The Second Decade of Stephen Leacock, 1880-89. Upheaval.

If you go back a couple of weeks to the full list of Leacock’s decades, all 7.325 of them, you will see this one described as follows:

1880’s :: Rescued into Upper Canada College, Toronto, (1882); graduates as Head Boy; enters University of Toronto (1887) but drops out due to finances. Trains to teach high-school Latin, Greek, French, German & English. Teaches one term in Uxbridge (1889).

It did not end, however, quite as described. In the Fall of 1889 he returned to Upper Canada College as a junior master, and resumed his studies at the University of Toronto. The story of his time there properly belongs to the next decade. That one was lively, but not quite as lively as this one.

We left Stephen Leacock in his “damnedest place  you ever saw” on the farm in Georgina Township, just south of Lake Simcoe. This proximity is important, because somehow, despite the rigours of farm life, the family contrived to spend its summers by the lake, in true genteel Ontario fashion. Incidentally, I have seen their farm life described as that of pioneers in Upper Canada. This is not pedantically correct. “Upper Canada” had been re-named as “Canada West” in 1841, and “Ontario” at Confederation in 1867, nine years before the Leacocks arrived. And they did not hew their farmstead out of the forest primeval; someone had done that before them. The conditions remained somewhat primitive, however, although possibly not quite as colourfully so as he described them later on in his old age for the purpose of publication.

Carl Spadoni, in his “Chronology” provided with his monumental A Bibliography of Stephen Leacock (1998) summarizes in more detail the events of Leacock’s second decade: he is appointed joint editor of the school paper in 1886; in 1887 he publishes therein his first signed article called “The Vision of Mirza”; he wins a scholarship to the University of Toronto; in the summer his father leaves the family forever. The year 1887 was a lively one. In 1888 Stephen, unable to continue his studies, heads off to Strathroy (Ontario) to become a teacher. As already noted, after a brief spell in Uxbridge he finds himself back at Upper Canada College, having not yet found himself in the larger sense.

Leacock’s mother Agnes once described her husband Peter to one of her granddaughters as “one of the wittiest men I have ever known.” He also must have been lovable in some sense because they had eleven children together over a span of nearly twenty years, and was well regarded in the little Nova Scotia village to which he retired (as Captain Lewis) to spend his many remaining years.  He died in 1940. If Stephen inherited his wit from his father, he certainly did not therefrom receive his drive, ambition, and overbearing personality. Neither does his mother come across that way, although she was certainly educated, determined and a lady in all the Victorian senses both favourable and otherwise. I suspect that the cutting edge to Stephen Leacock’s personality came his grandparents, who come across as quite a bit that way, but without the wit. But this is all speculation, because the record is sparse.

A story circulates about some interaction between Stephen and his father when Peter left the family for good. I won’t repeat it, because I suspect it is a fabrication. Who would have started that story? If it was Stephen himself,—and who else could it be, if the story is not a complete fabrication,—why on earth would he do that? Harsh words could well have been spoken, although I expect the story stretched itself in transmission through the years. The reportage of seventeen-year-old boys in dramatic situations cannot be entirely trusted, especially Stephen Leacock’s, habitual indeed professional stretcher that he was.

Be that as it may, Peter departed, Stephen assumed the role of oldest male in the household (his older brothers having gone out west to seek their fortunes, as their father and uncle had done, the latter with considerable success; see “My Remarkable Uncle”), and was driven into school teaching, biding his time until he could find a more congenial profession. That story comes next week.

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