A Passionate Pen: The Life and Times of Faith Fenton

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9780006385653: A Passionate Pen: The Life and Times of Faith Fenton

By day she was a respectable schoolteacher named Alice Freeman. By night she was The Empire's crusading journalist, Faith Fenton, who dared to challenge the conventions and values of the Victorian era. Jill Downie has uncovered the secret of Alice/Faith, the unconventional daughter of a shopkeeper who took on another identity to penetrate the closed, very male world of journalism. As columnist Faith moved with ease through society, equally at home with the rich and powerful and the less fortunate - from Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor- General, to the working mothers of Toronto's slums. She was everywhere, attending costume balls, visiting an aging Sir John A. Macdonald, interviewing the fiery suffragette Susan B. Anthony, covering sensational murder trials. At the height of the Klondike gold rush she reinvented herself once again heading for Dawson City as the special correspondent of The Globe. And there she met and married the love of her life.

A Passionate Pen is a stylish, richly documented portrait of turn-of-the-century Canada. Meticulously researched and filled with the spirit of the times, it brings alive a witty and intelligent woman whose passionate concerns are as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago.

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About the Author:

Jill Downie was born, the daughter of a British Colonial official, in Guyana -- then British Guiana -- and educated in England and Guernsey in the Channel Islands. She studied languages at the Sorbonne, Paris, and at Bristol University, where she pursued her other love, the theatre. After completing her degree she studied for a Diploma in Education at Liverpool University.

After emigrating to Canada the author brought up a family, supply-taught French and Spanish in High School, taught yoga at night school, and started to write short stories and historical novels. Her short stories have been published in Chatelaine, and five novels have appeared in Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Norway and Sweden.

Jill Downie's play, Shanti, was performed in the Toronto Fringe Festival in 1993 and in March of 1995, her play, Waiting for Odysseus, was part of the New Ideas Festival at the Toronto Alumnae Theatre, and was remounted for the Toronto Summerworks Festival in August 1995. It was selected by Geoff Chapman of the Toronto Star as one of the theatrical highlights of 1995.

A Passionate Pen: The Life And Times Of Faith Fenton, published by HarperCollins Canada in 1996, was her first biography. Jill Downie was given special access to private archives held by Phyllis Freeman MacKay, the great-niece of Faith Fenton, one of the first women journalists in Canada, which contained a wealth of hitherto unknown material. The paperback edition was published in April 1998.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The snow had fallen heavily that January day of 1894. By evening it lay thick on the dark streets and glistened beneath the glow of the street-lamps. So deeply had it fallen that at six o'clock the streetcars had ceased running and now, three hours later, the only sounds that broke the stillness of the white-folded city were the jingle of sleighbells and, somewhere in the distance, the sound of cheerful voices.

Alice Freeman pulled her worn ulster around her and struggled east along College Street, tugging an old cloth cap down over her eyes. The snow seeped in through the holes in the worn leather boots her sister-in-law had found for her in the kitchen --"gaps and rents are the insignia of the class," said Elizabeth. "Remember you are the type of woman who never wears anything but cast-off clothing."

Alice passed the imposing romanesque facade of the Athletic Club with its brilliantly lit windows. Beneath the lamps at the entrance a woman emerged from a cab, and Alice caught a glimpse of a delicate white gown, white arms beneath soft furs. From an upper window drifted the sweet sounds of an orchestra playing a waltz. With a shiver as much of apprehension as of cold, she laboured past the Children's Hospital, on to Elizabeth Street, which lay almost buried in snow. Here, behind a high fence, was her own destination, the reason for her subterfuge: the House of Industry, which offered bed and board in return for work to women in need. Steeling herself, Alice walked up to the front door and knocked quietly but firmly until the shabby door opened.

"I'm Mary Smith from Hamilton," she whispered. "I must find a place to stay for the night."

The disgruntled-looking individual behind the door greeted her with scant courtesy. "Shut the door, woman. Have you never been here before? A nice time to be taking people out of their beds. From Hamilton, did you say? Hamilton should take care of its own poor. Well, you can stay one night and no more."

He picked up a lantern and Alice followed him along a passage and through a deserted courtyard to another building, where she was handed over to an elderly woman of frail appearance who added her complaints to the doorkeeper's.

"A nice time to be taking people out of their beds. Well, I suppose you didn't know any better, it bein' yer first time. Come along. Get yer things off and take yer bath -- you don't need one, you say? It's the rules. We could have all sorts of women a'comin' in here and' a dirtyin' of our beds."

There was nothing else for it but to undress and bathe under the watchful eye of the querulous caretaker. Then, putting on the nightdress provided and taking the clean blanket handed to her, Alice followed her guide into a large dormitory of sleeping women, where her escort pointed out an empty cot and departed.

The room was filled with the sound of mutterings and stertorous breathing, the air stifling, overheated by great coils of steam pipes that added their bubbling and hissing to the groans and whimpers around Alice in her truckle bed. Somewhere in the room someone was crying, and Alice heard the clink of glass as a strong smell of whisky wafted into the fetid atmosphere. Perhaps if she opened the door to the passage the air would be fresher and the temperature would drop. Alice got out of bed and crept to the door.

"What are you doin'?" called a coarse voice from the darkness. "D'you want to let the rats in? It's real bold they are."

Alice scurried back to her cot. As she pulled back the serge blankets she saw something moving against the pillow. It was a column of plump, sluggish bed-bugs -- twelve, she counted them -- moving steadily down into the bed. Horrified, she turned to the door, only to remember the rats.

"Is the bugs a'worrin yer?" said a voice nearby. "You'll get used to them after a bit. They don't trouble me."

It was sound advice. She could not allow herself to be troubled if she was to remember every detail -- the humiliation of the strip-bath, the oppressive atmosphere of the great dormitory, the ravings and profanities of the sleeping women around her for whom this world was an everyday reality. Alice pulled the clean blanket she had been given over the bug-infested pillow and lay down to wait out the night.

**********

Who was this woman who trudged the snowy streets of Toronto a hundred years ago alone and in disguise, when any other respectable unaccompanied female was behind closed doors? She was one of a rare new breed: a lady journalist in search of a story...........................

After the rigours of a night spent with bed-bugs and rats, Alice Freeman may well have taken a street car home on Saturday to bathe and to change before going to write and file her report on the House of Industry for her newspaper, The Empire, on Adelaide Street. Walking would have been difficult, because the ploughs on the horse-drawn trams threw up great piles of snow, much to the annoyance of the shop-keepers on their route, who promptly shovelled it back on the tracks. As the tram descended Yonge Street Alice would have been able to catch a glimpse of the bay and the Toronto Islands beyond -- created by the fierce storms of the 1850's that smashed their way through the narrow sliver of sandbar near the mouth of the Don River. The bay froze solidly a century ago, and undoubtedly some of the passengers on the street car would have been carrying skates, which they buckled to their boots to skim across the surface of the lake among ice-boats and horse-drawn sleighs.

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