Isabel Ecclestone Mackay

(25 November 1875 – 15 August 1928 / Canada)

Biography of Isabel Ecclestone Mackay

Isabel Ecclestone Mackay poet

Isabel Ecclestone MacKay is one of a group of Canadian literary women whose phenomenal output and active public lives are a testimony to the considerable energy that characterized the early twentieth-century female literary community. Although she was a prolific poet, novelist, playwright, and newspaperwoman, MacKay will be remembered best as a tireless champion of creative writing and journalism in Canada. She founded the British Columbia chapter of the Canadian Women's Press Club, serving as vice president in 1914 and president in 1916. She was also vice president of the Vancouver branch of the Canadian Authors' Association from 1922 to 1926. Her reports on the activities of the Vancouver C.A.A. are valuable sources of information about this important Canadian literary organization.

She was born Isabel Ecclestone Macpherson on 25 November 1875 in Woodstock, Ontario, was educated at the Woodstock Collegiate Institute, and began her literary career at the age of fifteen. From 1890 to 1900, writing under the pseudonym "Heather," she was staff contributor to the Woodstock Daily Express and, in 1894, began contributing poems and short stories to other Canadian newspapers as well. She married court reporter Peter John MacKay in 1895, and in 1909 the couple moved to Vancouver, where for a year she edited the social column for the Canadian Courier . Between 1894 and 1928 she published six novels, four collections of poems, and five plays, and contributed over three hundred poems, short stories, and sketches to the best British, American, and Canadian magazines, including Harper's, Scribner's, McClure's, Youth's Companion, St. Nicholas, Ainslee's, Red Book, Life, and others. Over fifty of her poems and stories have been reprinted in various Canadian anthologies.

MacKay's poetry and drama garnered several literary awards. Early in her career she was twice winner of the Toronto Globe prize for the best poem on a Canadian historical subject: her"Marguerite de Roberval" received the prize in 1907, and in 1909 the prize was awarded to her for"The Passing of Cadieux." Later her one-act play Treasure: A Play in One Act (1927) won the All-Canada I.O.D.E. (Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire) award, and her three-act play Two Too Many: A Comedy in Three Acts (1927) received third prize in an American play-writing competition sponsored by Penn Publishing of Philadelphia. In 1929 her three-act comedy Goblin Gold: A Comedy Drama in Three Acts (published in 1933) received first prize in the drama section of the Canadian Governor-General's literary competition.

MacKay's six novels, which are sometimes melodramatic but often starkly realistic, were enthusiastically reviewed and noted for their psychological insight. For example, The Window Gazer (1921) was hailed as a courageous novel because of its candid treatment of the theme of sexuality. However, the favorable reception of MacKay's novels is perhaps better explained in terms of the literary nationalism that runs like a leitmotif through the book-review sections of Canadian magazines and newspapers of the period. All MacKay's novels are set in Canada, most in small town Ontario; two of her urban novels, Mist of Morning (1919) and The Window Gazer, are set in Toronto. Unlike most Canadian novelists of the period, who uncritically celebrated rural values and condemned city life as immoral, MacKay's treatment of urban experience is considerably balanced. But what reviewers of the period rarely mention is MacKay's powerful depictions of female experience. For example, the theme of The House of Windows (1912) is the poverty and exploitation of working-class urban women; Up the Hill and Over (1917), a novel about drug addiction, features an all-female family held together by psychological tension and the meager salary of a young rural schoolteacher; and Blencarrow (1926), set in MacKay's hometown of Woodstock during the late nineteenth century, portrays the victimization of a woman and her daughters by an alcoholic and drug-crazed husband. Among MacKay's fiction for children, the charming Indian Nights , published posthumously in 1930, is a novel constructed around several west coast Indian myths. In style and content the novel demonstrates MacKay's indebtedness to Pauline Johnson's Squamish Indian tales, Legends of Vancouver (1911); like Johnson, MacKay accords a place of honor to the wise woman storyteller.

Like the poetry of her female contemporaries, most of MacKay's verse shows the late-Victorian romantic style and is of historical interest rather than lasting literary value. Johnson and Marjorie Pickthall, the two most widely read women poets of the day and close personal friends of MacKay, were a significant influence on her poetry. However, MacKay's verse lacks Pickthall's craftsmanship and Johnson's wide public appeal. But while MacKay's poetry for adults is dated, her children's verse still retains its charm. As cited by Myrtle Patterson in the December 1927 issue of Canadian Bookman, Canadian critics J. D. Logan and Donald French praised The Shining Ship and Other Verse for Children (1918), comparing it favorably to Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses (1885), and Pelham Edgar considered the book a fitting companion to Walter de la Mare's Peacock Pie (1913).

MacKay also made a respectable contribution to Canadian theater of the 1920s. Her one-act play The Last Cache was presented at Toronto's Hart House Theatre on 17 May 1927, and the following year, on 30 March, Two Too Many: A Comedy in Three Acts was presented by the Canadian Literature Club of Toronto at the Margaret Eaton Theatre. Both the Hart House Players and the Players' Club of the University of British Columbia mounted productions of the one-act play The Second Lie: A Play in One Act . And finally, two of MacKay's unpublished plays, The Changeling and Matches, were performed by the Hart House Summer School Players and the Little Theatre of Vancouver, respectively.

In the periods of time not occupied by her own writing, her activities in literary organizations, and the raising of her three daughters, MacKay found time to offer support and encouragement to other writers. For example, "big-hearted Isabel MacKay," as poet and novelist Arthur Stringer called her in the 14 June 1914 issue of Saturday Night, nursed the ailing Pickthall through not only the writing of her last novel but also the final months of her life. As a member of the Canadian Women's Press Club, MacKay was a chief participant in a fund-raiser that helped to finance the publication of Johnson's Legends of Vancouver. MacKay was a generous host to many other writers, both in Vancouver and in the MacKays' summer home at Boundary Bay. She was fifty-two years old when, on 15 August 1928, she died in Vancouver of cancer. Her death was mourned and her achievements praised by many members of the Canadian literary establishment.

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Cupid does not care for sighs
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