Robert Fulford's column about Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp

(Globe and Mail, February 12, 1997)

In 1936, Northrop Frye, a 24-year-old University of Toronto graduate who had recently arrived at Oxford, was furious. As tutor he had drawn Edmund Blunden, a much-praised poet of the First World War, and it wasn't working out. The one-on-one Oxford tutorial system assumed that Blunden would guide Frye through the thickets of scholarship, but that's just what he refused to do. While claiming to like Frye's essays, he offered few criticisms or suggestions. Soon Frye was amusing himself with fantasies of strangling this useless mentor. Finally, he realized what the trouble was: "I've scared the shit out of him."

Northrop Frye, whose criticism later made him one of the great literary figures of the world, must have been a pretty scary young man. He admitted being "infernally precocious" and called himself a "froggy sort of tadpole," mentally formed much earlier than most. Of one formative experience, he wrote, "I read all of Shaw at 15 and he turned me from a precocious child into an adolescent fool. Therefore he has had far more influence on me than any other writer." By his early twenties he was toweringly ambitious, and when he got to Oxford he was already writing the book on William Blake that made his reputation when it finally appeared in 1947. No wonder Blunden was terrified into silence.

The tale of Frye and his inadequate tutor is one of many remarkable stories in The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1932-1939 (University of Toronto Press), edited by Robert D. Denham. These two volumes--the beginning of a major publishing project, Frye's Collected Works--have a lot to tell us on three subjects. One, obviously, is the mind of the young Frye. Another is the historical period, the Depression and the approach of war. The third, and most memorable, is the relationship between Frye and Kemp.

They met as third-year students at Victoria College when he was 19 and she 21. Soon they were courting, then they were lovers. In 1936, still unmarried, Kemp became pregnant, apparently for the second time. It's not clear how the first pregnancy ended, but this time she had an illegal abortion, efficiently arranged by her mother. The letters indicate no regrets or hesitations on either side. Frye, home in Moncton when she learned she was pregnant, sent $15 of the $25 the abortionist charged. The following year, Frye and Kemp began the marriage that lasted until her death in 1986.

In the early years they were often apart: the Atlantic stood between them during her art studies in London, and his later work at Oxford. To these and other separations, we owe the gift of these letters.

In one way they were typical young lovers of the time, constantly worried about money. Kemp's father was a mostly out-of-work graphic designer in Toronto and Frye's was scraping along as a hardware salesman in Moncton. Yet these young people were also rich: they believed all culture was theirs to possess, and they pursued books, art, and music with joy and determination.

In her letters Kemp emerges as articulate and imaginative, with an unusual frankness: Martin Baldwin, her boss at what was then called the Art Gallery of Toronto, appears here as "a lily-livered cur." Still, the main revelation is the private Northrop Frye. His inability to make easy conversation later became a legend in Toronto literary circles, but the Frye in these pages obviously loves telling stories, talking about books or films, and reporting details of his surroundings.

As a democratic socialist in the United Church tradition, he's startled by the widespread sympathy for Hitler he finds in Britain. Perhaps he overstates the case when he writes that "practically everyone in England is either a Fascist or a right-wing sympathizer," but certainly he's uncomfortable in a world that considers fascism one of several reasonable possibilities. In May, 1937, Blunden arrives back from Germany, "full of enthusiasm for the Nazis."

In these pages we often meet Frye the chronic generalizer and theorist. He praises his lover's letters by noting that women express themselves better than men. Then he adds: "Some women, that is, like Katherine Mansfield and Ellen Terry and Helen Kemp." His systematizing can turn dogmatic: "I do not approve of Anglicanism," he says, because there are two kinds of Christianity (Protestant individualism and Catholic collectivism) and "Anglicanism never mind up its mind which it was going to be."

As he and Kemp become closer, Frye speaks of their relationship with wonder: "Around my love there is always a mystery: why, in a world that seems to make so little sense otherwise, did something so inevitably right happen?" Without her he feels rudderless and incomplete. This isn't idle flattery: the letters make clear that he's socially awkward and incompetent in practical matters, such as applying for scholarships before the closing date. We watch Helen slowly assuming the role of Frye's loving but not overawed coach.

Frye later tells her that by becoming his wife she has ended his adolescence and allowed him to enter the adult world of meaningful work. "I couldn't find anything that would give my capacities any value or meaning to me until I was sure of you. Now I'm all right--I can go ahead...." He says that whatever he accomplishes will be partly her doing--in fact, his work will have "another name, and that name its real name, Helen."

As Edmund Blunden sensed immediately, the young Frye was phenomenally talented. But talent can easily be misplaced or ruined. Frye was that rare creature, a prodigy whose promise was entirely fulfilled. How this came about--through the love of a woman both good and wise, as in many old-fashioned tales--is the true subject of this collection.

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