Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone




Through the courtesy of the publishers, Messrs. Hunter, Rose & Co., have come to hand the early chapters of a work which must prove of deep interest to the Canadian public.  It is entitled the "Life and Times of the Right Honorable Sir John A. Macdonald," etc., and is by Mr. J.E. Collins, of Toronto; it will be looked upon probably as a counterblast to the Hon. Alexander Mackenzie's life of the Hon. George Brown.  The table of contents indicates that the volume will contain in the neighborhood of forty-five chapters, and will cover everything of direct importance to Canada that has occurred within the last forty years.  It is printed in large type, on heavy tinted paper; and with its liberal margin and careful press-work presents a handsome appearance.  We should congratulate ourselves that the art of book-making in Canada has made such rapid strides of late.  Our books of a few years back show but meanly alongside of those now issued from our presses.

In the first seven chapters of his work, Mr. Collins tells the story of our Premier's life, from his coming to Canada with his parents in 1820, a boy of five years old, to the time of his obstinate struggle in opposition to the Rebellion Losses Bill in 1849, the year of the Montreal riot and the burning of the Parliament buildings.  Thus far in the record Sir John appears as a genuine and uncompromising Tory, though always rather contemptuous of the violence and mismanagement which were driving his party to destruction.  His Toryism, however, was mitigated by common sense; and with this fact his biographer, who seems but an indifferent Tory, consoles himself and his readers, abiding the time when the narrative shall come to tell of the infusion of the leaven of Liberalism.  But there is no suggestion of apology for the intensity of Sir John's early prejudices; these were inevitable, and are displayed as the healthy raw material, out of which was later to be evolved the more acceptable product of Liberal Conservatism.  Even thus early, however, in Sir John's career, and while party strife was relentlessly bitter and he in the foremost of it always, we see him making personal admirers in the ranks of his most strenuous opponents.  While candor and fairness rule these pages, and nothing is distorted or conceded for purposes of effect, it will, I think, be acknowledged by readers of both shades of political opinions, that this is a very attractive picture Mr. Collins presents us of the well equipped, courteous, ready, self-possessed young statesman, imparting dignity to the decline of a not very glorious cause.

With regard to the style and the structure of the work, if what is to follow fulfils the promise of these chapters, we shall have a production that will step at once into the front rank of our young literature.  In the department of history and biography, more than in any other, we can already boast works of dignity and importance.  Only one or two of these, however, apart from the value of their matter, can take rank as literary products.  But the dullest matter would become readable under the spell of Mr. Collins' vivid and picturesque rendering.  Here the attention is held from the first sentence.  Every page is delightfully readable.  A strong and sympathetic imagination has so grasped and mastered the whole subject, that the narrative proceeds with the unobstructed swiftness of good fiction, while dry but needful details are so skillfully woven in as apparently to heighten the interest.  This is indeed a chief triumph of the biographer's art.  If the author can throughout maintain the unfailing freshness and verve of these one hundred and twenty-eight pages, then his work will have an audience far beyond the borders of Canada, as one of the most brilliant biographies of the day.  This [text illegible] will I hope [text illegible] be said to have [text illegible] tremendous impact on the reading classes of the world.

In argument and style these chapters are terse, simple, and eminently Saxon.  No energy is wasted in resounding syllables; each sentence is compact and telling, with perhaps an occasional tendency to unnecessary ellipses, arising from the rapid movement of the thought.  The tone is temperate, and opposing parties are depicted with even-handed justice.  None are painted wholly black or white, but Tory and Reformer appear in probable and natural colors.  Perhaps the best abused man in their pages is Sir Charles Metcalfe, that most subtle and dangerous adversary of the cause of Responsible Government.  Yet even of him it is shown that "in private life he was kind and courteous;" that he was "good to the poor;" and that many tears were shed to his memory.

A piece of sympathetic eloquence is devoted to the case, too generally misunderstood, of the unfortunate Pole, Von Shoultz, to whose memory is here done a portion of tardy justice.  Mr. Collins refutes the common accounts of this general, whose execution we are wont to hear mentioned as the well deserved punishment of a mercenary and lawless adventurer.  But I would fain have seen even a fuller definition of this noble but misguided man, whose heart burned hotly against all tyranny for the sake of his down-trodden Poland, and who so ardently embraced the cause of a country which has misrepresented him as groaning under almost Russian despotism.  It is his glory that he longed to deliver us; it was his misfortune that we happened to stand in no great need of deliverance.

Some of Mr. Collins' powers, perhaps, are displayed to best advantage in chapter vi., which describes "The lights of '44."  These pen portraits are admirable done.  Here is keen insight, dramatic presentation, most racy and piquant handling.  Here also is what never fails to capture the reviewer—a crisp decision of outline and a potent but unobtrusive humor.  With the following brief quotations this review of what promises to be so masterly a work, must be brought to a close.  This is of the Reformer Lafontaine, who was born at Boucherville, in 1807:—

"He began life as a barrister, and applied himself diligently to his profession, accumulating a handsome fortune.  When the oppressions of the little British clique became intolerable, he was found among the daring young spirits at whose head was Papineau, who met to discuss ways of throwing off the hateful yoke.  Later on he became the rival of Papineau, and put himself at the head of la jeune France; and the priests shook their heads at his orthodoxy.  He was on the search for liberty then and often hinted at throwing off the "ecclesiastical fetters" as well as the yoke of the Compact.  In 1837 he fled the country from a warrant for high treason, passed over to England, and thence, in some trepidation, silently slipped across the Channel to France.  There was no evidence against him, however, and an ironical letter he had written to Mr. Girouard on the absurdity of rebellion was taken literally, and went far towards removing him even from suspicion.  His little tour had a wonderful effect upon him, for he came back, not only a good Loyalist, but a pious Christian.  He went to mass ostentatiously, frequented the sacraments, and muttered his Ave Marias aloud.  The priests killed the fatted calf on his return, and he became the pet and light of Holy Church."

This, again, of Sir Allan MacNab:

Though his speech was jagged and often lumbering, he was always drawn up in the order of battle, ready to level a lance against any opponent whether he knew his mettle or not, or to rush into the most intricate question that he knew nothing about.  Sir Allan would have been a better man had they not spoiled him with their gauds and knighthood.  It is not every man who is equal to the carrying of a ribbon or star, or a C.M.G. to his name.  Sir Allan was not.  The moment that the title fell upon him his usefulness departed; he seemed to feel that he had been absorbed by the Crown, and drawn out of the coarser and unholy atmosphere of common life in which he had formerly lived.  Henceforth his duty was to guard faithfully the interests of that Crown of which he felt himself a part."

But this, of Dominick Daly, elsewhere called the "perennial secretary," is, perhaps, most racy of all.  It may be given in full, being brief: Dominick Daly, the son of Dominick Daly, by the sister of the first Lord Wallscourt, was born in Galway, Ireland, in 1798, and married in his twenty-eighth year, the second daughter of Colonel Ralph Gore, of Barrowmount, County Kilkenny.  He studied law, was in due time called to the bar; but, not caring for the legal profession, came out as secretary with Governor Burton, to Quebec.  Shortly after his arrival he became Provincial Secretary for Lower Canada; and on the accomplishment of the union became provincial secretary for Canada, and a member of the Board of Works, with a seat in the Council.  He retained the provincial secretaryship till 1848, when he was driven out of office by the Reformers.  He sat in gloomy state three years longer for Megantie, and then betook himself to England, where he petitioned the Government for a substantial recognition of his twenty-five years' faithful service in Canada.  In answer to his prayer he was appointed successively to the governorship of Tobago, Prince Edward Island, and Western Australia, and received a knighthood.  If ever henchman deserved reward at the hands of the Crown, Dominick Daly did.   His idea of political duty was to show unswerving fealty to the Crown, and support every government that came to power.  He was a body upon which the political sun never set.  When a government of which he was a member waxed strong, Dominick became full of party sinew and vitality; but as that party waned and the end drew near, the color faded out of him; he became a sort of political jelly-fish, and calmly awaited the change of parties, when he developed new affections, a new frame, and fresh marrow and muscle.  Like Mejuour of the Rosy Cross, he saw rulers come and go, and parties wax and wane, and fall to pieces, and rally and grow great again; but neither time nor change affected him.  In the best of nature he assisted the successor of Burton and his clique to thwart and oppress the French majority; and he aided Durham in laying the broad foundation of an enduring liberty.  He stood with Sydenham to found the basis of an equitable political system; and he aided Metcalfe in strangling popular rights.  He was courteous and genial in private life, had strong personal friendships, and was a pious adherent of the Catholic faith.  He believed that the King could do no wrong, and that the duty of the subject was to obey the sovereign or the vice-regent, unquestioningly, under every circumstance.  He would be an odd figure upon the scene now, and even in his day was a curiosity.  He was the Amaranthus of the Cabinet, its never-fading flower; but his enemies used harsher prose and named him the "Vicar of Bray."  His preferment in after days to high place and title is an eloquent commentary on the wisdom and discrimination of Downing street."


Rev. of "Life and Times of the Right Honorable Sir John A. Macdonald," The Daily Telegraph (Saint John, N.B.), Mar. 19, 1883 [back]