During our daily walk the other day, Sam and I noticed someone making notes about a recent statue in St. James Park. Both of us stop there regularly for different reasons. The notetaker turned out to be Toronto Star columnist, Joe Fiorito. His article today mentions our chat.
A can-do girl’s perseverance
Author wasn’t easily discouraged
The first time I met Lois Darroch, she was toting cardboard boxes up from the basement of a bookstore. Hot day, hard work, a woman of a certain age; who could resist?
She accepted the offer of help with a calculating twinkle in her eye — after all, if some guy had the notion that she was a damsel in distress, why not play the part?
Lois, as I came to learn, was never helpless and she always twinkled. We talked as we toted.
She told me the boxes held unsold copies of her novel about the American Civil War, and also copies of her biography of Robert Gourlay, a 19th-century reformer.
And here, let me say there is nothing heavier than books in boxes, and the heaviest of these are your own, unsold. Lois had been storing hers in the basement of Writers & Company, a much-missed bookstore.
Ever optimistic, she was about to drive to the United States, where she planned to set up a table at the edge of a mock battlefield and sell copies of her novel at a gathering of Civil War re-enactors. She said the book always sold like hotcakes to the faux-Johnny Rebs and the pretend Union soldiers.
And so we loaded the trunk of her car, and she signed a copy of the Gourlay biography and handed it to me, and we became friends.
I came to know Lois better over the last few years. She told me she went to university during the Depression. She studied English and history. She wanted to write. The war knocked her off her stride. When it ended she married and began to raise a family, and this is how life gets in the way of literature.
Then, sometime in the late ’50s, she heard that Dr. A.J.M. Careless would be teaching a course — The History of Old Ontario — at the University of Toronto.
Back to school for Lois.
While searching the archives for an essay topic, she came across mention of a young Scottish radical idealist, Robert Gourlay.
Gourlay, a minor but colourful character, spoke against and wrote about the Family Compact, made an enemy of Bishop Strachan, and was tried for sedition. He beat the rap, not once but twice. Finally, illegally and unjustly, he was banished. This injustice, and many others, eventually led to the Rebellion of 1837.
Lois told Careless she had enough material for a book. Careless neglected to assign her an adviser.
Undaunted, she got a grant, travelled to Scotland, met Gourlay’s descendants, acquired a sketch of the man, wrote her book and, when nobody would touch a manuscript written by a housewife, she published it herself.
She was a can-do girl.
She was convinced that there ought to be a monument to Gourlay erected somewhere in the city. At first, no one shared her enthusiasm. So she spent $15,000 of her own money to commission a bust. Not long ago she persuaded a committee to take up the cause. Ah, committees.
Lois fell ill with cancer; she beat it back and it returned and spread, and she was in terrific pain but she was tireless and she remained cheerful. And then one day she slipped and fell and broke some bones and she went to the hospital. She died in the spring, at age 92. The bust was installed a couple of weeks ago.
The bust of Robert Gourlay now occupies a shady spot near the flower garden on the grounds of St. James’ Cathedral, at the corner of King and Jarvis. I was away when it was unveiled. I went to see it the other day.
As I arrived, Simon Mielniczuk happened to pass by with his dog, Sam. He nodded at the bust and said, “When I first saw this, I wondered if it was strategically placed to look over the church of the Family Compact.”
An astute observation. After all, the cathedral was the church of the Family Compact and its bishop, John Strachan, had played a part in Gourlay’s banishment.
The bust of the radical now sits on a granite plinth which carries a quote from Gourlay’s writing; he was no prose stylist, but you can see why he upset the ruling class: “The first question of political economy should be, can the mass of the people live comfortably under this or that arrangement? But this most necessary question was forgotten, and many of the people have perished.”
The gadfly, Gourlay, wrote that in 1822. The question might still be asked of politicians today.
The bust is a monument to a man who sought to improve the lives of those who lived here. It is also a reminder of the cheerful perseverance of Lois Darroch.