Sir Charles G.D. Roberts: Post Biography

by John Coldwell Adams

When Elsie Pomeroy wrote the concluding paragraphs of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts: A Biography in August, 1942, her subject had fifteen more months to live.  After his death, she wrote a “Final Chapter” (Canadian Author and Bookman, June, 1944) to cover the events of his last days.  In contrast, Sir Charles God Damn, my biography of Roberts, published in 1986, obviously does not need a subsequent chapter to complete the story.  Nevertheless, I am beginning to wonder whether a biographer’s work is ever done.  When will I stop worrying whether my readers have understood what I was trying to do?  How long will hindsight continue to spot themes that might have been expanded?  Will new information keep coming to light?  More than two years have passed since my book went to press, but I still feel the urge to add a postscript.

     I regret that Sir Charles God Damn is not a critical biography — which is what I intended to write before I was dissuaded.  My editor argued that the book would be too long.  He meant that it would be so costly to produce that the price of the finished product would be too much for the average buyer.  He lacked confidence — and, frankly, so did I — in the present-day power of Roberts’ name to sell many copies of an expensive book to anyone outside of the major libraries and a limited number of Canadian literary scholars.  Given the restrictions, the best I could manage was a mere gesture in the direction of criticism.  While I leave to others the task of continuing the critical process, I hope that they will be aided by the biographical background that I have provided.

     For the most part, I refrained from passing judgment upon Roberts’ character and personality.  I simply tried to present all the available information in a manner that would allow the reader to arrive at his own conclusions without being harried and bullied by me.  To put it another way, I wanted the facts to speak for themselves.  However, I suppose that my selection and arrangement of the material reflect something of the conclusions that I think a reader ought to form.  In spite of my good intentions, I probably did not reach total editorial impartiality, but at least I was grasping for it.

     In my view, a biographer should indulge in speculation with extreme caution.  There are many instances in Roberts’ life where the available information does not justify any definite conclusions.  To give but one example, it is impossible to explain in any detail why Roberts was attracted to May Fenety, whom he married shortly before his twenty-first birthday.  By all accounts, May had a deplorable disposition, lacked most of the social graces, and was not even very intelligent.  Those are the facts — or at least the recorded opinions of various people who knew her, including her own mother1 and her son Lloyd.2  To counter-balance those negative attributes, there is another well-documented description of May: she was extremely pretty.  It is equally well known that Roberts could seldom resist a pretty face.  That is the only reason I could give for his youthful infatuation with a girl who was not very companionable, either socially or intellectually.  There may have been other reasons — in her petulant way she may have been the sexiest creature in all of Fredericton — but, at this point in time, anything other than her good looks is only speculation.

     In his poem “Two Rivers” Roberts attempts to explain the contradictions in his character.  I agree that he makes a plausible comparison: his wayward spirit was not unlike the turbulent Tantramar, yet there was a temperate side of his nature that cherished the tranquility of the St. John.  He was never free of the inner struggle between those opposing forces:

For both are in my blood and bone
   And will be till I die.
Along my veins their argument
    Goes on incessantly.

In Sir Charles God Damn, I supplied abundant evidence of the conflicting elements in Roberts’ character, but I did not trace either of them to its source.  “Two Rivers” serves very well as an analogy, but it is not an acceptable explanation of Roberts’ make-up. This is one of the few matters upon which I think I might have safely speculated a little more.

     It is tempting to see Roberts’ pursuit of the bohemian life in New York and Europe as a reaction against his conservative upbringing in the Maritimes.  The fact that he seemingly never abandoned himself to his new life-style without pangs of conscience might be taken as proof that he could not shake off the influences of his youth completely.  There may be some validity in this view, but — and here I am speculating — I think it might be more worthwhile to look at the traits he may have inherited from his father and mother.  His father, the godly Canon Roberts, was as “strong and tranquil” as the St. John itself.  “Canon Roberts may not have been a perfect man”, concluded the Saint John Daily Sun in an obituary notice, “but what imperfections were his were not known to the people of this world”.3  The canon’s wife, on the other hand, was given to moods as unpredictable and “ever-changing” as the tides of the Tantramar.  There are various rumours about her unconventional behaviour — all of them reflecting unfavourably upon a clergyman’s wife in the Victorian era — including one story that she smoked a corncob pipe.4  As I see it, the serious side of Roberts’ nature, conscious of propriety and sharing the high ideals of his father, was forever in conflict with the earthy and rebellious genes of his mother.

     Given Roberts’ longstanding reputation as a womanizer, readers like George Woodcock were surprised “that there is no evidence in Sir Charles God Damn of his being caught in flagrante delicto”.5  Two questions arise: Was I not diligent enough in my research?  Or was I (like Elsie Pomeroy) being too protective of Roberts?  The answers are very simple: Roberts kept silent about the physical details of his relationships and the objects of his affections did the same.  There were people, like Wilson MacDonald, who had their suspicions of what went on behind closed doors, but they had to rely upon their imaginations for the particulars.  Roberts might kiss and tell — he was not above posturing as a Don Juan — but, unlike some of our contemporary poets, his revelations never went any further than that.  Of the ladies he loved, not many survive him, and apparently neither have any incriminating letters.  Lady Joan Roberts, who was his companion for ten years before she married him in 1943, is far too private a person to talk to anyone as frankly as some of Irving Layton’s ex-lovers tattled to Elspeth Cameron.  Sorry, George Woodcock et al, but I doubt that you will learn any more of the intimate details about Roberts’ romantic involvements than you already know.

     Ending the preceding paragraph on such a confident note gives an ironic twist to my next point: a literary sleuth can never be absolutely sure that he has uncovered all the evidence.  While I was writing Sir Charles God Damn, I was unable to identify the woman who inspired the love poems in New York Nocturnes and The Book of the Rose, and was responsible for the “over-tense lyricism”6 of A Sister to Evangeline. Roberts intimated to Elsie Pomeroy that this woman had been the great love of his life,7 but he refused to divulge her name, although he identified the individuals in three of his other serious affairs: Jean Carré, Maude Clarke and Mrs. L. Morris.  His reluctance to confide in Miss Pomeroy was especially baffling since he knew that any hint of an extra-marital relationship would be scrupulously avoided in her “official” biography.  Was he trying to protect someone?  And, if so, why?  I tracked down as many women as I could who had been part of his social circle at the time.  There had been some flirtations — most notably with Erma Perry, wife of his sculptor-friend Roland Perry — but none of them seemed to have developed into a full-blown romance.  The lady’s identity still eluded me, and she went into the biography as a mystery woman.

     Only a few months after Sir Charles God Damn was published, Laurel Boone (who is editing Roberts’ correspondence) turned up a letter8 that solved the mystery.  Dated 19 September, 1904, it was written by Roberts to Mary Fanton — the one woman I had not suspected, largely because she married William Carman Roberts (Charles’ brother) in 1906.  Apparently, she had kept both brothers on the string for a considerable period of time without Charles’ realizing it.  Seemingly, he had good reason to feel “overwhelmingly sorry and heart — sick” when he finally learned that she had chosen Will.  More in sorrow than in anger, he reproached her for “being so ardently and devotedly in love with Will . . . when I had every right to believe that you were in love with me”.  It is impossible to know whether Mary was torn between them or to what extent her final choice was influenced by the fact that Charles was already married.  “Your place in my heart was absolutely alone and supreme”, he assured her, “and with all my heart I desired to make you my wife”.  Whether or not Mary shrank from the scandal of a divorce, she was probably shrewd enough to realize that by temperament Charles was unable to face the pain it would cause to May and his family.

     Nothing in the preceding paragraphs alters the reliability of the information in Sir Charles God Damn.  I have no wish to change anything in the book although, as I have indicated, there are several points that in retrospect I might choose to amplify, and there is one significant new finding that I should like to add.  I may think of other things to say later on; but, for the moment at least, this is my “Final Chapter”.


  1. In a letter to Lorne Pierce, March 15, 1936, Elsie Pomeroy quotes Mrs. Fenety (presumably upon the authority of Sir Charles) as cautioning Roberts: “You’ll find May hard to live with.  We do.”  Lorne Pierce Collection, Queen’s University Archives. [back]

  2. During my interview with Julia Roberts, January 21, 1978, she quoted her late husband Lloyd as saying that his mother had a limited mind and “literally believed that the earth was flat.”[back]

  3. The Saint John Daily Sun, October 12, 1905. [back]

  4. Private information supplied by Elsie Pomeroy. [back]

  5. Book review of Sir Charles God Damn, The Citizen, Ottawa, June 21, 1986. [back]

  6. E.M. Pomeroy, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts (Toronto: Ryerson, 1943), p. 152. [back]

  7. Ibid.  Miss Pomeroy elaborated upon this matter in private conversation with me.[back]

  8. Many Fanton Roberts Papers, Archives of American Art, Detroit.  This letter will appear in full in the collected letters of Roberts, scheduled for publication by Goose Lane Editions in 1988. [back]