Oddball in Buckram (Part the Fourth/Final)

This is the conclusion of my multi-part post about my purchase of The Book of Roberts, which came with a much-signed pamphlet advertising a lecture by a member of the Roberts family.

The author of the book was William Harris Lloyd Roberts (1884-1966) the eldest son of the so-called ‘Dean of Canadian literature’, Sir Charles G. D. Roberts (1860-1943).¹  The book is a reflection on Lloyd’s growing-up years and includes his impressions of his father and of Sir Charles’ cousin, the so-called ‘Dean of Canadian Poets’, Bliss Carmen (1861-1929) — who is referred to in the book as ‘Uncle Bliss’ and ‘Blissy’.

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Mention is made in The Book of Roberts of the novelist/poet brother of Sir Charles, Theodore Goodridge Roberts (1877-1953) — referred to in the book by his family nickname, ‘Thede’. He had “almost as precocious a beginning as his eldest brother [Sir Charles]. Before he was twenty years old, he had published several poems and short stories” (Adams, 77). But he had the mixed destiny to forever be in the literary shadows cast by brother Charles and cousin Bliss. This wasn’t altogether misfortune, though, in my opinion. He may not have been blessed with the same creative genius that Bliss and Charles had, but Thede also didn’t seem to have the same kinds of trouble they had. Charles and Bliss were both lonely men (Bliss never married; Charles made an early and unwise choice of mate whom he ultimately left) and neither had much in the way of ready cash; forget about savings. Thede, on the other hand, to all appearances, had a happy marriage and, while not wealthy, seems not to have been in the poorhouse during his last years. For Thede’s bio note and bibliography, see the inside pages of the pamphlet below.

Inside pages of the pamphlet advertising Theodore Goodridge Roberts’ Lecture Recital

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Mary Eunice Barr was, apparently, the original owner of my copy of The Book of Roberts. It seems to have been a gift to her from A. M. Pound, judging from the inscription by Pound in the book’s flyleaf²:

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This sort of quasi-opaque inscription makes me crazy! Why “etc, etc”? Why not be a little more explicit as to the relationship/connection between Mary Eunice and the Roberts clan?

Mary Eunice seems to have been born shortly after the century turned, so that would put her in her late 20s or early 30s by the time Pound presented this to her. She was a dress pattern-maker in Vancouver at the time.

Not only do I not know what connection there was between Mary and the Roberts family, I don’t know how Pound came to be aware of the connection, nor indeed how he came to know Miss Barr. I can speculate a bit on the Roberts-Barr connection, though. In the authorized biography of Sir Charles, written by Elsie Pomeroy, it is noted that

During [Charles’] first year in Toronto a portrait of [him] was painted by J. W. L. Forster, and in the following year by Alan Barr, son of his old friend, the novelist, James Barr, best known in England for his book, The Gods Give My Donkey Wings. James Barr was the brother of Robert Barr — now, in the opinion of Roberts, so undeservedly forgotten both in England and America. (Pomeroy, 303-4)

As far as I can tell, no other mention is made of any Barr in the biographies of Sir Charles nor any other Roberts reference of which I’m aware. But it could be that Mary Eunice was related in some way to Alan, James, or Robert.

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This scrawl makes my struggles to make sense of Mary Eunice Barr seem like a cake walk! I cannot make out what the name is. I’ve tried, without success, to find in the Vancouver Directory for 1932 a plausible name. Of course, my assumption that the person was a resident of Vancouver may be incorrect!

There is one other signature on the pamphlet cover that has faded to the point that my scanner cannot pick up any of it: it is the signature of Margaret Fewster.

Margaret’s surname was familiar to me from my reading of the Roberts biographies. Her dad was medical doctor Ernest P. Fewster who, together with his wife, Emma, was a big mover behind the Vancouver Poetry Society. The Fewsters were also fans of Bliss Carmen and of Sir Charles Roberts.

There is evidence from a U.S. border crossing record for Mary Eunice Barr in 1938 that ‘Margaret Ewster’ (sic, I’m assuming) was a friend of Miss Barr.

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Conclusion

As I prepared to wrap up this extended post on The Book of Roberts, I wondered how many other people have read the book in recent years. There is no way of knowing that, of course. But surely there must be a way of tracking recent public library borrowings.

Vancouver Public Library has no fewer than three copies at its Central Branch location; two that circulate and one that doesn’t. I was surprised by that, given that it is an obscure little family bio/essay regarding people who aren’t exactly household names, these days! So I emailed VPL to ask if there was any way to track the regularity with which The Book of Roberts had circulated, lately.

A staffer replied:

I can tell you that the History Compact Shelving copy has gone out once since it was added to our Horizon circulation database in 1990 and that the Literature Compact Shelving copy has not circulated since it was added to the database in 1993. There is no way of telling how often either circulated before those times. (Emphasis mine)

Put a little differently, in the past quarter-century, one of the two circulating copies of the book was checked out once.

You may be surprised to learn that I actually find this reassuring. Not that the books have been checked out so infrequently, but that VPL has chosen to retain the copies it has of The Book of Roberts. It is a well-written little book about a family that was significant in the literary history of Canada — and with connections that reached into Vancouver, too.


Notes

¹References on the life of Sir Charles and his circle of family/friends include Sir Charles G. D. Roberts: A Biography. E. M. Pomeroy. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1943. (This is an authorized biography and Sir Charles was a virtual co-author). For more of a ‘warts-and-all’ treatment of these folks, see Sir Charles God Damn: The Life of Sir Charles G. D. Roberts. John Coldwell Adams. U of T Press, 1986.

²Pound died suddenly just a few months after making the inscription.


 

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