Poet: Marjorie Lowry Christie Pickthall
Date of Birth: 14 September1883, London, UK
Date of Death: 22 April 1922, Vancouver, Canada
Marjorie Lowry Christie Pickthall was an author and librarian. During her childhood in England her parents encouraged her artistic talents with books and lessons in drawing and music. The family emigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1890 where her continued to encourage her talents. Summers on the Toronto Islands fostered Pickthall’s passion for country walks and habits of close observation, enhancing her skills in nature description in her diaries that she maintained throughout her teens. From 1899 she attended the Bishop Strachan School where she excelled in composition as well as formed lasting friendships with other artistic women.
In 1898, at just 15 years of age, Pickthall sold her first story to the Toronto Globe for $3. As in her later fiction, ‘Two-Ears’ drew on her imagination and reading about diverse cultures. She would often use Native American or French-Canadian settings in her prose and poetry. ‘Two-Ears’ and one of her poems won first prizes in the Daily Mail and Empire’s writing competition of 1899.
Pickthall was a regular contributor to the ‘Young people’s corner’ of the Mail and Empire. And was also invited to write for the Globe’s ‘Circle of young Canada.’ In 1900 she once again won the Mail and Empire’s competition with the poem ‘O keep the world for ever at the dawn,’ a poem for the new century. Its late-19th-century aestheticism, impassioned language and musical quality attracted attention from professors whose critical support ensured Pickthall’s lasting reputation.
Her career began in earnest as the prizes launched Pickthall into the magazines. She became a regular contributor of East and West (Toronto), a young people’s journal of the Presbyterian Church. Three of her serials appeared as books illustrated by Charles William Jeffreys. Her poetry was appearing steadily in Acta Victoriana and other academic publications.
Pickthall was not reliant on paternalistic professors, she also used her work with New York and London agents to place her poetry and fiction in prestigious American periodicals, including Harper’s, Century and Atlantic Monthly. Her poetry paid little, but her fiction paid the equivalent of four months’ salary at Victoria University Library, where Pickthall obtained work as a librarian and research assistant. It was necessary for her to earn a steady income as marriage was never a serious consideration.
In 1912 health issues forced Pickthall to take a leave of absence. Later that year she fulfilled her dream to travel to England where she became part of a lively household in London. With her cousin she rented a cottage near Bowerchalke and spent her summers writing. She felt the London literary world was closed to her as a colonial and, she was out of touch with the American market.
The horror at the human cost of World War 1 deepened Pickthall’s discouragement over her literary career. To be useful in the war effort she took training in mechanics. Unable to secure a job as an ambulance or truck driver she enrolled on a gardening course which became a summer-long position as part-time secretary to the principal and a part-time market gardener. During 1917-18 she worked as assistant librarian in the South Kensington Meteorological Office. She resigned in 1918 due to eye problems. In 1920 she travelled to British Columbia where she settled at Long Bay.
In 1921 she travelled to the west coast of Vancouver Island, settling in the remote native community of Clo-oose; in the summer of that year she took a motor trip through the island’s interior. Later she was confined in a nursing home in Victoria after a major breakdown and was unable to attend to even the most basic business correspondence. Returning to Vancouver in February 1922 she underwent successful surgery for her disc problem on 7 April. She died unexpectedly seventeen days later and buried beside her mother in St. James’ Cemetery, Toronto, Canada.
Under the level winter sky
I saw a thousand Christs go by.
They sang an idle song and free
As they went up to calvary.
Careless of eye and coarse of lip,
They marched in holiest fellowship.
That heaven might heal the world, they gave
Their earth-born dreams to deck the grave.
With souls unpurged and steadfast breath
They supped the sacrament of death.
And for each one, far off, apart,
Seven swords have rent a woman’s heart
©JG Farmer 2019