In this instalment, I’ll be talking about Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. This novel would have been a natural starting point for the whole series. It received plenty of attention (both acclaim and controversy) when it was published in 1998, and it has had an enduring popular and critical appeal, finding a place in the later canon of Canadian literature.
It’s a big, ambitious novel that, in some sense, sets out to be the Newfoundland novel, telling the Newfoundland story: how so idiosyncratic, prickly, ill-fated, and (perhaps foolishly) proud a people came to be (inevitably yet improbably) part of the Canadian nation via the unlikely instrument of one Joseph R. Smallwood, himself a scrappy bundle of contradictions. In other ways, though, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a kind of bildungsroman, following the progress of Smallwood from his shabby and impoverished St John’s working class background to the tin-pot tyrant of Newfoundland, from a disgraced schoolboy to the Last Living Father of Confederation (as he self-styles himself) – except Johnston withholds from Smallwood the calmness, wisdom, and self-possession that is the expected end-point of a bildungsroman. Instead, Johnston instils at Smallwood’s core both an inferiority and a superiority complex, reflecting that same combination at the core of Newfoundland, and, in both cases, he leaves them unresolved, lets the contradictory energy generated by such a combination spiral out in strange, irrational, self-deluding ways.
Colony isn’t a blood-and-soil national/historical epic designed as a nation-building exercise. Rather, it’s a shifty game of what-if and maybe and never-was. It’s clever, ironic, and unwilling to commit to any particular grand narrative. Most of the novel takes place before Confederation; some of it is set in New York City and the rest of it is set in Newfoundland. It’s clear throughout the novel that Newfoundland does not make sense as part of Canada, has no affiliation or connection to the nation it ends up becoming part of, but then again, nations themselves don’t make much sense in the logic of this book. The call to nationhood is real, but it is issued to Newfoundland from an outsized landscape that is itself too huge and harsh to allow the few impoverished and exploited residents any opportunity to begin to answer it. Thus, the melancholy that sometimes surfaces in the book is not a melancholy for a lost nation, but rather a melancholy for a nation that never was, a nation that circumstance made impossible – the unrequited dream of the title.
Johnston’s writing in general, and in this novel in particular, exhibits a strange but appealing combination of 18th, 19th, and 20th century styles, like some mix of Henry Fielding (whose surname Johnston borrows for this book), Charles Dickens, and James Joyce, exhibiting hybrid vigour and run half-wild. The book is huge as the land and the personalities it’s about; it’s 560-odd pages of gothic neo-Victorian twists and turns, social realism, satire, mysterious goings-on, and earnest poetic reflections on land and identity. Colony constantly undercuts itself; melancholic passages on the immensity of the land and the doomed nature of the people who live on it are intercut with breezy satirical excerpts from Fielding’s Condensed History of Newfoundland, a text-within-a-text Johnston creates as a kind of counter-point to the serious work of cultural navel-gazing. These excerpts are written by Sheilagh Fielding, journalist/satirist/plagiarist, Smallwood’s antithesis, nemesis, soulmate, and foil. She is Smallwood’s opposite in almost every way – tall (over six feet) where he is diminutive, ironic where he is earnest, elitist where he is populist, self-aware – sometimes paralysingly so – where he lacks self-awareness, allowing him to undertake a seemingly endless sequence of failed “sure-fire schemes” with great energy and vigour.
Here is one such excerpt from Fielding’s Condensed History of Newfoundland:
In 1610, John Guy starts the first formal settlement at Cupids, and is fooled by the fluke of two successive mild winters into thinking he would like to live there He is convinced otherwise by the less-anomalous winter of 1613, after which he returns home and for the rest of his life wakes ups creaming in the middle of the night, refusing to go back to sleep until his wife assures him he no longer lives in Newfoundland.
The London and Bristol Company sells John Guy’s colony to William Vaughan. Vaughan, after a long talk with Guy, which he regrets not having had before he made his purchase, does not actually visit his colony, but instead writes a book extolling its virtues called The Golden Fleece and sends in his place a number of Welshmen.
After not having heard from them for two years, he sends Sir Richard Whitbourne to see how they are doing. Whitbourne reports back to Vaughan that not all of the are dead and there is even talk among those still alive of building shelters of some kind. Inexplicably, the colony is abandoned in 1620.
Vaughan approaches various people and offers large portions of his colony to those who answer “No” to the question “Have you ever met John Guy?” (67-68)
Sheilagh Fielding is one of those breakout characters you get sometimes; I’ve seen her described as one of the great characters of Canadian literature, and Johnston has written a sort-of-sequel, The Custodian of Paradise, focusing solely on Fielding and her whereabouts and activities during a segment of time where she drops from view within The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. She is entirely a creation of Johnston’s, but it’s telling how well-realized she is as a character – and how vital she seems to the story – that people have mistaken her for real, have given her a fraudulent historical dimension (and this is fully in keeping with Fielding’s own slippery relationship with the so-called ‘truth’).
And indeed, Johnston inserts Fielding to represent a kind of third way within a debate that is usually framed as a binary; Fielding, the ironic auto-didact, undercutting authority and destroying certainty, is neither a Newfoundland nationalist nor a Confederate (Fielding, it’s telling to note, does not vote in the referendum that seals Newfoundland’s fate and dooms its chances at independence). Fielding knows that Newfoundland has always been a colony and always will be, whether as a small province or as a small nation-state. But this does not alleviate the emotional and psychological pull that national narratives can exert; as Lévi-Strauss put it, in a quote I think of often: “you’re not done living just because you chalk it up to artifice.”
It doesn’t matter to the mountains that we joined Confederation, nor to the bogs, the barrens, the rivers or the rocks Or the Brow or Mundy Pond, or the land on which St. John’s and all the cities, towns, and settlements of Newfoundland are built. It wouldn’t have mattered to them if we hadn’t joined. . . .
We have joined a nation that we do not know, a nation that does not know us.
The river of what might have been still runs and there will never come a time when we do not hear it. (560)
When first published, and at certain points since then, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams has come under attack for sloppy history. This is telling of a few things. It tells that we are anxious about our history, how often parts of it are not told, how little most Newfoundlanders know of Newfoundland’s extra-Canadian existence. It also tells that the wounds Colony prods are still raw, still provoke passion and pain. Why else consider a work of fiction – something that is released from fact by its very nature – to be dangerous or distasteful or irresponsible if it gets facts wrong in the service of story, or in the service of creating something that feels correct to its creator? It’s very true that the story of Newfoundland in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, of what it was before it joined Canada, of its precarious and eccentric place within Canada, is seldom told. At least, in my youth, as a straight-A student and bookworm, I knew very little of it. It wasn’t until I studied it in the later years of my undergraduate degree that I even knew some basic facts – like who Sir Robert Bond was, or that Newfoundland was a Dominion, not a Republic, as tourist t-shirts might lead one to believe.
To my mind, though, this makes The Colony of Unrequited Dreams even more important; its errors are small, its fictional inventions suitable and right-feeling. It is not propagandistic, not narrowly supporting one side of the debate or the other, but it makes familiar, palpable, and real the question of Newfoundland’s aborted almost-nationhood, its lingering sense of melancholy strangeness.