They say that a copy of the first novel written in Canada is embedded in the walls of Kingston Penitentiary. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s a fantastic introduction to the idea of a literary Kingston.
We all know about the great hockey players with Kingston connections, and most of us known about the musicians and the artists, too; but less is known – or at least less is commonly known – about Kingston’s great writers.
The woman who wrote Canada’s first novel was born in 1796 in Fredericton, Nova Scotia and moved to Kingston after her father drowned in 1820. Her name was Julie Catherine Beckwith. She wrote the novel St Ursula’s Convent (or The Nun of Canada) when she was just seventeen. It took her 10 years to get the novel published – which was done here in Kingston – by a man named Hugh Thompson. The novel was published anonymously.
Of the 165 copies made only six original copies known to remain – one supposes this includes the copy entombed at Kingston Penitentiary.
The science-fiction time-travel novel The British Barbarians was written by Kingston-born Grant Allen and published in 1895; this is the same year that H.G. Wells published his iconic science-fiction novel The Time Machine. In fact, in The Time Machine Wells’ narrator mentions Allen’s name as a known non-fiction writer while in the future (he was a well known non-fiction writer in Wells day as well). But not only was Grant Allen a pioneer of the science-fiction genre he was also a pioneer of the detective fiction genre as well: he was one of the first authors to feature women detectives. We may never have had Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple without Allen’s Miss Cayley paving the way.
Judith Thompson, a prominent Canadian playwright, got the inspiration for her play The Crackwalker from experiences working as an assistant social worker in Kingston. David Helwig, a Toronto-born author who taught at Queens in the 60s and 70s, also taught writing classes to inmates at Collins Bay Penitentiary. He co-wrote the book A Book about Billie with one of the inmates.
Kingstonian writers Bronwen Wallace and Matt Cohen each have national literary awards named after them; respectively awarded to an unpublished young female writer or poet, and in honour of a lifetime contribution to Canadian literature.
There are Kingston-born writers in every genre and who write for every age group, there are gripping stories that never leave the city limits and stories that will take you to the ends of imagination and beyond. In the coming months many of my contributions to Kingstonist will be by way of reviews and recommendations of local authors and their books.
Until then, should you find yourself at a local book store or the public library I encourage you to look up a Kingston author; explore and experience literary Kingston.
Thanks to seabright hoffman for today’s accompanying photo.