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Stephen Leacock: A Reappraisal

David Staines

Leacock and Leahen: The Feminine Influence on Stephen Leacock

Erika Ritter

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1 Stephen Leacock once said: “when I stand up before an audience to deliver my serious thoughts, they begin laughing. I have been advertised to them as funny, and they refuse to accept me as anything else.”

2I can relate to that. As a supposedly “comic” writer, I find I suffer from a lack of credibility as a serious thinker—especially when coming before an august academic body with a downright grim new appraisal of Leacock’s social criticism.

3Most especially when the reappraisal is as wildly radical as mine is, to wit: after having read several examples of what is supposedly Stephen Leacock’s social criticism, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that these works were written by a woman.

4But what woman? That was the burning question that drove me on through exhausting hours (well, minutes anyway) of research. The startling results of my investigations are presented here for the very first time.

5I have incontrovertible proof to support my contention that Stephen Leacock had a twin sister. Her name was Stephanie and she was, coincidentally, born at exactly the same time he was, in 1869, and like her more famous brother, emigrated from England to Canada at an early age.

6But while Stephen, the male child, was sent from Sutton, Ontario, to study at Upper Canada College and the University of Toronto, Stephanie was forced to teach herself economics and political theory at home, with the aid of nothing but a Bible, an old Farmer’s Almanac, a geometry text, and a battered copy of “More Jokes For the John.” But from these unlikely sources came her masterful humour, terse economical style, and astounding acumen.

Early Accomplishments

7Chances are, we would never have heard of Stephanie Leacock at all, were it not for the fact that in the early 1900s, she wrote a book entitled Elements of Political Science, followed by another called Responsible Government.

8Attempts to get these serious texts published under her own name failed, however. Finally, she gave the manuscripts to her brother, a slow student, who was more than willing to have them issued under his male (and hence credible) name, in 1906 and 1907 respectively.

Growing Disillusionment

9Looking on while her brother got credit for the books she had written did something to Stephanie. Her bitterness, anger, and cynicism are subtly reflected in her 1907 essay, “Greater Canada: An Appeal.”

10Aware that she would not be able to publish this work, either, under her own name, she laced the essay with feminist rhetoric and stinging social criticism. But ironically, so cleverly were the gibes woven into the work, that “Greater Canada,” when published under Stephen’s name, was read instead as a rallying cry for greater Canadian independence within the Empire.

11It was close examination of the essay that led me to the absolute conclusion that it is indeed Stephanie’s work. There are references to “ignorant colonial boys” (italics mine), as well as this sharp indictment of the male political establishment: “Harsh is the cackle of the little turkey cocks in Ottawa fighting the while as they feather their mean nests of stick and mud high on their river bluff.” Stephanie’s perspicacious anticipation of the controversies surrounding former Speaker John Bosley’s redecoration of Kingsmere is, of course, hard to ignore.

12Stephanie’s urgent desire to see women achieve the vote, meanwhile, is reflected in such appeals as “the task is yours to solve, gentlemen. Find us a way whereby the burden and power shall fall on all alike.”

13Those who doubt a woman’s authorship here are asked to consider the unequivocally female phrasing of such choices as “a widow’s mite” and “how First to unravel the vexed skein of our colonial and imperial relations?”

New Directions

14Embittered not only because her essay was misread, but also because her detested brother once again gained the credit for her labour, Stephanie soon determined once more to publish under her own name. Between 1908 and 1910, she concentrated on exploiting the gimmick-crazed market of the pre–World War I period by producing a couple of how-to books. Indeed, in some circles, it is believed that Stephanie Leacock may have actually invented the how-to form.

15Now living in Orillia, Ontario, she first wrote a book of astrologically based calisthenics for the local inhabitants called Sun Sign Stretches for a Little Town. The very next year, her earlier interest in economics revived itself in a textbook that advises wealthy newlyweds on how to utilize investment techniques first employed by the French settlers of the Maritime regions. I refer, of course, to the famous Acadian Debentures for the Bridal Rich.

16Alas, however, fame and fortune eluded Stephanie once again. The two books saw publication, but the always unscrupulous Stephen marred their selling potential by poaching versions of both titles to adorn humour books he was in the process of writing—a literary variation necessitated by the fact that, without Stephanie to ghost-write his economics texts for him, he was utterly lost.

A Bold Stratagem

17Ironically, it was Stephen’s unearned success as a humorist that gave Stephanie an idea that would help her own work reach a wider audience. Returning to the subversive form of feminism that characterizes “Greater Canada,” Stephanie resolved no longer to fight her twin’s success, but to join it.

18Therefore, as Stephen continued to churn out books of humour with alliterative titles, Stephanie returned to ghosting books of social criticism for him. A close examination of the essays contained therein reveals the breadth of her dazzling strategy. Social satire, of a revolutionary type, masquerades as Stephen Leacock’s most conservative, misogynistic, and, in some cases, even racist writings!

19This technique, begun back in 1907, finds its apotheosis in the 1915 essay, “The Woman Question.” Generally read as Stephen Leacock’s lofty dismissal of the rights and abilities of women to earn their own livings, to choose their own politics, or in any important way to run their own lives, this essay is, in fact, Stephanie’s merciless satire on fusty male attitudes. Space does not permit a detailed examination of the essay, but interested scholars are directed particularly to the sections of the work that deal with the foolishness of women in business, the futility of universal suffrage, and especially the insistent conclusion that women should be grateful for male guidance of their lives, and content with the housewife and mother role. This last area is one in which Stephanie’s satirical genius, as well as the eerie predictive powers already alluded to, really shine, for “The Woman Question” anticipates the Total Woman movement of the 1970s so exactly as to be utterly uncanny.

Quiet Revenge

20Even though Stephanie had at last found a way to ventriloquize her most radical ideas through her brother’s conservative and unsuspecting mouth, she continued to resent him always for the career advantages that merely being male afforded him. Her methods of revenge were quiet but various, including her playful tendency to give his interviews for him, setting out to make him look silly in the eyes of his adoring public.

21For example, on his inability to write a sustained narrative line, she commented (as Stephen): “I can invent characters quite easily, but I have no notion as to how to make things happen to them. Indeed, I see no reason why anything should. I could write awfully good short stories if it were only permissible merely to introduce some extremely original character and at the end of two pages announce that at this point a brick fell on his head and killed him.”

22Of course, the real genius of the foregoing resides in the way in which Stephanie, under the guise of whimsicality, is able to make her male chauvinistic brother utter sentiments which, in a woman’s mouth, would stand out as glaring examples of so-called feminine illogic.

23Even when speaking as herself, Stephanie’s view of Stephen was sniffily dismissive. “Stephen was a nice boy,” she declared once in a rare interview, “but he grew up to be a complete idiot. He stole the bushy moustache idea from Mark Twain, and I used to catch him practising his merry twinkle in the mirror.”

What Became of Stephanie Leacock?

24In the late 1920s, once Dorothy Parker had emerged in the United States to make humour writing an acceptable occupation for women, circumstances eased somewhat for Stephanie Leacock.

25She was able to publish her hilariously funny send-up of the maledominated drapery industry, Gentlemen Prefer Blinds. In addition, she presided over the famous Square Table lunches at the Mohawk Hotel in Orillia, with such other witty Canadian notables as Ernest Thompson Seton, L. M. Montgomery, R. B. Bennett, and the wickedly funny Dr. Frederick Banting. However, the group disbanded after its first meeting once it became clear nobody knew any quips.

26But it was in the 1940s, when most male humorists were at war, that Stephanie really came into her own. Her Morning Chuckle was syndicated in many newspapers, and she is generally credited with the invention of the knock-knock joke. Unfortunately, in the conservative post-war fifties, with men back from military service, Stephanie was forced out of the front ranks of humour, and into writing lighthearted books about housewives in the suburbs coping hilariously.

Stephanie Leacock Today

27At the ripe old age of one hundred and seventeen, Stephanie Leacock is still with us. She writes every day, and her lively mind is engaged by many contemporary issues.

28She still resides in Orillia. When I visited her recently, she was delighted to welcome me, as the Canadian literature buff who had finally stumbled upon her existence.

29Her mind is as clear as ever, and until recently she continued to edit her economics newsletter, The Calculator. Last year, it was subsumed by the Orillia Packet—and as we know, is now called The Packet-Calculator.

30When I spoke to her, she was eager and ready to proffer opinions on a variety of contemporary subjects. Of Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan, for instance, she said, “They jointly provide the answer to that age-old question of where the snakes went after St. Patrick drove them out of Ireland.” And she went on to remark, “How can we trust two leaders who can’t even pronounce their own names the way they’re spelled?”

31Later in the conversation, the old lady spoke movingly of the new technology, particularly the supremacy of digital over dial watches: “Next thing you know, they’ll come up with self-tying shoelaces. Then both signal accomplishments of childhood will have been for nothing.”

32Stephanie Leacock wanted very much to substantiate in person my claims for her existence. But it turned out that VIA Rail schedules simply could not get her here from there. When I broke the bad news to her, she accepted it with typical humorous philosophy. “Stephen’s behind it someplace,” she averred. “Trust me on that. He gets a symposium in his honour, and as usual, all I get is the fuzzy end of the lollipop. I swear that man is still laughing at me beyond the grave.”

33Perhaps, Stephanie. But at least we’re all still laughing. And that was the way you always wanted it.


Essayist and playwright Toronto, Ontario

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

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