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Stephen Leacock: A Reappraisal

David Staines

Riding Off in All Directions: A Few Wild Words in Search of Stephen Leacock

Timothy Findley

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1 You may wonder why it is that I, who am the author of books with titles such as The Wars and Famous Last Words, Not Wanted on the Voyage and The Last of the Crazy People, am writing in celebration of Stephen Leacock. The name of Leacock, after all, is synonymous with laughter, while my name (if I have one) is synonymous with madness, mayhem, and Armageddon. If the connection between Professor Leacock and myself seems somewhat forced—to say the least—perhaps I can explain.

2I have been living for the last twenty-one years on a farm just forty miles south of Orillia, where Leacock lived. But that is not the connection. On the other hand, there is some connection in the fact that the farm where I live is barely seventeen miles to the east of Sibbald’s Point, where Stephen Leacock is buried. All one needs to know is that the burial site at Sibbald’s Point and the homestead site at Orillia face each other on opposite sides of Lake Simcoe.

3Now, it just so happens that, back in the days when Leacock was up there alive near Orillia, my so-called Grandfather Findley (the so-called will be explained when I come to the end of this connection) had his summer residence down near Sibbald’s Point. If they had possessed the right kind of telescopes, they could have seen each other fishing. But that is not the connection.

4The next thing one needs to know, in order to make the connection between myself and Stephen Leacock, is about the graveyard at Sibbald’s Point: the graveyard where Leacock is buried but where my socalled Grandfather Findley is not buried: not buried, because he refused to be buried there. Perhaps with good reason, from his point of view—again, as you will see when I come to the end of this.

5The connection continues. In the graveyard at Sibbald’s Point, where my so-called Grandfather Findley refused to be buried, lie not only the remains of Stephen Butler Leacock but also the remains of little Maisie Roach, otherwise known as Mazo de la Roche.

6Now, what follows is of immense importance. What is it that is wrong with Canadian literary sleuths that they have failed to discover, and therefore have failed to reveal, the story of the love affair between Mazo de la Roche and Stephen Leacock?

7Do they think it is by pure and simple chance these two are buried within kissing-distance of one another? Well, let me tell you, it is not by chance.

8For anyone who cares to think about it, the grande affaire between Stephen Leacock and Mazo de la Roche is as plain as the nose on Cyrano’s face. The trouble is—and has been for far too long—that nobody has cared to think about it. And, therefore, our great Canadian literary sleuths have missed the multitude of clues that are virtually massed before them, for all to see, in the works of both Leacock and de la Roche.

9Consider: Jalna, where Mazo’s Whiteoaks family lives, and Mariposa, where Stephen’s best-known characters live, are both on the shores of a lake.

10Consider: the year 1912. It was in that year that old Granny White-oaks had all her teeth removed. And it was also in that year that Stephen Leacock’s pen gave birth to all the citizens of Mariposa. I ask you: is this not Cadmus sowing the dragon’s teeth in order to create a whole new race of men?

11Well, one could go on and on and on. The references are legion….

12How many readers are aware that Jalna is the word for butterfly in an obscure Hindi dialect?

13How many readers are aware that Mariposa is the word for butterfly in Spanish?

14How many readers are aware that early in my acting career, I played the role of Peter Pupkin on television, in a weekly series adapted from Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town—his tales of Mariposa?

15How many readers are aware that, later, in the early years of my writing career I adapted Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna epic for television?

16How many readers are aware that the title of my second novel is The Butterfly Plague?

17One last question:

18How many readers are now aware of why it was my so-called Grand-father Findley refused to be buried in the graveyard at Sibbald’s Point along with Mazo de la Roche and Stephen Butler Leacock?

19This is what I have always suspected. Because the man I knew as Grandfather Findley refused to be buried along with Stephen Leacock and Mazo de la Roche, it is my firm belief that he had some connection with their hitherto unknown liaison, and whatever that connection may have been, given all the literary clues, I can only conclude that I am not descended from Thomas Findley, but from that unsuspected and illicit union of literary giants. Here before you is none other than the grandson of Stephen Leacock!


20I really did play Peter Pupkin on a television series back in the 1950s, and I thought I might write a few words about that, about what it’s like to be inside a Leacock character. Also what it’s like to have a Leacockian character inside of you—because it works both ways.

21This is true of all good characters, of course. The universal aspects have to be found inside the actor: the touchstones by which he recognizes and understands the person he is going to play. The other part—the pulling on, the getting inside of the character—can only happen once you have made the basic connections between the character and what you know of yourself.

22I think that what I understood first about Peter Pupkin was the quality of his shyness. It was a seething kind of shyness that was kindred to my own: an actor’s shyness. He could play all kinds of wonders to the audience in his mind—or the audience out in the dark, where he didn’t have to see them—but he was absolutely mortified when made to confront real people. He blushed; he stammered; he did everything wrong. He would confess to things he hadn’t done, because it was too embarrassing to admit he hadn’t done them. He was also a klutz. It was typical of Peter that, when he went out to save the people on the stranded pleasure steamer the Mariposa Belle, he found himself in the middle of the lake, with a single oar, in the dark, in a sinking rowboat. This was very me. I understood Peter Pupkin at once.

23Peter’s greatest embarrassment was his father’s enormous wealth. This was not, it so happened, a problem of my own, but it was still a problem that was fun to play. The images Leacock provides of Peter’s terror that his father will arrive unannounced in Mariposa—chauffeur-driven in a mammoth touring car, trailing truckloads of servants and tossing huge sums of money into the streets—are wonderfully evoked. Money, money, money—all it does is get in the way! It gets in the way of your natural sense of decorum. It makes you seem brash and vulgar, as if you could buy your way through life. It also gets in the way of tragic and romantic love affairs. It was this latter aspect of his father’s money that troubled Peter the most, since Peter was overwhelmingly in love, both tragically and romantically, with Zena Pepperleigh. If Zena were to discover that Peter had wealth in his background, how could he possibly ask her to marry him? She would only think that he wanted her because of his money. But, with a stroke of genius, Leacock gives Peter Pupkin a job as a bankclerk. He forces him into a situation where he is surrounded by money day and night, because Peter not only works in the Bank, he lives there. Or, rather, he lives in rooms upstairs, above the Bank. Now, the remarkable thing is, that—through this stroke of genius—all that money surrounding Peter Pupkin is not his own. It is money he can regard objectively; money he must protect; and, therefore, money he can regard with greed and parsimony on behalf of others. In this way, he has control, so to speak, of the kind he cannot exert in his father’s case, namely, the control over everyone’s perfectly natural inclination to take their money out and throw it around the streets as so much humanitarian largesse. Peter worries so about the human race; he hates to see it embarrass itself. But, above all, he hates to see it embarrass him.


24 Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is not noted for its dialogue. The book is narrated by a character, presumably Leacock himself, who knows all and tells all, but who takes no part in the lives and events he describes. In the television series, written by Don Harron, the Narrator’s role was played by the late John Drainie. What a pity a film was never made with Drainie playing Leacock and the town of Mariposa spread out around him. Drainie was—and this is not hyperbole, but simple fact—a genius; and according to everyone who ever worked with him, or who saw him work, he was the finest actor of his time in this country. His voice is inextricably mingled with my memories of playing Pupkin. Which brings me back to what I had started to say about Leacock and dialogue.

25Leacock did not write much dialogue, and the dialogue he did write was largely unspeakable. His prose was speakable, but not the dialogue as such. From an actor’s point of view, the dialogue Leacock wrote was inextricably tied to the prose that surrounded it, and the syntax could often be awkward if you tried to lift the words in quotes from the midst of the words that were not to be heard. Of course, as far as Leacock himself was concerned, he had never intended the dialogue for actors.

26In the long run, this could not have mattered less. It could not have mattered less, because what he gave you—as an actor—was an absolutely clear-cut, fully rounded, and marvellous character to play. Though the words themselves were rarely provided, the manner in which the characters would speak, including the pitch and tones of their voices and the rhythms of their speech, was always perfectly clear. Speech, in theatrical terms, cannot exist without character. For an actor, to know the person is to know precisely how the person speaks.

27Given Peter’s character—with all the nuance laid out by Leacock on the page—it was easy enough to discern that his speech was probably breathless. Consequently, Harron wrote Peter’s dialogue in short, very often unconnected sentences. In between the sentences, it was obvious that Peter himself was under the impression he had voiced the missing connective tissue, and he was under this impression because the connective tissue was being voiced in his mind. Thus, under Don Harron’s hand, Peter’s stammered, staccato sentences were filled with non sequiturs.

28Consequently, Peter might say to his best friend and roommate, Mallory Tompkins: “Mal. I love her. My father. I’m going to kill myself.”

29As you can imagine, the unspoken parts of these sentences were of some importance to Mallory Tompkins.

30However, as Mallory came to know and understand Peter’s ways, he also came to know what the missing words might be. “Her” must be Zena Pepperleigh. “My father” must refer to Peter’s terror that his father would appear and throw his money between them. Therefore, Peter would “kill himself” in shame.

31Peter was always “killing himself” and Mal got used to it, more or less—although, as Leacock wrote of this situation, “I suppose there are few people, outside of lovers, who know what it is to commit suicide four times in five weeks.”

32This was another reason Peter was always short of breath. Even when you are young, all that climbing onto roofs and steeples, all those wintry hours upon the bridge, poised above the icy waters, all those automobiles in front of which one is constantly preparing to fling oneself, can really take it out of you.


33Leacock was a master at creating scenes: the stuff of scenes and the shape of scenes seemed, very much, to be the basis of how he worked his wonders. How he avoided becoming a playwright, I cannot tell—unless it was that he knew for a certainty the dialogue would elude him. Nonetheless, it hardly matters. The marvels of his comedy are there to be transcribed theatrically, whether the theatre be a stage, a television screen, or merely in the mind. His theatre is on the page and anyone can give it life.

34God bless Stephen Leacock. I write that from the heart. With his stories and his books, his people and his insights, he has left a legacy for everyone who reads and—I must add—for everyone who writes. It well may be, indeed, that Stephen Butler Leacock is the grandfather of us all.


Novelist and playwright
Cannington, Ontario

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1986

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