For my historical blog this week, I want to talk about a woman whose gravestone I often wander by: Victoria Grace Blackburn (pen name: FanFan). Though her biography hints at a fascinating life, I get the feeling that she was someone who you would have had to meet in person in order to truly feel the force of her personality.
As you may be able to tell from the name, Victoria was part of the Blackburn clan who founded the London Free Press. She was born on April 17, 1864 as the fifth daughter of Josiah Blackburn and Emma Jane Delamere, in Quebec. As a young woman, she studied at Hellmuth Ladies’ College in London, where she likely learned her passion for letters. After she graduated, she worked as a teacher in the United States, following her desire to remain in an intellectual environment (in one of the only stations an intellectual woman could occupy, at the time).
Fortunately for Miss Blackburn, her family’s newspaper provided the perfect opportunity to launch her career in another direction. In 1894, she began occasionally writing for the London Free Press while she embarked on studies of journalism, theatre, and literary criticism in New York and Europe. Being unmarried, she travelled the world with her sisters.
By 1900, Victoria had become the full time literary and drama critic for the Free Press. Having natural talent as well as fortunate station, she quickly became one of Canada’s leading and well-known critics, her fame spreading beyond London’s city limits.
She was an important player in London’s cultural scene, but one gets the sense that the town wasn’t always the right fit for her. Being well travelled, she often commented on London’s lack of growth, publishing (loving) criticisms such as “[London is a city that] has not believed sufficiently in herself” in the Free Press. Regardless of some detractors she gained in this manner, she became the managing editor of the London Free Press in 1918, and remained in that position until her death in 1928.
Though some believed that her success was due only to her family connections, she had many professional admirers, and gained praise (like that below, published The Editor) not only for her reporting work but for her literary endeavours.
“A writer with a large brain and a big, warm heart: a twentieth century thinker, with the individuality of original thought and expression: a poet just beginning to realize her gift, and its underlying responsibility: one of the best equipped of our literary and dramatic critics, and with the faculty of logical and comprehensive interpretation–altogether, a distinct force in the intellectual life of the Dominion, of whom much may be expected.” –The Editor.
In addition to writing for the newspaper, Victoria also authored several poems, a novel, and two plays. Her expansive style ranged from satire to tragedy, and she explored themes such as ill-fated love, sacrifice, war, and loss. While none of her work ever reached the level of fame that would have caused it to be well-known today, many of her original hand-written manuscripts are still housed at the Archives at Western University. (Fun fact: after her death, her sister Susan M. Blackburn established a fund, bequeathed to Western University, to purchase Canadian literature in both English and French in memory of her sister Victoria)!
Blackburn’s most critically acclaimed work was The Man Child (published in 1930, 2 years after her death). A novel about the First World War, it is much more serious than many of her other works. The novel follows Jack Winchester, a Canadian boy who leaves London for the trenches of France during WWI. Though its tone is sometimes celebratory of the war (a common attitude of the time), it chooses to celebrate the soldiers who gave their lives over any grand nationalist cause. Many Londoners enjoyed the book because it was a thinly veiled portrait of our city (and the nearby hamlet of Byron), acknowledging the war as a personal and painful experience rather than just a far-away event.
In addition to being a literary powerhouse, she was also active in her community. She founded the Women’s Canadian Club and was the president of the London Women’s Press Club; she was a participant in London’s own little theatre scene as well. She lived at 652 Talbot street with three of her sisters, where a historical plaque still stands to mark her significance.
In 1928, at the age of 61, Victoria suffered a lengthy illness: uterine cancer. She spent the last few weeks of her life in St. Joseph’s Hospital, likely surrounded by her many friends and remaining family members. She died on March 4, 1928, and was buried in Woodland Cemetery (in the Blackburn plot in Section S) shortly thereafter.
More fortunate than many other Confederation Era Canadian writers, much of her work has survived to the present day. Below is one of her poems, published during WWI, which may give us a feeling for her literary style as well as her compassion:
Epic of the Yser
Dead with his face to the foe!’
From Hastings to Yser
Our men have died so.
The lad is a hero–
Great Canada’s pride:
We sent him with glory,
For glory he died–
So ring out the church-bells! Float the flag high!
Then I heard at my elbow a fierce mother-cry.
On the desolate plain
Where the dark Yser flows
They’ll bury him, maybe,
Our Child of the Snows:
The message we sent them
Through fire and through flood
He signed it and sealed it
To-day with his blood–
United we stand! Our Empire is One!
But this woman beside me? . . . The boy was her son.