Visser, Margaret 1940–

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Visser, Margaret 1940–

PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "Fiss-ser"; born May 11, 1940, in Germiston, South Africa; naturalized Canadian citizen; daughter of John Holland (an engineer) and Ruby Margaret Agar (a teacher; maiden name, O'Connell) Barclay-Lloyd; married Colin Wills Visser (a professor), June 8, 1962; children: Emily, Alexander. Education: University of Toronto, B.A. (with honors), 1970, M.A., 1973, Ph.D., 1980. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Music, film, theater, reading, painting, architecture.

ADDRESSES: Home—Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Agent—Westwood Creative Artists, 94 Harbord St., Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1G6; and The Wylie Agency, 250 W. 57th St., Ste. 2114, New York, NY 10107. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Writer, educator, journalist, and broadcaster. Mansfield Chronicle-Advertiser, Mansfield, England, reporter, 1958–60; British Council, London, England, schoolteacher in Baghdad, Iraq, 1962–64; University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, secretary, 1964–66; York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, lecturer in classics, 1974–79, course director and lecturer in classics, 1982–88, Canada Research fellow in department of classics, 1988–93. Canadian Broacasting Corp. (CBC-Radio), Toronto, broadcaster, 1980–, including for such programs as Morningside, 1982–91, and The Arts Tonight, 1991–96; also appeared on series Lifetime, CFTO-TV, 1986–89; A comme Artiste, TVO, 1992; Women's Channel, 1995; and radio series A Tale of Six Cities, British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), 1998.

AWARDS, HONORS: Gold Medal for Classics, University of Toronto, 1970; Glenfiddich Award, Foodbook of the Year, 1989, for Much Depends on Dinner; International Association of Culinary Professionals' Literary Food Writing Award and Jane Grigson Award for Scholarly Distinction, both 1992, both for The Rituals of Dinner; Sweeney Award, 2004. Honorary degree, Brescia University College of the University of Western Ontario.


Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1986, Collier (New York, NY), 1988.

The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners, Grove Weidenfeld (New York, NY), 1991.

The Way We Are, HarperCollins (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994, Faber (Boston, MA), 1996.

More than Meets the Eye, 1996.

The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church, HarperFlamingo Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2000.

Beyond Fate, House of Anansi Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.

Writer for "Siblings," a feature on CBC-Radio program Ideas, 1983. Contributor to book Greek Tragedy and Its Legacy, edited by Martin Cropp, Elaine Fantham, and S.E. Scully, University of Cal-gary Press, 1986. Contributor to journals, including Journal of the History of Ideas and Harvard Theological Review. Contributing editor and author of monthly column "The Way We Are," Saturday Night magazine, 1988–94; contributing editor and writer, Compass magazine, 1994–96.

Visserr's works have been translated into French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.

ADAPTATIONS: The Geometry of Love is being made into a documentary film.

SIDELIGHTS: Margaret Visser is a university professor of classics, a columnist, and the author of several well-received books. She has also worked in radio and television. "Visser's forte is to take the ordinary and turn it into the extraordinary by providing a cultural history of its evolution," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Accepting a last minute invitation to speak on the CBC-Radio program Morningside, "Visser, seldom at a loss for something to say, came right over and delivered an authoritative and captivating recitation on just why it is that North Americans don't eat insects," reported Los Angeles Times contributor Mary Williams Walsh. According to Walsh, the audience loved Visser, who later became a regular on the well-known radio show, and "the essay on insect-eating was the prototype for what would ultimately become Visser's stock-in-trade: Learned but accessible explanations of commonplace items and practices that most North Americans take for granted."

Encouraged by the requests of radio listeners, Visser wrote a book. Much Depends on Dinner: The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos of an Ordinary Meal, begins with a simple, generic dinner menu: corn with salt and butter, chicken with rice, lettuce with olive oil and lemon juice, and ice cream. The rest of the work is devoted to a history of the food items contained in such a meal. "In a discursive way, she examines the historical, mythological, religious, medicinal, agricultural, and social aspects of each" food item, noted Janet Fetherling in Quill & Quire. Fetherling further remarked that the book "offers fascinating trivia, yet it is also a serious project, leavened with [an appealing] voice." New York Times Book Review contributor Laura Shapiro called the book "a lively and perceptive guide" and commented: "Despite a fascinating subject and Mrs. Visser's graceful writing style, Much Depends on Dinner never quite comes to life, a problem that may be called the no-primary-sources syndrome…. [She] has relied almost entirely on secondary sources, ignoring those unmediated voices from the past that give focus, immediacy and a human dimension to scholarship…. Still [her unconvincing] assertions inspire the sorts of arguments for which one should thank Mrs. Visser, not bury her." Keith Jeffrey, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, recommended the book, however, even though he also noted that it has "no detailed source references." Jeffrey elaborated: "The approach, however, is so infectious, and the writing generally so engaging and stimulating that passing references prompt one to further speculation."

Visser's second book, The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners, "is, for all its good-naturedness, a scary work, devoted as it is to the mystery and menace of entertaining, the politics that underlie each decision confronting a host, the risks borne in each seemingly innocent gesture of hospitality," related Walsh. Called a "fascinating work" by P.N. Furbank in the London Review of Books, it "is crammed to overflowing with things that one would want to know … [ranging] as widely as possible, both in space and time, and [Visser] explores her theme in a logical progression." Hilary Mantel was not alone when she clearly noted in a Spectator review that, unlike many books involving etiquette, this one is "descriptive not prescriptive." Mantel attested, "Visser's style seems heavy, for a page or so; then you notice the subterranean drollness seeping through. Her book is a learned, fascinating and wide-ranging survey of eating customs from prehistoric times to the present day; it is one of those rare books that, because it touches on the essence of everyday experience, transforms your world while you are reading it…. There is something quotable, interesting or alarming on every page of this book." In the New York Times Book Review Molly O'Neil commented that Visser's "dense learned patter could ground a frivolous cocktail hour, but it might become a little pedantic over the course of a long meal. Read [The Rituals of Dinner] in small doses. But read it, because you'll never look at a table knife the same way again."

A critic for Kirkus Reviews similarly warned that The Way We Are should be read "at random and in short bursts" so that "Visser's warmth and humor" can overcome "a tendency to the pedantic, which … in larger swallows becomes almost overwhelming." Comments on food are part, but not all, of what comprise The Way We Are. Visser's third publication is a compilation of about fifty short essays previously published in the popular Canadian magazine Saturday Night. The book's topics vary widely and, according to Thomas Blaikie in Spectator, "There will be readers who will protest that too much of the material is incidental, that the open-minded, suggestive approach leads nowhere … [but] it can be said unequivocally that in Margaret Visser's hands to read a history of knitting or of Christmas Pudding is pure pleasure." Positively highlighting the book, Sandra Martin called it "witty, erudite, and succinct" and stated in Quill & Quire: "If I have one complaint … it is that Visser does tend to circle the same ground … more than once, but can a columnist ignore Christmas or spring just because she covered it last year?"

In The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church Visser brings her precise and focused analysis of the ordinary to the study of a small Italian church. "Seeking to open the springs of the spirit, Margaret Visser has written an ascetic, private, devotional meditation on Christian history, embodied in a church and its bones and stones, which she lovingly numbers," commented Marina Warner in the New York Times. Sant Agnese Furore le Mure (St. Agnes Outside the Walls) is a very old church in Rome that has been open to worshipers for more than 1,350 years. Within it are buried the remains of Saint Agnes, a twelve-year-old girl who died a martyr's death in 305 C.E. for refusing to marry the governor of Rome. Visser provides a deep consideration not only of the church itself, but of the history, ritual, and meaning of Catholic religion, and what the architecture of the church can reveal to a modern pilgrim who experiences it. She describes the layout of the church and the various sections within, such as the nave, and what they mean in the context of Catholicism in particular and religion in general. She explains the meaning of the catacombs and Christian burial traditions, the power of relics and martyrs, the origins of words relevant to Christian religion, and the symbolism represented by depictions of St. Agnes and the structural elements of the church.

"What is astonishing is the depth of Visser's knowledge of the Bible and church history as well as the depth of her theological reflections," remarked Arthur Van Seters in a Presbyterian Record article on The Geometry of Love. Visser "brings an enormous breadth—literary, archaeological, anthropological, theological—to her study," observed John Savant in America. Christian Century reviewer Ronald Goetz named Visser "a first-rate collector and reporter of the history and legends that make up the folklore of St. Agnes." Sally Cunneen, writing in Christian Century, commented that Visser's "remarkable book is something to savor and reread," concluding that the book is a "clear-eyed, generous introduction to Christianity as it has existed in time and aspires to eternity."

A Canadian citizen, Visser was raised in what is now Zambia, and she has lived in Iraq, France, England, and the United States, as well as Canada. She once told CA: "My intention, in my radio and television work as well as in my books, is to celebrate the 'ordinary' in such a way that people who listen, watch, or read it will never feel quite the same about everyday things again. After all, the word 'ordinary' derives from 'order'; the more you take a thing or a custom for granted, the more it organizes you and directs your actions. Nothing 'ordinary' can be unimportant.

"My academic training is in ancient Greek and Latin, with a specialty in Greek drama, mythology, and religion. The ideas and methods I learned from this scholarly pursuit have formed the basis of my work outside the university." Visser's scholarly research is conducted in French, German, and Italian, as well as in the classical languages.



America, September 17, 2001, John Savant, "Agnes and Beyond," review of The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery, and Meaning in an Ordinary Church, p. 23.

Booklist, March 15, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of The Way We Are, p. 1227.

Christian Century, May 23, 2001, Ronald Goetz, review of The Geometry of Love, p. 28; January 2, 2002, Sally Cunneen, review of The Geometry of Love, p. 42.

Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1996, review of The Way We Are, p. 58.

Library Journal, August, 1991, Eric Hinsdale, review of The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners, p. 108.

London Review of Books, December 3, 1992, P.N. Furbank, review of The Rituals of Dinner, p. 27.

Los Angeles Times, August 6, 1992, Mary Williams Walsh, profile of Margaret Visser.

New York, July 22, 1991, Rhoda Koenig, review of The Rituals of Dinner, p. 50.

New York Times, June 3, 2001, Marina Warner, "Where Heaven Touches Down," review of The Geometry of Love, p. 48.

New York Times Book Review, February 21, 1988, Laura Shapiro, review of Much Depends on Dinner, p. 18; July 28, 1991, Molly O'Neill, review of The Rituals of Dinner, p. 7; August 18, 2002, Scott Veale, review of The Geometry of Love, p. 20.

Presbyterian Record, July, 2001, Arthur Van Seters, review of The Geometry of Love, p. 45.

Psychology Today, November, 1988, Judith Klein, review of Much Depends on Dinner, p. 70.

Publishers Weekly, May 17, 1991, p. review of The Rituals of Dinner, 49; January 8, 1996, review of The Way We Are, p. 52; February 26, 2001, review of The Geometry of Love, p. 79.

Quill & Quire, October, 1986, Janet Fetherling, review of Much Depends on Dinner, p. 46; July, 1994, Sandra Martin, review of The Way We Are, p. 57.

Spectator, September 5, 1992, Hilary Mantel, review of The Rituals of Dinner, p. 27; January 6, 1996, Thomas Blaikie, review of The Way We Are, p. 30.

Times Literary Supplement, July 27, 1990, Keith Jeffrey, review of Much Depends on Dinner, p. 809.

Wilson Library Bulletin, June, 1988, Barbara Scotto, review of Much Depends on Dinner, p. 133.

ONLINE Web site, (November 5, 2005), Catherine Fournier, review of The Geometry of Love.

Margaret Visser Home Page, (November 5, 2005).

Rebecca's Reads, (November 5, 2005), review of The Geometry of Love.

Spirituality & Health, (November 5, 2005), Frederic and Mary Ann Brussel, review of The Geometry of Love.