Emily Carr’s Oak Bay (4) — Seventieth Birthday and a Kiss

Emily Carr was born on December 13, 1871 in Victoria. She lived most of her seventy-three years in the neighbourhood of James Bay. Heart attacks in 1937 and 1939 and a stroke in 1940 forced her to give up travelling, and consequently painting. She was already writing; it became a full-time pursuit. Klee Wyck, the first of three memoirs published in her lifetime, appeared in the fall of 1941, following a lengthy convalescence. The book won a Governor-General’s Award for literary excellence.

It is related in the memoir “Seventieth Birthday and A Kiss For Canada,” published posthumously in Growing Pains: The Autobiography of Emily Carr, that the University Women’s Club of Victoria celebrated Emily Carr’s achievement at a party hosted by “Mrs. Young.”

The setting of the party was the home of Rosalind Watson Young at 1208 Oliver Street in Oak Bay.

The following excerpt from the book Growing Pains, by Emily Carr, published in 2005 by Douglas & McIntyre, an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc., is reprinted with the permission of  the publisher. The photograph of Emily Carr and Rosalind Watson Young, reproduced by kind permission of Emily Carr House, has never to my knowledge been published. 

Emily Carr and Rosalind Watson Young, December 13, 1941, photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of Emily Carr House.
Emily Carr and Rosalind Watson Young, December 13, 1941, photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of Emily Carr House.

Klee Wyck made her first appearance a few days before I was seventy. Victoria was astonished at her. Victoria had never approved of my style in painting. When my painting was accepted in the East a few Westerners tolerated it, a smaller number found they actually liked it. Klee Wyck and, a year later, The Book of Small Victorians took straight to their hearts and loved even before the favourable Eastern reviews appeared. …

A few days before my seventieth birthday, a member of the University Women’s Club telephoned me congratulations on Klee Wyck. She said, “Our Club would like to honour you and Klee Wyck by having a little tea-party for you. Are you well enough? We know how ill you have been—and, by the way, have you not a birthday coming pretty soon?”

I replied that I had not been out since my illness, but that I thought I could manage it, that it was very kind of them and that the following Saturday was my seventieth birthday.

“Then that is the day we will set for the party,” she said, “I am lending my home for it. Some of the Club ladies will call for you.” I imagined it would be a gathering of perhaps six or at most a dozen of the Club members.

On Saturday I was dressed and waiting when in walked Eye [Ira Dilworth].

“Ready?” he asked. “I’ve come to take you to the party.”

“The University Women’s tea-party? I am expecting them to pick me up, they promised, so I can’t go with you, but how did you know there was to be a party?”

“I am invited. Furthermore, I am going to read out of Klee Wyck. It’s a big affair, men as well as women coming to honour you and Klee Wyck.

“Oh,” I said, “I thought it was only half a dozen ladies and a cup of tea.”

“It’s going to be mammoth—your townspeople, as many as the house will hold—don’t get scared.”

“Will there be speeches?”

“I should say so!”

“Will I have to reply?”

“I do not think it will be expected of you. They know you have been ill.”

“It would be very ungracious to say nothing at all. They have been so kind to me and to the book; I’ll scribble a few words and if, as so often happens, my voice goes, will you read them for me, Eye? Oh, I am so glad you are going to be there, I’m frightened.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll be all right.”

I scratched a few words on an envelope and clapped it in my spectacle case; then the ladies came for my sister and me.

1208 Oliver Street, Oak Bay, December 2012. Author photo.
1208 Oliver Street, Oak Bay, December 2012. Author photo.

Our hostess, Mrs. Young, had a big house, large rooms. When I saw them packed with people I dropped into the first chair inside the front door and wilted. Mrs. Young came and stood beside me protectingly so that people would not know I had come. After a few moments I got up and took her arm.

“I’m ready.”

She led me into the drawing room and sat me on a pink sofa under a stand lamp. It had commenced to blow and snow outside. Inside all was cosy. My sister was on another sofa across the room and Mrs. Young saw that she had people about her that she knew because my sister is shy and nearly blind; she looked happy and I made up my mind I was going to enjoy my party to the full.

“The Reverend T. Laundy,” Mrs. Young said, “will open the occasion with a short invocation.”

The Reverend offered a short prayer. I was glad Mrs. Young had invited God to my party.

Then the master of ceremonies came forward, a sheaf of open letters in his hand—letters of congratulation from Victoria’s citizens and from the various organizations in the city, good wishes for my birthday and for Klee Wyck. A mail box had been placed beside my sofa and I had wondered why. Now I saw that many of the guests carried envelopes. The first letter read was from the Lieutenant-Governor regretting he was not able to be present but sending best wishes; then came letters from the Mayor and Aldermen, the University Women’s Club, the Canadian Club, the Native Daughters. There was one from the head of Indian Affairs on behalf of himself and the Coast Indians. After the master of ceremonies had read that many aloud, men and women representatives from many other organizations in Victoria stepped up to my mail box, dropped in their societies’ letters and shook hands with me.

Eye  stood close beside my sofa. If I did not quite know how to act or what to say, he told me. He was strength and comfort as he had been over editing Klee Wyck. Dear Eye! He knew the right way and it made me feel safe.

There were flowers, such beautiful flowers! Bouquets, boxes, corsages heaped round my sofa—someone was always coming up with more. It was like having a beautiful funeral only being very much alive to enjoy it. Such an easy, comfortable party! I found myself having a very good time.

After my right hand had nearly been shaken off there were speeches. Lovely things were said about Klee Wyck. When everybody had said everything there was to say, came a tiny pause. I whispered to Eye, “Is it my turn now?” I was shaking with fright. He nodded but, when I went to rise, he put his hand on my shoulder and kept me sat.

Ira Dilworth and Emily Carr's dog Lady Jane, ca. 1941. Photograph included with an edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman that Dilworth presented to Carr. BC Archives Call No. I-67798. Courtesy Royal British Columbia Museum Corporation.
Ira Dilworth and Emily Carr’s dog Lady Jane, ca. 1941. Photograph included with an edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman that Dilworth presented to Carr. BC Archives Call No. I-67798. Courtesy Royal British Columbia Museum Corporation.

“Sure you can make it?”

“Yes,” I replied.

My voice rang out strong as a bull’s and I was not scared. This is what I said—the envelope is still in my spectacle case—“Thank you everybody for giving me such a splendid, happy birthday party and for being so kind to Klee Wyck. I would rather have the good-will and kind wishes of my home town, the people I have lived among all my life, than the praise of the whole world; but I did not write Klee Wyck, as the reviewers said, long ago when I went to the West Coast Villages painting. I was too busy then painting from dawn till dark. I wrote Klee Wyck one year ago in hospital. They said I would not be able to go about painting here and there any more, lugging and tramping. I was sore about it, so, as I lay there, I relived the villages of Klee Wyck. It was easy for my mind to go back to the lovely places. After fifty years they were as fresh in my mind as they were then because while I painted I had lived them deep. I could sail out of hospital and forget about everything. It was Klee Wyck gave my sick heart courage enough to get better and go home to the easy life the doctor had told me I had to expect now.”

“Bravo! You’ll be a public speaker yet!” whispered Eye in my ear. Then he took Klee Wyck in his hands and stood in a central spot to read. When the chairs and sofas were full, people sat round on the floor.

Eye is a beautiful reader. He read Canoe and Juice. Then he talked about several of the longer stories. He commented on Klee Wyck’s place in Canadian literature and how privileged I had been to see the Indian people in their own homes and villages. He said by writing Klee Wyck and by painting our woods I had made a contribution to Canada’s art and literature.

Eye stopped speaking and the room was very still, so still I was scared—“Perhaps everyone does not like Indians!”

Then everybody began to chatter at once. Praise, praise, praise for Klee Wyck. I ducked my face into a box of beautiful chrysanthemums and red carnations that the Canadian Press had sent me.

I did not see or hear Eye cross the room, but suddenly I was aware of a great kindness there before me and the kindness stooped and kissed my cheek!

It was the proudest moment of Klee Wyck‘s success when, before them all, Eye stooped and gave me that kiss for Canada, prouder far than when Klee Wyck won the Governor-General’s medal for best non-fiction for Canada in 1941. The medal looked to me to be made of the same metal as our old cow-bell. “It is the honour,” everyone said, “and remember it is war time!” But the kiss for Canada was made of the pure, real stuff, unadulterable.

We had refreshments and a huge lighted birthday cake and grapefruit punch for healths and “God Save the King”. Again I went to stand, again Eye’s hand kept me down. “You are tired enough,” he said. “Come”, and took my sister and me home to begin my seventy-first year.

5 thoughts on “Emily Carr’s Oak Bay (4) — Seventieth Birthday and a Kiss”

  1. “Laundy was the son-in-law of Bishop Cridge of the Chruch of our Lord,
    and acted as choirmaster and lay preacher in the Church.
    He was 80 years of age when he became a minister”

  2. This is amazing! I grew up in that house! Such many fond memories of our family of eight living in that magnificent old house. Thank you for this piece.
    Julian Di Castri

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