Fort of the Bear by Stella Gibbons begins in London in the early 1920s. The hero, Auberon Vernay, is quickly established as an outsider, a man who has maintained his family links with Germany despite the war, and who is described by a friend as being more typical of a German nobleman than an English one, for his love of philosophy and Nature. Vernay’s loathing for the industrialised world leads him to uproot his wife and daughter, along with six of his tenants, on a trip to north-western Canada. His wife, Cristina, only agrees with the utmost reluctance: “she felt a sense of dreary irritation: all that packing, all that arranging, all those farewells, all that missing of theatres and parties and Ballet – all to be gone through yet again.” She will go for eighteen months; the family estate and home are handed over to the Earl’s brother for the duration of their visit, and the expedition to an old trading post built not by the Hudson’s Bay Company, but by a free trapper, begins. They are to be accompanied for the first six months, to Vernay’s unvoiced displeasure, by Cristina’s friend, Cyril Marlowe. The two men, though ostensibly friends, are in apparent opposition from the start: Vernay has not fought in the war, and has no interest in hunting and shooting; Cyril’s first question on hearing about the Fort has been “is there anything to shoot?” Vernay is withdrawn, dissatisfied with his life and responsibilities, Cyril is a butterfly, an engaging companion to Cristina, and affectionate honorary uncle to her daughter Swanhild, while Vernay has little interest and affection for the child. Cyril, indeed, seems a natural partner for Cristina, sharing her interests and her pleasures, though it is clear that her husband loves her deeply
At first, all is well. The valley in which the Fort is set is a paradise, the Fort itself is made habitable again. Cristina drifts through the late summer with her daughter, only gradually becoming aware of a sense of oppression: She felt dwarfed . . . by the immensity of this land…for the first time she was also aware, in the vast uninhabited landscape, of something that seemed hostile.” Not only does Cristina become increasingly unhappy, her life changes as the only other woman in the party, whom she has formerly treated as a servant, struggles to manage in the harsh conditions, so that Cristina feels she must help with everyday tasks. Cyril, meanwhile, comes to realise that Vernay means never to return to England.
Fort of the Bear, written in the 1950s, is essentially a good, old-fashioned melodrama. It has none of the lightness of touch of some of the author’s other work (notably Cold Comfort Farm). Vernay’s weltschmerz is part of the German Romanticism he clings to, and the peace he at first finds in the wilderness is an uneasy one; only old Shepherd is in any way at one with the land, yet he yearns for his sheep flock at home. Once things begin to go wrong, there is an inexorable quality about it.
In both The Tenderness of Wolves, about which I wrote in my last post, and Fort of the Bear, the wilderness is a character in its own right. And in both, written by non-Canadians, it is essentially Other, inimical to the settler. In Penney’s book the North is inhabited by wolves and madmen, in Gibbons’ it is characterised, despite its beauty, by indifference, cold, and a sense of threat. Native characters are, predictably, depicted as more in tune with their surroundings, but they cause both writers trouble, and are unconvincing to say the least. Gibbons introduces an “Eskimo” where there simply shouldn’t be one, but I found it slightly easier to forgive her infelicities, since she was writing out of an earlier tradition, and is the more assured writer. In tune with these earlier traditions – going back to Robert Service et al – both writers introduce a Wendigo character. This cannibalistic monster from Native myth is represented by the giant bear who never dies in Fort of the Bear and Half-Man in The Tenderness of Wolves. Both, too, evoke madness induced by the North in characters who attempt unsuccessfully to “go native”, Vernay and Stewart. Unable to become part of the wilderness, these men are ultimately destroyed by it. Canadian literature has largely moved on from writing about this entirely oppositional wilderness, as in Marian Engel’s Bear or Aritha van Herk’s No Fixed Address, and my next post about a book will be on a very different view of the North, written by a Newfoundlander: Latitudes of Melt, by Joan Clark.