Phyllis Brett Young

January 28, 2008

The Story of a Local Literary Gem, Lost and Found

Phyllis Brett Young's The Torontonians was a hit in 1960. Then it vanished. Rescued last year, the biting novel still sheds light on our civic condition -

In an age when search engines and social networks give users everything they need to know – about the past, present and future – there is seemingly no such thing as a revelation any more.

But what of a forgotten novel, once an international bestseller, somehow missed by all the digital archives, about the very city in which you live, set more than a half century ago with vivid details about where we came from and the shape of things to come.

The Torontonians, set in the 1940s and `50s and originally published in 1960, is just such a discovery.

It was written by Phyllis Brett Young, a largely forgotten author who died in 1996, 11 years before her book was finally rescued and republished late last year.

It's difficult to decide what is more astonishing: The book's utter disappearance, along with the author, from the literary map; or its acute examination of subjects still central to the changes currently redefining Toronto some 50 years later.

The relevance to today is remarkable. Take, for example, the novel's disdain for the homogeneity of Toronto's nascent suburbs. Today, those same neighbourhoods – Rosedale, Forest Hill, Leaside – are wealthy, inner-city enclaves, and arguably just as homogeneous as the insular places Young skewered.

Five decades later, we see the same patterns Young uncovered in The Torontonians playing out in the Chinese enclaves of Markham and in the self-imposed isolation of South Asians in Brampton.

"I don't think my mother would have liked to see that," says Valerie Argue, Young's only child. "She wouldn't have wanted people to live with very little contact to others. My mother certainly was someone who appreciated a diversity of spirit."

That sentiment is supported by something Young told the Star in 1960, talking about the previous decade: "Toronto was basically British, with a lot of traditions – some good, some bad.

"Those who think they should all be kept, are simply lost in the pulsing metropolis of today. Those who want to throw out everything would sacrifice the flavour of a city which can retain graciousness and dignity in spite of the vitality of today's explosion."

That sort of acuity – neither reactionary nor radical – characterizes The Torontonians and probably saved it from permanent obscurity. When a McGill historian got her hands on a used copy last year, she saw the book's merit right away and was instrumental in its reissue. It's now making its way on to reading lists at a number of Canadian universities.

Given the decades of neglect, it's difficult to convey just what a literary star Young was in her time, but the evidence is in the archives.

For her effort in writing The Torontonians Young, who described herself as a housewife, was once compared to Robertson Davies and Hugh MacLennan. The Toronto Star's Robert Fulford, when the novel was just released, reported that local bookstores carrying it were experiencing "unusually large sales" and, based on its purchase by British publisher W.H. Allen, Fulford predicted a "much wider appeal."

The book was later published under the title Gift of Time in the U.S., prompting the The New York Times to proclaim: "In a growing catalogue of books that have been probing the sweet life of suburbia, Mrs. Young's stands out as both wise and witty."

In Europe, The Torontonians was also published as The Gift of Time. In Australia, where Young was described as "One of Canada's outstanding novelists," it was called The Commuters, a title that captured the physical and psychic dislocation of a growing "sub"-urban class.

Young began contemplating The Torontonians during a five-year stay in Geneva, where her husband worked for the United Nations. After returning to Ontario in the 1950s, the self-taught writer, first-generation Canadian daughter of English parents and wife of an international civil servant wanted desperately to rewrite her city's reputation as a dull colonial outpost.

In contrast with the "hogtown" jokes commonly told in North America, Young would treat Toronto as the "sophisticated, cosmopolitan city it is," complete with the struggles of any dynamic metropolis.

By 1960, the city was in the fever of a postwar boom and being stretched to new limits – geographically, economically, socially and architecturally (in that spirit, the book's original cover featured a sketch of Viljo Revell's winning design for a new city hall, five years before the building went up).

Canadians were beginning to define their own art and culture and the country's politicians began shaping a unique international identity as a soft power, one whose policies often played U.S. and European allies off of each other.

The Torontonians was the first internationally read novel that both chronicled and celebrated the city's demographic transition, a provincial British town opened by the arrival of Greeks, Italians, Portuguese, Polish and other Europeans.

Hung on a narrative that details the lives of "Rowanwood" housewives (Young's alias for Leaside, which in the 1950s was the northern edge of Toronto) who occupy the affluent suburb above the city during the day – after husbands empty out on their morning commute downtown – the book operates on two interconnected levels.

The banality of the women's tedious lives, spent anticipating the perfect Chinese carpet to complete the home, "thick and soft, the clear translucent green of a tropical sea...the outward and visible proof of success," or struggling over just the right dress for an upcoming dinner party is a critique of the city's provincial past.

But while detailing what's marked those inner lives, the novel also cautions against an equally tedious and inauthentic future, defined by hyper-consumerism and massive urban sprawl in pursuit of the ideal "sub"-urban setting – that magical place between the inner city and the countryside where a perfectly manicured lawn and translucent Chinese carpet can signal ones arrival.

American-style consumerism is welcomed skeptically, as a possible antidote to the ingrained class structure that had until then defined one's social standing. But the following passage highlights Young's cynicism toward the artifice of such consumption and where it could lead:

"Tempted by newer and shinier gadgets, enticed by advertisers who knew only too well how to do their job, you took on more and more and more. Finally, run ragged by all the easier work you had undertaken, you had little or no time left for anything other than tending your machines."

The place Karen Whitney, the novel's central character, strives for is the same place she hopes her city will reach, somewhere between the past it has moved from and the future that seems to be unfolding.

Because of a coincidence in the early 1990s, we can see today's Toronto – a city still defined by its growing pains and still trying to prove its sophistication to the world – in the novel that first put the city on the international map.

"A friend found a copy in a used bookstore in Wolfville, Nova Scotia," explains Suzanne Morton, a McGill University history professor who says she had never heard of Young, but was instrumental in getting The Torontonians re-published.

Argue hopes the reissue will resurrect The Torontonians and her mother's forgotten reputation as one of Canada's best author's.

Young's disappearance was so complete that upon her death in 1996, the only mention of the author was a short death notice placed by her daughter.

It read, in part: "Phyllis Brett Young was a well-known Canadian novelist whose books have been enjoyed by readers in many different countries."

- San Grewal, The Toronto Star, 26 January 2008

January 14, 2008

The new Torontonians

Young_300col_2 We experience the city in the perpetual present. In Toronto we treat current controversies — architectural hubris, the costs of uncontained sprawl, the challenges of multiculturalism — as if they have never happened before. But a rediscovered novel grants us a rare opportunity to judge contemporary Toronto against its past, and reminds us that many of our most pressing issues have challenged the city for decades.

Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians, an international bestseller when first published in 1960 and recently reissued to intrigue a new generation of readers, exposes the conceits and preoccupations of a city believing itself to be perched at the very edge of modernity. Reportedly the first novel to feature Viljo Revell’s City Hall on its cover, The Torontonians depicts four populations dwelling (then as now) in uneasy coexistence: the staid Toryish urban establishment of the Annex and Forest Hill; the ambitiously modern movers and shakers of the city core; the voracious materialists of its sprawling suburbs; and, making room among themselves in the interstices of the city, the “New Canadians” beginning their own transformations of Toronto.

A study in contrasts and Canada’s first suburban satire, The Torontonians suggests that in 1960 Toronto was a far more complex and contested city than contemporary narratives recall. Commonly represented as a flat and featureless Anglo-Saxon landscape where you couldn’t watch a film or get a drink on Sunday, in reality Toronto seethed with race, class and gender divisions roiling just beneath the surface of a city whose cultural terrain was shifting as inexorably as the price of a cocktail at the Park Plaza. The novel’s principal tension is the cultural divide between the city core and its rapidly growing suburbs; its subtext is the question of whether they reflect two different, perhaps opposed, ways of life.

Although the city portrayed in The Torontonians is predominantly Anglo-Saxon, by 1960 a third of Toronto’s population consisted of foreign-born immigrants. Hungarians rented rooms in the once-gracious Annex homes where Karen (the novel’s protagonist) and her social set had grown up, and in the novel these newcomers are the perennial beneficiaries of charitable bridge tournaments held in the manicured salons of Rowanwood, a wealthy, insular suburb standing in approximately for Leaside. Rowanwood’s population consists mainly of wealthy businessmen and their wives who have migrated north (presumably in flight from the very immigrants they support through charity) in search of the Good Life where everybody, as one housewife puts it, “should live in ranch-style bungalows and be just like themselves.”

But if The Torontonians satirizes 1960-era Rowanwood for its homogeneity, it is worth noting that cultural commentators worry that many of Toronto’s contemporary suburbs — such as Markham with its large Chinese population, Brampton with its concentration of South Asians and the preponderance of Italian neighbourhoods in Woodbridge — are at risk of developing into ethnic enclaves as insular and homogenous as Rowanwood. But just as these contemporary suburbs are far more open than the census records might suggest, even Rowanwood is more diverse than it appears. A Rowanwood housewife takes as a lover a Polish count fallen upon hard times. The neighbourhood’s most powerful businessman conceals the secret of his slum upbringing. A single mother is quietly subsidized by a neighbour. It turns out that much of Rowanwood is busy concealing facets of difference in order to compete for the dubious rewards of middle-class consumption.

Perhaps this is why the novel’s protagonist finds herself drawn to the city spread out below Rowanwood, musing that “it was only below the Hill that you came into direct contact with the core of vitality that was the true essence of the city” and adding, “here you were acutely and excitingly aware of the steady heart-beat of a really great metropolis, fresh blood continuously pumped into it from the four corners of the globe.” Chafing at the banality of a materialist existence that has reduced her to a consumer of Cuisinarts, carpets and backyard cookouts, and desperate and bored while her husband commutes downtown to work in the city’s corporate canyons, Karen seeks to diagnose precisely what is wrong with suburbia, describing it as “an impossible compromise” between city and countryside. She concludes that suburbia is an “evolutionary cul-de-sac,” and adds:

A city with a future, like an individual with a future, could never remain static for long, could not afford to expand indefinitely along the lines of least resistance. The suburbs, as they now existed, were the city’s lines of least resistance. The towering buildings to the south were the real yardstick of its stature.

But rejecting suburbia requires confronting the harsh social and economic realities of life in the city below the Hill. Karen realizes that the “towering buildings” of the downtown core loom above the long-standing slums of the Ward and the city’s first Chinatown, even then being cleared for the construction of the new City Hall and an adjacent collection of commercial towers. She discovers that her best friend’s husband, now one of the city’s most powerful executives and a Rowanwood neighbour, had grown up in one of those slums. Stumbling out into the downtown sunlight after this belated revelation, Karen sees Toronto’s polyglot mix of cultures reflected in the city’s “uneven stratification of brick and granite record[ing] more than a hundred and fifty years of architectural trial and error.” Walking north along Yonge Street, she revels as if for the first time in the “vivid turbulence” of the city’s diversity unfolding all around her.

Reading The Torontonians after nearly half a century, one is of course struck by the city it omits: the CN tower not yet even a figment in the city’s imagination, the genuine cultural diversity that in 1960 has yet to appear, the astonishing sprawl that has turned Leaside from a suburb into midtown.

But one is struck even more by the similarities. Toronto remains divided between north and south —
although current census reports indicate that immigrants (now nearly half the city’s population) are more likely to occupy the inner and outer suburbs (but not Leaside, which remains stolidly Anglo-Saxon) while the chattering classes have pushed their way back into the city beneath the Hill, retaking old territory in the Annex, Kensington Market and Parkdale. The Annex in particular has regained much of its ascendancy as a neighbourhood but retains an uneasy (some would say outright hostile) relationship with those living in rental accommodation at its spatial and social margins.

Affluent women are less likely to feel trapped in the “gilded labyrinth” of suburbia, having contracted out childcare and housework in exchange for the dubious reward of lengthy daily commutes along GTA highways. In the downtown core, land developers and ambitious politicians seek to remake the city in their own image. In short, read not simply as a novel but as social commentary, The Torontonians offers a fresh perspective on the conceits and preoccupations of a city that still believes itself to be perched at the very edge of modernity.

- Amy Lavender Harris, EYE Weekly, December 2007

October 11, 2007

Torontonians Trivia Contest Winners!

And the winners are...

Grand Prize (Fairmount Royal York prize package) -

Evan Fox-Decent

Young_300colSecond Place Prizes (complimentary copy of The Torontonians) -

Eric Huberdeau

Katrin Urschel

Jacqueline Mason

Emmanuel Resch

Tarah Brookfield

Thanks to everyone who entered in our contest and congratulations to our winners!

And the answers were...

Question 1 - In what year was the City of Toronto federated into a regional government known as Metropolitan Toronto?

Answer: 1953 and 1954 were both accepted - The postwar boom had resulted in rapid suburban development and it was believed that a coordinated land use strategy and shared services would provide greater efficiency for the region. The Metropolitan Toronto Act was passed in April of 1953 and came into effect 1 January 1954. The metropolitan government began to manage services that crossed municipal boundaries - highways, water, public transit.

Question 2 - This 56th mayor of Toronto convinced City Council to hold an international design competition for a new City Hall on the northwest corner of Queen and Bay streets. A total of 520 designs were received from 42 different countries. Who was the mayor - and who was the winning architect?

"You would have to go far a field to find anything as dull as Toronto City Hall, a fact that Mayor *** seemed to be more sharply aware of than anyone else."

Answer: Nathan Philips was mayor of Toronto from 1955 to 1962. The winner of the design competition was Finnish Architect Viljo Revell. Construction of the new city hall commenced on 7 November 1961, and the building was opened on 13 September 1965. Viljo Revell also designed the city square that forms the front (south) entrance to City Hall, named, of course, after the man who first inspired the project - Nathan Philips.

Question 3 - With the Toronto Maple Leafs winning three consecutive Stanley Cups in the 1960s, this was the decade to be a hocket fan in Toronto. What were the winning seasons for the Leafs?

Answer: 1962-63, 1963-64, 1966-65, and again in 1966-67 – the winning goal scored by George Armstrong – the end of the Toronto Maple Leafs as a powerful force in the NHL for many years to come.

Question 4 - In 1960 Canada's busiest airport was rebranded the Toronto International Airport from what original name?

Answer: First opened in 1939 as Malton Airport, the Toronto International Airport was again renamed in 1984 in honour of Canada's 14th Prime Minister. In 2005 The Lester B. Pearson International Airport was ranked 29th among the world' busiest airports, handling 29.9 million passengers.

Question 5 - Street car travel was the main service provided by the Toronto Transportation Commission during the first half of the 29th century. What year marked the opening of Toronto's First subway line?

Answer: In 1954, the TTC adopted its present name -- the Toronto Transit Commission, opened its first subway line -- the U-shaped Yonge-University-Spadina Line, and greatly expanded its service to cover the newly formed municipality of Metropolitan Toronto. The east-west running Bloor-Danforth Line started in 1966.

Question 6 - What popular vice-president of the University of Toronto became the first President of York University, founded in 1959?

Answer: Murray Ross was still vice-president of the Universtiy of Toronto when approached to become York University's new president. Initially envisioned as a feeder campus of U of T, York University's first class was held in September 1960 on the University of Toronto campus, moving to the Glendon campus in the fall of 1961. It was Ross's powerful vis9ion that led York to become a completely separate institution.

Question 7 - Opened on June 11, 1929, the Royal York was designed by Ross and Macdonald and built by the Canadian Pacific Railway across the street from Union Station. With 28 floors, the art deco-style building was the tallest in Toronto at the time, and remains to this day a distinct feature of the Toronto skyline. The hotel was enlarged in what year (making it the largest hotel in the Commonwealth for many years to follow)?

Answer: in 1959 the Royal York was enlarged with the addition of the east wing, to a total of 1,600 rooms.

Question 8 - Originally published in 1887 as Toronto Saturday Night -- a weekly public affairs update, Saturday Night (suspended in 2005) had atumultuous 118-year history. The magazine flourished under the editor B.K. Sandwell in the 1930s but declined after he left in the 1950s. What editor, appointed in the late 1960s, was largely responsible for bringing Saturday Night back to a place of prominence?

Answer: Robert Fulford, who began his journalism career when he left high school in 1950 to work for the Globe and Mail as a sports reporter, took the helm of Saturday Night in 1968 and remained there until 1987.

Question 9 - Founded in 1869 in Toronto by Timothy Eaton, the T. Eaton Co. Limited grew to become a retail and social institution in Canada, with stores across the country, buying offices around the globe, and a catalogue that found itself in the homes of most Canadians. What 1953 merger forced Eaton's to re-evaluate its practices?

Answer: Eaton's was forced to re-evaluate its practices after Simpson's, its largest competitor, merged with Sears of the United States. Eaton's began to abandon manufacturing in the mid-1960s, and by the arly 1970s, the Eaton's catalogue was losing $17-million a year.

Question 10 - Concerned with the growing influence of American radio broadcasting as U.S.-based networks began to expand into Canada, in 1929 the Aird Commission on public broadcasting recommended the creation of a national radio broadcast network. In 1932 the CBC's predecessor, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission was established and in 1936 the CRBC became a Crown corporation and gained its present name -- for the next few decades, the CBC was responsible for all broadcasting innovation in Canada. Television broadcasts from the CBC began on what date, and on what date was CBC's television signal expanded from coast to coast?

Answer: Television broadcasts from the CBC began on 6 September 1952, with the opening of a station in Montreal (CBFT), and a station in Toronto (CBLT) opening two days later. On 1 July 1958 CBC's telvision signal was extended from coast to coast.

September 27, 2007

The Torontonians - Review in the Quill & Quire

Young_300colFrom Vol. 78, No. 8, October 2007 --

"Academic chit-chat has led to a forgotten Toronto-set novel being republished and given new scholarly consideration – it just took a while.

Twelve years ago, Dalhousie University history professor Suzanne Morton came across The Torontonians, by Ontario author Phyllis Brett Young. Published in 1960, the novel details the life of a housewife in 1950s Toronto. Morton began using it in a small Canadian women’s history seminar, where she and the students shared one copy between them. "Historians interested in women’s experience often draw upon fiction as a way to get insights not available in more traditional sources," Morton says.

The Torontonians was first published by Longmans, Green and Company, receiving a glowing review from The New York Times and a mixed review from The Globe and Mail. The Ontario-based Young, who was born in 1914, wrote four novels, one fictionalized childhood memoir, and a thriller under the pseudonym Kendal Young, all released between 1959 and 1969. Her books were published in Canada, the U.S., and across Europe, and her novel The Ravine was made into a movie.

Fast-forward to 2007. Morton is now teaching at McGill University, and on a lunch date with McGill associate dean of arts Nathalie Cooke, the two compare notes about which Canadian novels they are using in their classes. Realizing their selections were completely different, Cooke reads The Torontonians and comes to think it would be "a wonderful addition" to classes in literature, history, sociology, and women’s studies. Cooke had also been the co-editor of the Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series for McGill-Queen’s University Press, and she and Morton dream up the idea of an MQUP reissue of The Torontonians. "[Executive director] Phil Cercone didn’t hesitate for a moment. I discussed it with him one day, and he basically agreed on the spot," Cooke says. "So Suzanne and I started our sleuthing."

The professors track down the rights, which have been held by Young’s daughter Valerie Argue since the author died in 1996. Supportive of the new edition, Argue agrees to provide a foreword and photographs, providing "a glimpse into the world of a bestselling Canadian novelist in the mid-20th century – when bestselling Canadian women novelists were as rare as trees above the tree line," Cooke says.

Voilà: an October fiction title for MQUP. The new edition of the novel also features an introduction from its champion professors, who plan to teach the book in some of their classes. And York University professor Amy Lavender Harris will also use parts of the reissued book for her undergraduate course on Toronto literature. Harris also runs the Imagining Toronto project, which tracks references to the city in literature, and previously wrote about The Torontonians on her blog. She seem The Torontonians as "remarkably prescient" about subsequent Toronto issues and literature, from Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman to Russell Smith’s angst – "it’s an essential book about Toronto," Harris says – as well as of the crisis of the middle-class woman unveiled three years after Young’s book in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

But there was still a small hitch for the press: how do you promote a novel without its author? In response, MQUP publicist Jacqueline Davis created a trivia contest featuring 10 questions about 1950s and ‘60s Toronto and negotiated a stay at Toronto’s Fairmount Royal York Hotel for the grand prize. "The idea was to attract people that are interested in looking at that era of Toronto history to do the research on the questions and get them interested about the information provided in the book," Davis says. The hotel, which is referred to in the novel, was happy to donate a one-night stay for the contest, Davis says. Contest winners were to be announced on Oct. 1, to coincide with the novel’s release."

- Megan Grittani-Livingston