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The Gladstone Name

This past weekend, a Toronto culture and news site posted about William Ewart Gladstone, revealing that in his early years he supported slavery. As a young politician he spoke against emancipation of enslaved people, mainly because his father was one of the largest slaveowners in the British Empire. When emancipation was finally enacted, he helped his father receive £106,769 (about £10.2m in today’s terms) as compensation for the loss of his enslaved labour. And Gladstone inherited that money when his father passed.

I am ashamed to admit I did not know this when I chose the name for my press. Gladstone Press – my publishing venture, that is – does not and never has supported racist ideology or any defence of systemic racism. So the name I chose is, at the very least, problematic.

Why did I pick Gladstone, of all people? Well, simply put: I didn’t. In keeping with the tradition of many publishing firms, I named my venture after the street where I live and work (Gladstone Avenue, and by extension, the surrounding neighbourhoods of Parkdale, Little Portugal, and West Queen West), which in turn was named to honour William Gladstone. So, it’s not a direct relationship, but there is a tie.

I knew my street was named after the Victorian British prime minister, and so before I settled on the name, I read up on his accomplishments – but did not look deeply into his earlier philosophies and biases (which were known to historians but until recently haven’t played a huge role in general discourse). What I’d learned of him back then did not mention his father’s plantations, nor his pro-slavery stance when he was first elected as a member of parliament. (These facts have now been highlighted in many biographies.) About twenty years after he fought to delay emancipation, he had a change of heart, declaring slavery as the ‘foulest crime’ in the history of the UK, and the abolition of slavery as one of the great political issues in which ‘the masses had been right and the classes had been wrong.’ For most of his later political career (he was prime minister on four separate occasions), he championed humanitarian causes and policies, and focused on democratization, social reformation, universal education, and (to a certain extent) decolonization.

There is no redemption for his father (the Demerara Slave Rebellion is one example). But for the son, did his later accomplishments make up for his earlier stance? That is the question. The University of Liverpool is renaming a library, and his descendent is stating that even Gladstone himself would approve of his own statue being removed from near his ancestral home (because he believed in respecting the will of the people).

What does this mean for the press? Had I known, I would have looked for a better business name, no questions asked. Now? I myself have to make a decision regarding the name of my press.

The most that I can say at this point is: I am now aware of his legacy, and am trying to figure out my own next steps.

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The joy of reading Mrs Dalloway during lockdown

Reading during self-isolation and quarantine seems like a no-brainer: there’s plenty of time on your hands, and what better use of your time? In reality, it’s not always easy to find the right book for the, um, mood. Many readers have been turning to books that either reflect some part of their current situation or feed into their fears of the future. Others find solace in reading about the little things: errands, walking around without having to keep 2 metres from each other. Savouring written passages that detail these luxuries is a great way to escape.

In that vein, The New Yorker ran an article this week on the appeal of Mrs Dalloway in these strange times:

At a time when our most ordinary acts—shopping, taking a walk—have come to seem momentous, a matter of life or death, Clarissa’s vision of everyday shopping as a high-stakes adventure resonates in a peculiar way. We are all Mrs. Dalloway now.

You can read the full article here.

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Giving back during social distancing

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented circumstances, where my city has all but shut down to curtail the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Like you, I’m self-isolating. I also wanted to reach out somehow.

One of the few outdoor activities sanctioned by Toronto Health is to walk (but keep your distance from others!). And there are small community book boxes dotted around a few neighbourhoods I border. So yesterday and today I wandered about placing random copies of my first five titles (Wuthering Heights, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Age of Innocence, Mrs Dalloway, and The Scarlet Letter) into those little libraries. I hope that they find good homes! (One kind neighbour took the time to find my email address to thank me for putting a copy of Hound near their home, which made my day!)

Gladstone Press books inside a community little library in Beaconsfield Village neighbourhood of Toronto.

So if you are walking in the Beaconsfield Village, Dufferin Grove Park, Parkdale, or Roncesvalles neighbourhoods of Toronto, perhaps check out the boxes and see if there’s something there for you. Oh, and be kind: leave a book of your own if you can. It may make someone’s self-isolation period that much more enjoyable.

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On representation

Over the past few weeks there have been some important conversations about representation in the Western canon of literature. To be honest, there is always a reason to question what we consider a ‘classic,’ especially as each work ages into (or out of) our society. And let’s face it, the canon is traditionally very white and very male (whereas the world as a whole is very not), so revisiting earlier choices to see what has been omitted or what should be set free makes sense. (I’m glaring at you, oh ghost of Harold Bloom.)

So, here are two conversations that are definitely worth a look (or listen):

First up: Candy Palmater had never read Gone With the Wind until now.

“I was expecting it to be dated. What I was not expecting was, seven pages in, that the whole notion of slavery was right up in my face. I was in some kind of a dream world. I didn’t realize the depiction of slavery would be so blatant and casual in the book.

Next: this article in The Daily Beast about fans using a pineapple emoji on Twitter to show how much they stan Sanditon is hugely insightful, especially as it relates to colonialism and historical representation. (Full disclosure: I tried watching Sanditon, but it veers too far away from the bright, sharp wit of Austen in favour of dramatic soapy sexy times. I cannot finish it. So no, I’m not peeved about the ending: I’m peeved that I can point to the exact moment in episode 1 where Jane Austen stops and show creator Andrew Davies begins to muck with things. But I digress.)

There are so many great points and perspectives in this article, but this was something I (a white settler with a very northern European background) had not really thought about. Until now, that is.

Austen’s spare physical descriptions of her characters leaves room for interpretation, too. Yasutake’s favorite character is Sense and Sensibility’s Marianne Dashwood, whose skin is described as “very brown” and is often depicted with curly hair. “So in my imagination, I imagine a Marianne who looks more like my sister or my daughter,” Yasutake said.

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The Age of Innocence in the NYT

To describe the world more fully is to change it. To let the world go undescribed is, in some way, not to know it, at one’s own peril. ‘The Age of Innocence’ opens in ‘a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.’ In the course of the novel, Wharton puts those ‘real things’ into thought and writing….In a way, every age is an age of innocence, because every age has its own unsaid, half-known truths, which are articulated more clearly over time. Even after the particular circumstances described in a novel have vanished, we can still recognize ourselves and our lives in them.

Elif Batuman wrote about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence for last week’s Sunday NYT Books section. Lovely stuff.