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Working in Women’s Archives

Researching Women’s Private Literature and Archival Documents

By Marlene Kadar
Edited by Helen M. Buss
Subjects Social Science, Women’s Studies, Biography & Autobiography, Life Writing, Archival Studies
Series Life Writing Hide Details
Paperback : 9780889203419, 125 pages, February 2001

Table of contents

Table of Contents for
Working in Women’s Archives: Researching Women’s Private Literature and Archival Documents, edited by Helen M. Buss and Marlene Kadar

Introduction | Helen M. Buss

Locating Female Subjects in the Archives | Carole Gerson

Constructing Female Subjects in the Archive: A Reading of Three Versions of One Woman’s Subjectivity | Helen M. Buss

Researching Eighteenth-Century Maritime Women Writers: Deborah How Cottnam—A Case Study | Gwendolyn Davies

“A Dusting Off”: An Anecdotal Account of Editing the L. M. Montgomery Journals | Mary Rubio

Reading My Grandmother’s Life from Her Letters: Constance Kerr Sissons from Adolescence to Engagement | Rosalind Kerr

Personal Papers: Putting Lives on the Line—Working with the Marian Engel Archive | Christl Verduyn

An Epistolary Constellation: Trotsky, Kahlo, Birney | Marlene Kadar

Afterword | Marlene Kadar


Helen M. Buss (aka Margaret Clarke), is a professor in the English Department at the University of Calgary. She is the author of novels, plays and poetry, as well as books and articles on Canadian literature and life writing. In 1983 she won a best-first-novel prize in Manitoba for her book The Cutting Season, and in 1993 she won the Gabrielle Roy Prize for her study of Canadian women’s autobiography, Mapping Our Selves. Her current writing and research centres on the memoir form. In 1999 she published Memoirs from Away: A New Found Land Girlhood, and has recently completed a book on women’s uses of the memoir form with the working title, Repossessing the World: Reading and Writing Contemporary Women’s Memoirs.

Gwendolyn Davies is Dean of Graduate Studies and a member of the English Department at the University of New Brunswick. She has authored or edited various books and articles on Maritime literature and is particularly interested in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women’s writing and cultural history in the Atlantic provinces.

Carole Gerson, a professor in the English Department at Simon Fraser University, has done extensive research on Canadian literary history and early Canadian women writers. In addition to many articles, her publications include A Purer Taste: The Writing and Reading of Fiction in English in Nineteenth-Century Canada (1989), Canada’s Early Women Writers: Texts in English to 1859 (1994), Canadian Poetry: From the Beginnings through the First World War (1994), co-edited with Gwendolyn Davies, and Paddling Her Own Canoe: Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionake) (2000), co-authored with Veronica Strong-Boag. She is currently a member of the editorial team working on The History of the Book in Canada/ L’histoire du livre et de l’édition au Canada.

Marlene Kadar is the Director of the Graduate Programme in Interdisciplinary Studies at York University. She teaches in the Humanities Division and in Women’s Studies. Her published works include Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992), Reading Life Writing (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1993) and “‘Write Down Everything Just as You Know It’: A Portrait of Ibolya Szalai Grossman,” Great Dames, ed. Elspeth Cameron and Janice Dickin (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997). Her current research investigates Holocaust/ Porramjos life-writing narratives and archival documents in order to examine the categories of ethnicity in the Hungarian-speaking regions of Central Europe.

Rosalind Kerr is an assistant professor of Dramatic Theory and Criticism in the Drama Department of the University of Alberta. Her main areas of concentration are modern and contemporary dramatic and performance theory with an emphasis on feminist, gay/lesbian / queer and critical race theory. She is preparing a book on the first Italian actresses in sixteenth-century Commedia dell’Arte. Another very important interest is in women’s auto/biography, focusing primarily on her grandmother Constance Kerr Sissons's archive of letters, journals and an as yet unpublished novel.

Mary Henley Rubio is a professor of English at the University of Guelph where she has taught since 1967. With Elizabeth Waterston, Professor Emeritus at the University of Guelph, she has edited The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery (Volumes 1 to 4 with a fifth volume to come [Oxford UP]), co-written Writing a Life: L. M. Montgomery (ECW Press) and co-published many other items on Montgomery. Since its founding in 1975, she has co-edited the academic journal CCL: Canadian Children’s Literature/Littérature canadienne pour la jeunesse. Mary Rubio’s most recent publication on Montgomery is “L. M. Montgomery: Scottish-Presbyterian Agency in Canadian Culture,” L. M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture, ed. Irene Gammel and Elizabeth Epperly (U of Toronto P), and she is working on the official biography of Montgomery.

Christl Verduyn teaches and writes about Canadian literature, with special interest in Canadian and Québécois women’s writing and criticism, multiculturalism, life writing and interdisciplinary approaches to literature. Her books include Margaret Laurence: An Appreciation (1988), Dear Marian, Dear Hugh: The MacLennan-Engel Correspondence (1995), Lifelines: Marian Engel’s Writing (1995), Literary Pluralities (1998) and Marian Engel’s Notebooks (1999). Before joining the faculty at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2000, Christl Verduyn taught at Trent University, where she was founding chair of Women’s Studies (1987–90) and chair of Canadian Studies (1993–99). She is currently president of the National Association for Canadian Studies (2000–2002).


What comes to mind when we hear that a friend or colleague is studying unpublished documents in a celebrated author’s archive? We might assume that they are reading factual documents or, at the very least, straightforward accounts of the truth about someone or some event. But are they?

Working in Women’s Archives is a collection of essays that poses this question and offers a variety of answers. Any assumption readers may have about the archive as a neutral library space or about the archival document as a simple and pure text is challenged.

In essays discussing celebrated Canadian authors such as Marian Engel and L. M. Montgomery, as well as lesser-known writers such as Constance Kerr Sissons and Marie Rose Smith, Working in Women’s Archives persuades us that our research methods must be revised and refined in order to create a scholarly place for a greater variety of archival subjects and to accurately represent them in current feminist and poststructuralist theories.


``Following a nicely focussed introduction by Buss, who sketches the principal themes in the essays, the contributors in Working in Women's Archives identify and probe potentially problematic dimensions of working in women's archives. ''

- Stella Algoo-Baksh, English Studies in Canada, 28, 2002

``The book is unique not only in theorizing female archival subjectivity but also in its focus on Canadian archives and resources. ... This collection emphasizes those concerns unique to studying women's life-texts, and includes an interrogation of archives as socially constructed sites. ''

- Laurie McNeill, Canadian Literature, 172, Spring 2002

``Did you know that Nellie McClung wrote in children's scribblers at the kitchen table? That Lucy Maud Montgomery used her journals to vent her anger and discouragement: That `shopping lists and recipes sit alongside elegant prose passages and character sketches' in Marian Engel's notebooks?. .. In addition to providing fascinating tidbits of Canadiana, this collection reveals the unique difficulties faced by scholars studying Canadian women authors, particularly those who lived and wrote before 1940. ''

- Ruth Latta, Herizons, Spring 2002

``This collection of seven articles marks the beginning of a record of women's archival research on Canadian women. All the papers are important and informative, giving heartening encouragement to the many others who will follow them. All of them are noteworthy in their practical detail. ''

- Clara Thomas, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, 39, #2, Fall 2001

``You could teach a course from Working in Women's Archives preferrably an interdisciplinary one combining graduate students in history and literature. The exploration of their different takes on how to work in archives would do them--and their work--a world of good. ''

- Janice Dickin, Biography, 25.3, Summer 2002