It is wonderful the role serendipity can play in a writer’s life. In 1987, shortly after Merilyn Simonds moved into a small bungalow in Kingston, Ont., she decided to close the trap door to the attic. As she did so, her hand brushed against piles of papers. Curious, she peered into the dim crawl space and found a cache of hundreds of old letters—including a clutch of 79 written on squares of toilet paper. Simonds was enthralled. As she researched the letters—written in 1919 and 1920—over the next several months, she realized that she had uncovered half of a secret correspondence. The writer was a petty thief called Joseph Cleroux who was serving a two-year sentence in Kingston Penitentiary, and the recipient was 17-year-old Phyllis Halliday, who lived in the nearby village of
Portsmouth. Eight years and more than a dozen drafts later, Simonds has worked up the details of their story into The Convict Lover, a seamless weave of fact and fiction that evokes one of the strangest illicit relationships ever made public in Canada.
Simonds, 47, the author of nine previous books on such down-to-earth topics as soap-making and growing salad greens, told Maclean’s that first laying hands on the letters was “like touching an electric current. I felt I was directly in contact with someone who was long gone.” The author says she found the convict’s letters deeply affecting, with their depiction of prison life at a time when it was much stricter and more isolating than it is today. “The whole philosophy then was to break down the prisoner’s social network,” Simonds says, “to forbid him to talk to others and to give him hard work, so that he wouldn’t be able to think about anything except his own sin.”
Yet if The Convict Lover proves anything,
it is that such attempts to isolate prisoners from each other and from outsiders are bound to fail. “People are going to make connections,” Simonds says, “for the sake of their survival as human beings.” In the book, Joseph initiates his correspondence with the young woman by dropping notes for her beside the road as he travels to and from the quarry where he and his chain gang have been breaking rock. After much hesitation, Phyllis, who lives nearby, responds with her own hidden note. Before long they are sending letters at a great
rate, using more secure hiding places in the quarry.
It soon becomes evident that the two want something very different from their relationship. Joseph, who is in his mid-20s, is desperate for tobacco, which is a kind of currency in the prison, used to bribe guards and buy favors. He leaves money with his notes, and Phyllis dutifully goes off to various tobacconists in nearby Kingston. And while he is rather paternalistic with the young woman (in his letters, which Simonds has printed verbatim, Joseph calls Phyllis “Little Friend” and gives her much big-brotherly advice), he seems appreciative of her help, and glad to tell stories of prison life. Yet the question of how much he is simply using Phyllis is never entirely resolved—an ambiguity that lends poignancy to their relationship.
As for Phyllis, her letters to the prisoner no longer exist—Joseph would have had to destroy the illegal correspondence as soon as he had read it. And rather than invent letters from Phyllis (a tactic that Simonds feels would have called the veracity of Joseph’s into question), the author has imaginatively re-created the schoolgirl’s inner life. Simonds has gone out on a limb, perhaps, in suggesting Phyllis’s romantic longing for the convict, because there is really no evidence in his letters that she was in love with him. But it seems a plausible assumption that this spirited, rather plain (on the evidence of photographs in
the book) young woman who apparently had no lovers of her own should have experienced, at the very least, a certain frisson. As well, Simonds insisted in the interview that “what Phyllis is thinking, what she’s feeling, is based on other writings I found of hers.”
Whatever their motives in keeping up the correspondence, the two did share a hunger for communication. And that is what is most moving about The Convict
Jail bars cannot kill the hunger to communicate
Lover, the fact that two strangers would risk so much (he, the isolation cell; she, a fine and perhaps prison) just to pass a few words between each other. Simonds’ book demonstrates that the desire to communicate is the most fundamental cultural and spiritual need of all, as tenacious as any asphalt-splitting wildflower.
At the same time, the ambit of The Convict Lover is a good deal wider than the daily worries of Phyllis and Joseph. Simonds has worked out a subplot around the reallife figure of William St. Pierre Hughes, the superintendent of Canada’s prisons and a
would-be reformer whose liberal ideas of criminal justice are constantly undermined by politicians, and by the hard-boiled wardens who actually run the penitentiaries. In subsequent years, many of the humane reforms that Hughes favored were enacted, though Simonds—who says she was sensitized to such issues by Joseph’s letters—believes that they are now threatened by a right-wing backlash. “There are those,” the writer laments, “who wish to make prisoners suffer again, not just by their loss of freedom, but by taking away their so-called amenities. In the States, they’ve put them back in stripes, they’re shaving their heads again, they’re putting them in chain gangs—and there are people in Canada who wish to do this, too.”
Phyllis Halliday never married. She died in 1986, just a year before Simonds found her cache of letters. The author speculates that the adventure with the convict may have “fixed her in her adolescence. She later took up religion, but in quite a romantic way. I think that relationship with Joseph sort of stopped her in her tracks.” As for how far that relationship went after he left prison, The Convict Lover does not and, given the lack of evidence, cannot say. In one of his last letters, Joseph promises Phyllis that he will visit her one day. Says Simonds, with a fond chuckle: “Maybe he did.”
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