9

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "Fiction" "Cariboo" "Classic"

Review by Joan Givner (2005)

from BCBW
Sheila the obscure

Sheila Watson was a writers’ writer, with an academic rather popular appeal. The extent of her published work—two slender novels and a few short stories—is small but significant. bp Nichol credited her novel The Double Hook (1959) with his decision to become a writer, Michael Ondaatje called it a “beacon for all young writers” and critic David Staines sees it as the beginning of modern fiction in Canada. Other admirers of her work are George Bowering, Frank Davey, Stephen Scobie and Angela Bowering who produced a critical study Figures Cut in Sacred Ground: Illuminati in The Double Hook (NeWest Press, 1988).
Watson’s work had a protracted development and late publication. Prompted by her experiences as a teacher in the community of Dog Creek near Ashcroft, her 116-page novella The Double Hook was published at age 50. She had just finished her Ph.D at the University of Toronto, writing a dissertation on Wyndham Lewis under the supervision of Marshall McLuhan. Subsequently she taught English at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Her other novel of alienation in a Cariboo valley, Deep Hollow Creek (1992), was actually written prior to The Double Hook, and finally published when she was 83.

Fred Flahiff, a retired professor of English at St Michael’s College, University of Toronto, has now produced Always Someone To Kill The Doves: A Life of Sheila Watson (NeWest, $34.95), the first book-length attempt to put Sheila Watson’s life and her allusive, highly literary work into perspective. He cautions that he was a close friend and admirer of his subject and that his sources were incomplete because many personal papers were destroyed or lost, yet neither fact detracts from this compelling portrait of the artist.

Born in 1909, Sheila Watson spent her first eleven years at the Provincial Mental Hospital in New Westminster, where her father Dr. Charles Doherty was superintendent. This unusual childhood yielded rich material for her short stories, but it was her later experiences in the Cariboo, where she taught for two years, that provided the material for the novels.
Complicating Watson’s life and her biographer’s task (the book might be subtitled `a portrait of a marriage’) was her tormented relationship with Wilfred Watson, whom she met during a teaching stint in Duncan, on Vancouver Island, where he was a sawmill worker. She persuaded him to attend UBC with her and they married in 1941. He became a poet and playwright, with a series of awards that included the 1955 Governor General’s medal for poetry. Added to the difficulty of their competing literary careers—his early success eclipsed hers but had waned by the time she achieved success—was his habit of engaging in a series of affairs with his students.
In 1955, because his current “young friend” was unable or unwilling to go along, Sheila Watson accompanied her husband on a fellowship to Paris, where she kept a journal. Flahiff, with some reservations, makes the calculated decision to withdraw from the role of biographer, assume the role of editor and let his subject speak for herself by including 70 pages of the journal. His reservations are unfounded, for the inclusion of Watson’s own voice at the midpoint of the book and of her adult life is an innovative and effective addition to this highly readable biography.
Although Wilfred Watson’s extra-marital relationships inflicted a great deal of pain on Sheila Watson, leading to prolonged periods of separation, they never led her to terminate the marriage, or diminished her enthusiasm for his work. Having long taught at the University of Alberta, the Watsons collaborated in founding the literary magazine The White Pelican (1971-8). By his wish rather than hers, the couple spent their last eight years Nanaimo where Sheila Watson died at age 88. He died two months later.

-- Joan Givner’s latest books are a novel, Playing Sarah Bernhardt, and a children’s novel. Ellen Fremedon. Her next book, Ellen Fremedon, Journalist, will appear in September.

Always Someone to Kill the Doves
Press Release (2006)

Always Someone to Kill the Doves: A Life of Sheila Watson by F. T. Flahiff
Shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award

Always Someone to Kill The Doves has been shortlisted for the prestigious 19th Annual Trillium Book Award in English language, Ontario's leading Award for literature. Set up in 1987 by the Ontario government to recognize excellence and foster increased awareness of the quality and diversity of Ontario writers and writing, past winners have included Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Timothy Findley, and Anne Michaels.

Always Someone to Kill the Doves is a rich and compelling account of Watson's life told by her close friend of over forty years, F. T. Flahiff. Crafted from archives, interviews, memories, and the bankers boxes Watson sent Flahiff shortly before her death, Flahiff chronicles Watson's fascinating life with flair, exploring her literary genius, her artistic temperament, her turbulent marriage, and the private anguish she suffered from. Best known for The Double Hook, a tiny but influential book which revolutionized Canadian literature, Watson demonstrates her literary prodigy further in the 70 pages Flahiff includes of her Paris journals, which give us a glimpse into the acute mind and imagination of one of Canada's literary icons.

"This is a moving and well-researched account of the ground that produced the remarkable figure we know as Sheila Watson, here not simply a figure but the complex and anguished intelligence whose fiction brought a startling modernism to Canadian literature. Fred Flahiff's method of tracing the whole from shards creates a vivid portrait of Sheila Watson set within the central dilemma of her life. Sheila herself speaks most vividly as the heart of this account in her remarkable diary entries written in Paris, 1955-56."
-Daphne Marlatt

"Sheila Watson's writing is immeasurably important to our culture, and a challenge to anyone who would try to place it in that context. This is a book we have needed on our shelves."
-George Bowering

From inside the book:

"There is marriage and there is a marriage contract-the contract is material and temporal. Marriage itself is an act of faith and consequently an act of perfect love-or inversely and perhaps more truly, an act of perfect love consequently an act of faith. Only a belief such as this would have made and did make the first years of our marriage possible.
"When a parent has a child, he knows that at a certain age the child should leave him, except under unusual circumstances. Even these circumstances are a violation in a sense-as the parent realizes, as mother for instance realized. . . .
"There is no analogy between the relationship of child and parent and the relationship of husband and wife.
"[Wilfred's young friend's] heart speaks to her now. This she will know whether she marries W or not. . . ."