THE UNKNOWN YEARS OF Stephen Leacock
All but abandoned by a restless father, Canada’s best-known writer drew his humor and humanity from a strong and serene mother and from the fascinating world around him. Here, for the first time, is the full story of
RALPH L. CURRY
The little boy stood on the deck of the Sarmatian as she pulled into the Montreal harbor. Wide-eyed he watched as a new city and new country unfolded before him. Young Stephen Butler Leacock did not know it, but he was coming “home” for the first time. He was to become Canada’s minister at large to the rest of the world, and he was to write “the most Canadian book ever written.” But that was still in the future; for the time being Stephen looked at this new land with excitement, comparing it with the only place he had known, England. For a little while Stephen Leacock enjoyed “with Homer,” he said, a “disputed birthplace.” He knew that he was born in Swanmore, but he did not know which Swanmore. Stephen’s greatgrandfather, John Leacock, after making his fortune in Madeira plantations and the w'ine trade, had retired to Oak Hill, near Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. It was at Oak Hill that Stephen’s father, Walter Peter Leacock, known as Peter, was born. This being the family situation, it seemed reasonable, as Stephen Leacock assumed for years, that he was born in the village named Swanmore near Ryde. A search of church records, proved he was born December 30, 1869, at Swanmore, county of Hampshire, where his father had unsuccessfully tried farming for a while.
Peter’s life had been an irresponsible one. About the middle of the century, Peter’s mother, Stephen’s grandmother, joined the Roman Catholic church. In spite of the shock to the Anglican Leacocks, Peter and the rest of the children joined the new faith with her. Born to wealth
and good family, Peter led a casual life, sailing his own boat and attending school irregularly. In this period of England’s rapid increase in population, many younger sons were being forced to leave home; Peter was already destined for the colonies. At the age of eighteen he courted and then secretly married Agnes Emma Butler. Stephen’s mother.
The Leacocks and the Butlers had been friendly for years, though the friendship had been a little uneasy, it must be admitted, with the “Romish” members of the family. In 1866, Agnes visited the Isle of Wight with her uncle Charles. At Seaview, near Oak Hills, she met Peter for the first time since they were both growm. Peter sailed to Seaview' every day, and Agnes would frequently slip out of the house in the evening, after her uncle thought her in bed, to join Peter in his boat. They were soon engaged, though the arrangement was a secret from both families. After the Christmas holidays, Uncle Charles having bought her a roundtrip ticket to Waterloo Bridge, Agnes went to London. The return portion of her ticket was never used, for Agnes and Peter were married at All Saints’ Church, Norfolk Square. Evidently Peter did not take very seriously the responsibilities of his religious belief: All Saints’ is an Anglican church. Peter and Agnes took rooms in Burand Street while awaiting their passage to the colonies. Thus began a marriage which w'as destined to be a prolific though not a very happy one.
In March of 1867 Peter and Agnes sailed for Natal, the closest port to Maritzburgh, South
Africa. Stephen Leacock told something of this part of his parents’ life in the fragmentary The Boy I Left Behind Me, but his version, although interesting, was hardly reliable. It was not the journey of tremendous hardship that Stephen made it appear. At Maritzburgh, Peter tried to farm a plantation bought for him by his father, but the locusts ate up the crops and the climate proved too much for the seemingly delicate Agnes, who had suffered a brain concussion as a child. The next year they returned to Eng-
land, bringing with them Thomas James, the first of eleven children to be born to this union.
Back in England the Leacocks lived at various times in Swanmore, Shoreham in Sussex, and Portchester, while Peter, awaiting another farm of his own, tried to learn farming by “drinking beer under the tutelage of Hampshire farmers — who, of course, could drink more than he could.” Agnes was extremely glad to be back where she could visit her family at the Butler family seat of Bury Lodge, Hambledon,
Hampshire; but Peter, because of the secret marriage and his Roman Catholic religion, was never invited to visit her home. Bury Lodge, which his father never saw, formed a rather
important part of the English heritage of
Stephen Leacock. It was here that the local
hunts began every year, and it was here on
Broad-Halfpenny Down that some of the very
first real cricket matches were played, several
of the earliest scores still being preserved on
a fire screen in the lodge,
continued on page 45
continued from page 21
“He hated then animals, the isolation and the chores — . ith a passion he never forgot”
While his parents w. . .mporarily at Swanmore. Stephen was urn, he significantly remarked, in "exactly the middle year of Queen Victoria’s reign.” His method of dating his birth is indicative of his lifelong political loyalties. For though to many people he seemed the spirit of Canada itself — at his death the Native Sons of Canada urged that his birthplace, which they supposed to be in Canada, be made a national shrine — Leacock always thought of himself as a citizen of the British Empire, and he loved Canada because it was a part of that empire.
The Leacocks were not to remain at Swanmore for very long, and indeed the only part of England which made any lasting impression on young Stephen at all was Portchester, where he lived from the time he was four years old until the family moved to Canada when he was seven. Here he became familiar with English commons, the celebration of holidays, the veneration of all military heroes. It was in Portchester too that he began his long academic career, when he and his two older brothers attended a "dame's school.” What he remembered of this school is important in relation to the inquiring mind and the antidogmatic wit he was to display later:
. . . the dame held up a map and we children recited in chorus, “The top of the map is always the north, the bottom south, the right hand east, the left hand west.” I wanted to speak out and say. "But it’s only because you're holding it that way,” but I was afraid to. Cracks were as easy to get in a dame’s school as scratches down on the Rio Grande.
The only other occurrence which seems to have stayed with the boy had almost nothing to do with England but was rather itself a reference to America. While visiting on the Isle of Wight, he received from his grandfather Leacock a small block of wood about six inches long, labeled "A Piece of the American Frigate ‘Chesapeake’ — Captured 1813.” This small scrap of wood he very carefully preserved the rest of his life. It was still occupying a prominent place on the mantel of his study at his death. Stephen Leacock liked history he could touch. Although it would be difficult to say that here began his interest in history, the gift meant enough to him that years later he traced precisely what happened to the captured vessel, and he was boyishly pleased when he discovered that its timbers were still in use in the mill constructed of them at Wickham. Still later he was to write movingly of the battle in which the Chesapeake was captured by the British.
Perhaps the only reason that the family settled down in Portchester long enough for Stephen to remember it is that his father was out of the country. Peter’s father had bought the family another farm, this time in Kansas, "sight unseen.” Agnes, as she was often to do in the next years, had to serve as both parents. Life was not, of course, easy. As Stephen wrote one time:
My dear Dadda
I thank you for the letter. Mama has burnt her hand so 1 write for her I am 5. We each had a crackker at tea I send you an almanac.
Mamas hand is straped on a board and it is no use there is to be a Xtmas tree at the school on the 8th We shall go.
While such homely details in the letters from home may have been cheering to Peter, his local prospect in Kansas was not. This venture in farming was no more successful than the last. In South Africa it had been locusts, in Kansas it was grasshoppers that ate up the place. He did not like farming, he had no real training or background for it, and even when he really worked hard, was not very profitable for him. He soon returned to England to prepare for another major move, this time with the whole family.
Peter’s father showed more persistence than his son; for the third time he established his son on a farm, this one a large tract in Upper Canada, as Ontario u'as called then. Peter went on ahead to prepare the place for the rest of them, and in the spring of 1876, the family sailed, from Liverpool, on the Sarmatian for Montreal. For the boy Stephen, the Sarmatian was a very impressive experience, combining the enchantment of an old ship with the thrill of a new. The masts of a sailing vessel towered above the decks, but below was a steam engine.
From Montreal they took a river steamer to Toronto, then a leisurely trip, which gave the immigrants an opportunity to observe their new country. During a stop at Kingston on May 24. the children had their first introduction to one of the colonial customs, the celebration of the Queen’s Birthday. This holiday was never observed in England, but Mrs. Leacock had lived in South Africa and was able to explain it to the astonished boys.
The big, friendly noncompartmented cars in use on the Toronto - Newmarket Railroad seemed very public to the boy familiar with the snug, closed cars of the British lines. From Toronto the train carried them north to Newmarket, where Peter mét them with a buckboard and a lumber wagon, the only possible vehicles for the remaining thirty miles to the farm.
The farm w'hich Stephen's grandfather had bought his errant son this time was a one-hundred-acre tract near the village of Sutton. As Leacock described it. the country was real frontier, but it is in this phase of his life that one must most discredit his own account. Stephen Leacock hated the animals, hated the isolation, and hated the chores with a passion which he never forgot. He spoke of the farmhouse, built of cedar logs covered with clapboards, with other rooms stuck on; of the stable, a log structure, chinked and plastered; of the barn built of loose logs with the wind whistling through them. What he failed (o make clear was that there could be no tighter stable than the one he pictured and that a barn needs
to be weatherproof, not cozy. And in this account, one of the few places he ever displayed bitterness, he neglected to tell that the other rooms stuck on were an eight-room house connected to the older house by a breezew'ay. The original “log house” had. among other conveniences, a large drawing room furnished with good English furniture. He revealed more of his true situation than he perhaps realized when he wearily said that there were nine stoves in the house and the job of cutting wood was endless; it takes a good house to support nine stoves.
Whatever the Leacocks' financial situation, life in Upper Canada was not easy. Rugged living conditions were made more difficult by the inexperience of the Leacock family. The best available light w'as from coal-oil lamps, but Agnes Leacock, unused to them, preferred homemade candles at first. The farms were as widely scattered as on the frontier in the United States, the nearest neighbor being a half mile away, and a trip to the village meant an overnight visit. Roads, some of the sturdy but bone-rattling corduroy construction, were not good, and one had to walk the mare up the hill. Farm work, never easy, was lightened for the Leacocks by the addition of a hired man and three other servants: a “hired girl” and a “little girl” and generally an “old woman.” Sutton, the nearest town, had little to offer — two mills, tw'o churches, and three taverns — a proportion that an older Stephen Leacock considered about right.
The Leacock farm was situated on pleasantly rolling land which had been the scene of the Iroquois massacre in 1649. An arrow-straight stretch of road led to the house, which stood on the highest hill in immediate view. From the front of the house, Stephen could see the long gentle slope into the valley and the miles of undulating land beyond; from the crest of the hill behind the house, he could see Lake Simcoe with its everchanging surface. Undoubtedly Stephen had jobs to do, as any resident of a farm had, but it is unlikely that he shared in any heavy labor since his education began almost with his arrival in Ontario.
The next formal education young Stephen experienced after the dame's school in Portchester was in School Section No. 3, Township of Georgina. It was a regular little red schoolhouse where the usual academic life of early rural North America prevailed. The boys and girls were together in their classes, but never outside; they did their ciphers on slates which they cleaned with the sides of their hands; they all gathered around the pump in the yard and drank out of the same tin cup. Most boys came to school barefooted in the summer, though Leacock recalls that he did not — "a question of caste and thistles."
There were the Friday afternoon "school entertainments" so common to the United States and Canada, when the trustees made speeches "or shook their heads and didn't” before the children said their pieces and the fiddler played. Stephen and his schoolmates studied reading, spelling, writing, arithmetic, geography, and no nonsense. But when her children began to lose their Hampshire accents, Agnes Leacock, gentle Englishwoman that she w'as, decided that she must teach them herself.
During this period of instruction at home Leacock read T. W. Higginson’s Young People’s History of the United States, which he received as a gift from a cousin in the States. This was his first introduction to the other side of the American Revolution, and he felt, he said, a "new sense of the burning injustice of tyranny.” From then on, he claimed, he had no use for an hereditary title,
w'hich always seemed to him merely an hereditary evil, "saving out the British monarch.” Leacock's statement may easily be the result of his habit of seizing on one pac‘tnar to. ."dramatize a whole concept. If so it is a particular, well selected, and the sentiments expressed here seem to have been those of the humorist through his life.
When their mother started to teach the Leacock children, she dug out of her trunks her own school books carried all the way from England. Although somewhat dated by this time, perhaps, they were sound volumes. The children studied Colenso’s Arithmetic, Slater's Chronology, Olendorfs New Method of French, and Peter Parley’s History of Greece and Rome.
Later she hired a tutor, Mr. Harry Park, who was reduced to teaching on this elementary level so that he might continue his work toward his degree. Park did his job admirably, however. In a room given him for that purpose, he set up a school with regular classes, dividing it into forms like the English system. Stephen, in spite of the fact that two brothers were older than he, was the highest ranked of the scholars, evidencing even at this age his talent for the studious life.
By the time he was eleven, Stephen had become a good speller — an accomplishment much admired in those days — and knew all Park could teach him about simple grammar. He knew' British history and the history of English literature and was through vulgar fractions in arithmetic.
He loved Jules Verne
It was during this time that Leacock began to do some reading on his own; his mother had brought some good books from England, which must have been added to from time to time since Leacock spoke of reading Tom Sawyer, published the same year he came to Canada. At this time he read Pickwick Papers, an auspicious beginning which culminated in his biography of Dickens. He read all of the Jules Verne stories, remembering The Mysterious Island with particular affection because the men did something and there were no women to clutter up the story.
He joined almost the total juvenile population of his day in reading all the "half-dime” novels he could get; Leacock never tired of adventure.
With an appreciation almost equal to that which he gave Dickens, he read all of Mark Twain’s works which had been published. Although he greatly admired the others, he recalled in one place, “Tom Sawyer I never cared for.” This was written in 1920; in 1944 he recalled Injun Joe’s being sealed up in the cave as one of the incidents he remembered most vividly from his childhood reading. It seems logical that in the earlier criticism he was speaking about literary merit while in the latter he was referring to what the boy really liked at the time. The only remarkable thing about Stephen’s reading was that he perhaps read slightly more than the average boy. However, he had begun to show signs of the constant and quick reader who makes a good scholar.
After 1880. the Leacocks spent a good part of each summer at Sibbald’s Point on Lake Simcoe very near the church they had attended, weather permitting, ever since their arrival in Canada. Their first house at the lake, as a matter of fact, had been the residence of the rector and was still called the parsonage. In his autobiography, Leacock more than modestly declared that the "old log building” was unfit for habitation by even the most un-
assuming of clergymen. But the fact remains that his mother rented a summer cottage and drove to it in her own phaeton behind her own harness mare. It is true that rents were not high—a larger house they took later demanded only eight dollars a month rental—■but although the Leacocks were not rich, they did not live in the genteel poverty which the author presented.
Before they were able to move to the lake for the summer, each Sunday during the warmer months the children had enjoyed an outing when they came to church.
Sunday was the only day the children really met other children, and the lake offered many opportunities for new and interesting play.
The Lake Simcoe of Stephen Leacock was not the Mississippi River of Mark Twain, but its influence was obviously important. During these Sunday interludes Leacock first explored the lake that never lost its fascination for him. He swam in it when boys "looked on girls in the water as a damn nuisance.” He early learned the possible treachery of an offshore wind when the first raft he built was carried out and he had to be rescued. He and his brothers built fiat-bottomed boats and found by the hard lesson of experience that such boats are not suitable for sails. Stephen must have at this time started fishing, a sport that he was to enjoy all his life.
The four small steamers of Lake Simcoe, in the romantic eye of Stephen, became fine big ships. Making regular runs, they were a commercial necessity, but Leacock ultimately saw them replaced by the railroad and then the automobile; he lived to regret the passing even of the excursion steamer. The lake traffic also supplied several broad-beamed sailing vessels which tacked awkwardly across the lake, carrying heavy freight to Newmarket, the nearest rail point below.
The railroad was finally extended northward to Sutton and Jackson’s Point. Stephen was present at the celebration on the arrival at Sutton of the first train from the south; amid the clanging of bells and the shrills of whistles the train pulled to a chuffing stop beside the grist mill. Toronto, to which he now had access, was a wonderful city to Stephen. It was already a city with character, though it was still growing. The parliament buildings with their flags flying, the wharves even more crowded than those of Lake Simcoe, the dignified University of Toronto, even the rush of business so different from his own rural life must have impressed the boy who had long forgotten what he had known of London.
However much fun Sibbald’s Point and Toronto might afford, Stephen spent most of his time on the farm which his father was erratically trying to make pay. Peter Leacock, raised a child of leisure, never really adapted himself to a life which required productive labor. He worked hard when he worked, but between such periods he spent his time in thorough and evidently dissolute idleness. He drank and
gambled and loafed. Through these times Agnes Leacock held the family together.
She was a woman of high humor, hearty laughter and joyous nature. A religious woman, she served as a spiritual and even temporal matriarch for her children the rest of her life. They drew strength from her and paid her the ungrudging admiration she was due. She had much of the casualness noted later in her son. encouraging her brood to bring home any number of guests whenever and as often as they wished, disregarding the difficulties which such a welcome presented. She covered up as well as she could the behavior of her husband, no doubt understanding something of his character and temperament that was unsuited to the life they were leading.
To Peter's credit it might be said that times were genuinely hard in the late 1870s; Ontario, having what was largely an agrarian economy, needed real money, and the little currency in circulation was beginning to flow westward to boost the paper profits of the exciting new Winnipeg.
Into this unstable domestic and economic situation of 1878 came Peter’s younger brother. E. P. Leacock, like Mark Twain’s Beriah Sellers, was a man of vision. As immortalized by his nephew' in My Remarkable Uncle, E.P. w'as probably the most fantastic and fabulous person Stephen Leacock ever knew. He immediately rushed into local politics and emerged on the wanning side; he moved on to Toronto for a short while and then hit Winnipeg at the real rise of the boom. Here he bought and sold real estate, won a seat in the new Manitoba legislature, obtained a government grant for his own railroad that was never more than a letterhead, and drew after him his own brother, Peter, in 1881 and still later Stephen’s oldest brother, Jim. This was the life Peter had been searching for, a life in w'hich a man got ahead not on work but on ideas. E.P. and Peter, with Jim following more solidly behind, plunged into the
. . . magic appeal in the rush and movement of a “boom” town — a Winnipeg of the ’80s, a Carson City of the ’60s . . . Life comes to a focus; it is all here and now, all present, no past and no outside — just a clatter of hammers and saws, rounds of drinks and rolls of money.
To finance the move, Peter held a sale at the farm of equipment and stock. This was just successful enough, recalled Stephen, to pay for the whisky consumed at the sale.
With this unsuccessful gesture Peter left the farm to his wife and children; but Stephen was not to remain on the farm long cither. It was time for him to go off to school, ie
This is an excerpt from Stephen Leacock: Humorist and Humanist, to be published this fall by Doubleday. A second excerpt will appear next issue.