Beresford-Howe, Constance 1922-
BERESFORD-HOWE, Constance 1922-
PERSONAL: Born November 10, 1922, in Montreal, Canada; daughter of Russell (an insurance salesman) and Marjory (a homemaker; maiden name, Moore) Beresford-Howe; married Christopher W. Pressnell (a teacher), December 31, 1960; children: Jeremy. Education: McGill University, B.A., 1945, M.A., 1946; Brown University, Ph.D., 1950.
ADDRESSES: Home—c/o Taylor, 55 Argowan Crescent, Toronto M1V 1B4, Ontario, Canada.
CAREER: McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, lecturer, 1948-49, assistant professor, 1949-61, associate professor of English, 1961-69; Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, Toronto, Ontario, professor of English, 1970-88.
MEMBER: International PEN.
AWARDS, HONORS: Dodd, Mead intercollegiate literary fellowship, 1945, for The Unreasoning Heart; Canadian booksellers annual award, 1974, for The Book of Eve; Canadian Council Senior Arts Award, 1975; Ontario Arts Council Grants, 1976, 1983, 1985.
The Unreasoning Heart, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1946.
Of This Day's Journey, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1948.
The Invisible Gate, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1949.
My Lady Greensleeves, Ballantine (New York, NY), 1955.
The Book of Eve, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1974.
A Population of One, Macmillan of Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1977, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1978.
The Marriage Bed, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1981.
Night Studies, Macmillan Canada (Toronto, Ontario Canada), 1985.
Prospero's Daughter, Macmillan Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1988.
A Serious Widow, Macmillan Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1991.
Author of television script The Cuckoo Bird, Canadian Broadcasting Corp., 1981. Contributor to periodicals, including Maclean's, Writer, and Chatelaine.
ADAPTATIONS: The Book of Eve was adapted for the stage by Larry Fineberg and performed at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, in 1976, and made into a film in 2002; A Population of One was adapted to television for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in 1980; The Marriage Bed was produced for television by CBC-TV in 1986.
SIDELIGHTS: Constance Beresford-Howe gained acclaim in her native Canada as a voice of twentieth-century women, particularly "in their struggle for freedom against popular expectations—both sexist and feminist," according to Barbara Pell in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. The only daughter of an insurance salesman and a homemaker, Beresford-Howe was the product of Depression-era Notre Dame de Grace, Montreal, Quebec. With her parents and brother, she lived in a series of low-rent flats; an attack of rheumatic fever at age eleven further challenged the young girl. Confined to bed for months during her recovery, Beresford-Howe "strengthened her inclination to introspection, reading, and writing," as Pell noted. By the time she reached college age, Beresford-Howe had set her sights on becoming a high-school teacher. But Beresford-Howe excelled at writing, winning McGill University's Shakespeare Gold Medal in 1945, as well as the Peterson Prize for creative writing.
A year later, Beresford-Howe published her first novel, The Unreasoning Heart. This story of an orphaned teenage girl finds acceptance and eventually love within a prosperous Montreal family features "a rather melodramatic plot," said Pell. Still, The Unreasoning Heart was named the Dodd, Mead Intercollegiate Literary Fellowship winner. Other early Beresford-Howe novels include Of This Day's Journey and The Invisible Gate. Both books trace the love lives of young Canadian women. In the former, the freshly minted lecturer arrives in America to begin teaching at a small college; her "doomed romance," as Pell put it, with the school's married president propels the narrative. The Invisible Gate, set in postwar Montreal, "portrays the cynical exploitation of two sisters by a returned serviceman." While Beresford-Howe's early novels tended to attract critical epithets like "cardboard figures" and "hammock fiction," The Invisible Gate began to show the author in a better light. A reviewer of the day, Claude Bissell of the University of Toronto Quarterly, cited this novel for the author's "lively talent" and her "easy fluency" of prose style, according to Pell's essay. In 1955 Beresford-Howe published My Lady Greensleeves, a historical novel based on an authentic Elizabethan love triangle and the lawsuit that followed it. But it would be nearly twelve years between that book and the publication of the author's fifth novel.
In the ensuing years Beresford-Howe had a long teaching career at McGill, her alma mater; she reluctantly left Quebec for Toronto, Ontario, in 1969, accepting a teaching position at the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. In 1974 she published The Book of Eve, which tells of a sixty-five-year-old woman who abruptly leaves her husband of forty years. She also abandons "the bourgeois wilderness of Notre Dame de Grace to descend into a tenement flat and an eccentric existence as a scavenger," as Pell described it. "But, in her freedom from convention and materialism, she finds an independent identity, strength for survival, new values, fellowship, and even love."
The Book of Eve was the first of a "Voice of Eve" trilogy that focuses on women finding their own fulfillment outside of society's conventions. Beresford-Howe's second work of the series, A Population of One, concerns Wilhelmina (Willy) Doyle, a thirtyish Ph.D. who arrives in Montreal in 1969 with a dual purpose: to teach college English and to marry, "or at the very least to have an affair," as she put it. That Willy succeeds in her career and not her personal goal speaks to her character's rejection of the casual-sex ethos of the era; she "accept[s] her very Canadian isolation with dignity," said Pell. Canadian Forum's Raymond Shady found the scenes of Willy's professional life lacking; the counterculture college atmosphere Beresford-Howe created reveals her "prejudices . . . as she portrays the leader of the radical reform group as a self-serving American who cares nothing for his students; the student radicals themselves are uniformly characterized as shabby, vulgar and confused, while much of the 'power-to-the-people' dialogue sounds contrived." But Shady concluded that the "ultimate success" of A Population of One is in the story of Willy's romantic adventures. "The dignity she achieves in the face of her 'incurable' loneliness offers us a glimpse into the human condition," he said. Willy "is marvelous," stated a Publishers Weekly contributor, "funny, rueful, tentative, filled with yearnings." To know Willy, the critic continued, "is to know ourselves better."
Beresford-Howe wrapped up her "Voices of Eve" trilogy with The Marriage Bed, about a young wife and mother in contemporary Toronto. Anne Graham, pregnant and abandoned by her lawyer husband, attempts to draw meaning from her life of drudgery. "The thematic inversion," noted Pell, "is that she refuses all offers to be liberated and wins back her husband by delivering their baby on the floor of his mistress's communal rooming house." Paul Stuewe of Quill & Quire dubbed this novel "Diary of a Moderately Mad Housewife," and faulted the author for having her protagonist, who remained passive through much of the book, take an out-of-character turn into an activist during the story's childbirth climax. But if The Marriage Bed "never grows into anything resembling sustained and coherent fiction," Stuewe added, "it does offer other enjoyments that partially redeem this failure." He praised Beresford-Howe's "polished and highly readable prose," and said that the Toronto setting is put to good use. A Publishers Weekly critic found more to recommend in The Marriage Bed, saying that "Anne's witty and ironic optimism transforms the petty into something wonderful."
In an interview with Michael Ryval for Quill & Quire, Beresford-Howe discussed the divergent personalities of Willy and Anne in the two novels. In the case of A Population of One, "I'm upside-downing ideas," she said. "Willy discovers it isn't possible to go to bed with anyone. Today's kids say, 'What's wrong with one-night stands?' Everything. I had a lot of women who were delighted with a book that dealt with celibacy." Anne's homebound status is the author's response to an era that depicts domesticity as undesirable. "It is not," she declared to Ryval. "I know a lot of women who say, 'I like staying home with my children.' Yet they're made to feel as if they're stupid or wrong." Ultimately, "I don't see the books as old-fashioned," the author said. "Instead, they take a number of popular attitudes and rattle them loose."
Night Studies, published in 1985, uses the setting of a Toronto community college evening course to study the "many characters who toil there nightly," as Louise Longo described it for Books in Canada. Two "world-weary" teachers, Imogen and Tyler, escape unhappy marriages in the school hallways; they interact with the many students, faculty and staff of the multicultural college and eventually discover one another. "Beresford-Howe has a fine ear for the everyday chitchat that passes for conversation," noted Sherrill Cheda of Quill & Quire, "but her characters suffer from a lack of a spiritual centre." With A Serious Widow, the author explores how middle-aged Toronto homemaker Rowena, suddenly widowed when her husband "dropped dead in his Adidas" while jogging, learns to fend for herself. Complications ensue when a young man shows up at the funeral claiming to be her husband's son by a secret wife in Ottawa; Rowena's successful daughter, Marion, views her unworldly mother with some scorn.
"Initially angry at being the dupe of her bigamist husband," wrote Canadian Literature critic Michele O'Flynn, "Rowena quickly begins to feel afraid as she understands her situation." Though the character eventually finds success as a single woman, Rowena "is woefully inadequate if she is to serve as an inspirational symbol for the emancipation of women," said O'Flynn. "Through much of the book, she is a passive observer of her own life. . . . The reader is often frustrated by her inability to think or act on her own behalf." Pat Barclay of Books in Canada, however, welcomed Rowena as a character, saying that while "in her darker moments [she] shares her daughter's view of her competence, she can also muster up an ironic detachment." In Barclay's view, Beresford-Howe "understands how genuine charm helps compensate for one's deficiencies."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 88: Canadian Writers, 1920-1959, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Best Sellers, October, 1978, R. A. Higgins, review of A Population of One, p. 203.
Booklist, February 15, 1982, review of The Marriage Bed, p. 743.
Books in Canada, October, 1985, Louise Longo, review of Night Studies, pp. 23-24; April, 1988, review of Prospero's Daughter, p. 25; October, 1991, Pat Barclay, "Making the Best of It," pp. 35-36.
Canadian Forum, February, 1978, Raymond Shady, "The Second Voice of Eve," pp. 38-39; October, 1985, Fergus Cronin, "Showing the Hands: A Profile of Constance Beresford-Howe," p. 34.
Canadian Literature, winter, 1990, review of Prospero's Daughter, p. 180; spring, 1993, Michele O'Flynn, "Serious Widows," pp. 155-156.
Cinema Canada, February, 1987, Edgar Matthews, "Yours, Mine and Ours: Anna Sandor and Constance Beresford-Howe," p. 12.
CM, November, 1988, review of Prospero's Daughter, p. 211; July, 1989, review of The Book of Eve, p. 172; January, 1992, review of A Serious Widow, p. 29.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1978, review of A Population of One, p. 318.
Maclean's, September 14, 1981, review of The Marriage Bed, p. 76; May 9, 1988, Mark Nichols, review of Prospero's Daughter, p. 60.
Publishers Weekly, April 3, 1978, review of A Population of One; December 1, 1981, review of The Marriage Bed, p. 42.
Quill & Quire, July, 1981, Michael Ryval, "Constance Beresford-Howe's Subversion and Sensibility," p. 64; September, 1981, Paul Stuewe, review of The Marriage Bed, p. 64; September, 1985, Sherrill Cheda, review of Night Studies, p. 78; March, 1988, review of Prospero's Daughter, p. 77; August, 1991, review of A Serious Widow, p. 15.
Saturday Night, September, 1977, review of A Population of One, p. 69.
Women's Studies, September, 1990, Emily Nett, "The Naked Soul Comes Closer to the Surface," p. 177.
University of Calgary Library,http://www.ucalgary.ca/ (June 10, 2002), Lorraine McMullen, "Constance Beresford-Howe."