Read the full transcript of Lindsey Bannister’s podcast Benedictine Goes Home.
1. Reading from “Voices Lost in Snow”
He was, I think, attempting to isolate his wife, but by taking her out of the city he exposed her to a danger that, being English, he had never dreamed of: This was the heart-stopping cry of the steam train at night, sweeping across a frozen river, clattering on the ties of the wooden bridge. From our separate rooms my mother and I heard the unrivaled summons, the long, urgent, uniquely North American beckoning. She would follow and so would I, but separately, years and desires and destinations apart. I think that women once pledged in such a manner are more steadfast than men.
I often read stories for clues about a writer’s life. I know it seems silly, this desire to recuperate some hard truth, an unwavering autobiographical detail or two. I think I do it because it makes me feel closer to the writer—as though she is letting me in on a secret.
Mavis Gallant valued her privacy. The public knows very little about her upbringing, however, Mavis did admit that some of her writings, like the short story, “Voices Lost in Snow,” (which I just read a bit of) were drawn from childhood experience. “Voices Lost in Snow” depicts the relationship between a withdrawn, regretful mother and her neglected daughter. And yet, in spite of their strained relationship both mother and daughter are summoned by the same beckoning train. As it turns out, both Mavis and her mother Benedictine Wiseman were wanderers of sorts. They spent their lives transgressing borders, both geographic and gendered.
Benedictine Wiseman was an intelligent, artistic woman, who felt constrained by early Twentieth century societal expectations. Before she gave birth to Mavis, she was a wild risk taker, who courageously pursued her own path, no matter the consequences. What little I can tell you about Benedictine Wiseman is cobbled together from newspaper articles. These articles may contain some tall tales, but nevertheless, they offer us clues and testimonies that go beyond Mavis’s words.
3. The First Arrest
a) In September 1913, a teenaged boy was taken into police custody. The boy was in fact a young woman named Benedictine Wiseman. Benedictine had run away from her home in Montreal in pursuit of a freer life. By day, she worked a boy’s job at a department store, and at night she sang at a cheap theatre. Benedictine was content in her new life. She told reporters: “I almost forgot I was a girl during the last few months. Life has been a perfect dream to me. You know a boy has a much better chance of making a living than a girl.”
b.) Benedictine was charged with vagrancy, a charge that one reporter for the Toronto Globe admitted was merely “the law’s method of getting her back to skirts and home.” She was sent back to Montreal, possibly to return to a marriage to a man named John Carceneeli. Unfortunately, I cannot find any evidence that confirms whether or not this marriage actually took place. It seems somewhat unlikely, since Benedictine was likely fourteen or fifteen years old at this time. But either way, it’s worth noting that Benedictine’s adult life was greatly impacted by a series of ill-fated relationships.
4. The Second Arrest
a.) Benedictine was arrested again in 1921. She had fallen in love with a married man named Oren Robert Earl. Oren had rented a room in the Wiseman family home, and he quickly became infatuated with his landlord’s daughter. Benedictine’s concerned mother evicted him, but the young woman followed him to New York State, where they lived as a married couple. An investigation—likely spurred by Oren’s wife—revealed their location and they were soon turned over to authorities. Benedictine returned to Montreal. She was promptly married off to Mavis Gallant’s father, an amateur painter and furniture salesman named Alfred Young.
b.) Benedictine and Oren’s strange affair was covered in great detail by the Syracuse Herald. A report for the Herald offers some tantalizing details about Benedictine’s rebellious youth. The Herald reporter depicts Benedictine as a promising young woman, who played the violin and spoke many languages. She was an actress, a playwright, and published author, who once ran away from home so that she could follow a theatre troupe.
The same article alludes to an incident that happened years before. Apparently Benedictine cropped her hair and wandered around the North Eastern United States dressed as a boy. She was discovered in a New England town and returned to Canada.
I cannot verify the report about Benedictine’s New England wanderings, but it seems believable. A reluctant boomerang, Benedictine seemed to move back and forth, to and from the stifling confines of her Montreal home. Her daughter, on the other hand, was far less constrained. Mavis Gallant succeeded in avoiding her mother’s fate as a frustrated society woman. From a young age she pursed an independent path as writer and journalist and in her late twenties, Mavis left Montreal for Europe. She crossed an ocean and didn’t look back.
– “Benedictine Goes Home.” Globe [Toronto], 20 Sept. 1913, 15. ProQuest.
– “Daughter’s Odd Romance.” Syracuse Herald, 1921. Fulton History.
– “Her ‘Undying Love’ for War Hero Fades.” Washington Times, 26 Oct. 1921, 2.
– “‘Jimmy’ Just Hated Being a Mere Girl.” Globe [Toronto], 15 Sept. 1913, 9. ProQuest.
– Gallant, Mavis. “Voices Lost in Snow.” Montreal Stories. McClelland & Stewart, 2004. 91-103.
– “Missing Girl Found Dressed as Boy.” Globe [Toronto], 13 Sept. 1913, 1. ProQuest.
– “Chinese Blues,” performed by Moore and Gardner (composed by George Gershwin)
– “Running on Empty” by Podington Bear
– “Sad Walk with Sad Piano” by Komiku