As For Me and My House is the only book on my Canada 150 list that I hadn’t heard of prior to making the list.1 Sinclair Ross, as a name, was familiar to me, but beyond the “Canadian author” tag, I had nothing to attach to it. Having now read the book, it’s unclear to me how I escaped high school without having read it. It is exactly the sort of archetypal repressive prairie novel you’d expect to see assigned in Canadian schools—I would say it’s the very model for such books, if Martha Ostenso’s excellent Wild Geese didn’t predate it by a good sixteen years. The story of the country parson and his wife2 being slowly ground down by the weight of the town’s hypocritical moral gaze is so common in Canadian letters it’s become one of handful of stereotypical plots that are used as shorthand for old-fashioned, unadventurous Canadian literature.3
The thing is—and I find myself surprised by this, because more than a few people told me this book would be boring—is that Sinclair Ross can really write. His prose is simple and clean, but absolutely devastating in its nuance and precision. The book I’d compare it to that more contemporary-minded readers would recognize is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.4 I think it’s fair to say that As For Me and My House is the only way a Canadian version of Gilead could be written. I’ve never been on board with Margaret Atwood’s early-career notion that survival was the driving force in Canadian literature, but I have no problem conceding that it nevertheless plays a significant role in the development of CanLit, and As For Me and My House is all about survival. Despite, though in some ways because of, the place they hold in the community, the Bentleys spend most of their time in Horizon, indeed most of their lives, on the edge of starvation, their consumption of everything from food to lamp oil closely monitored by the town’s busybodies, as insistent on their pastor’s household displaying a proper degree of respectability and decorum as they are insistent on that same household never drifting into either extravagance or even pleasure.
It is this tension that both drives and destroys them. They are artists, he a painter and she a musician, but they suffer tremendous guilt, not entirely self-imposed, for daring to love, or even been seen or thought to love, something beyond God, propriety, or each other—and even their love for each other, stunted, claustrophobic, and broken as it is, becomes a source of guilt and pain. Philip and Mrs. Bentley have, according to her, never been a particularly communicative couple, but their situation seems worse in Horizon, perhaps the accumulation of silence and closed doors over a dozen years in small prairie towns has finally taken its toll on them. They try and relieve that tension when they informally5 adopt Steve, a recently-orphaned Catholic boy from the wrong side of the tracks, who disappoints insofar as he is a person in his own right and therefore neither a fulfilment of their prayers nor a cipher on which they can project.
And As For Me and My House is a novel of projection, rather than a novel of communication. Philip Bentley has almost no dialogue in the book; his moods and attitudes are reported by Mrs. Bentley indirectly. She is a classic unreliable narrator, and reads his moods and opinions rather than asking after them, projecting her own anxieties on him as though they were solid facts. There is ample evidence that she does know him nearly that well, but she becomes so focused on reading him that she sublimates herself to his unarticulated moods as thoroughly as if he were abusive,6 and not simply trapped and broken, denied the tools by both his time and his social station from even knowing how damaged he truly is, or the damage he does to her.
Philip Bentley is far from being a martyr, however. He has an affair with the young, beautiful, and musical Judith, even fathering a son with her,7 although it wasn’t until he finally confirms it that I was able to believe his wife’s suspicions. It’s not that I thought Philip was too good a man to seek affection with someone else, only that he was too trapped inside himself to look for answers outside. Mrs. Bentley isn’t guiltless either, though she is certainly less guilty. She has what today would be called an emotional affair with Paul Kirby, a schoolteacher with an almost comic love for words, and what’s more, does so directly in front of her husband, only attempting to hide it after she begins to suspect his own infidelity.8 It’s hard for me to know for sure how that would be received in 1939/40, but given how precarious the Bentleys’ position in Horizon was already, I can hardly think it would make life easier for either of them.
Ultimately, and surprisingly, it’s a combination of Philip’s weakness and Mrs. Bentley’s pragmatism that saves them. When Judith dies giving birth to Philip’s son, it is Mrs. Bentley who acts, who insists on adopting the child. It is also she who has saved their money for a little shop, so that Philip can leave the church he has never believed in, that has never believed in him. The steel in her is amazing, and it’s that steel that breaks the silence, and the book ends in a flood of relief9 as the Depression, in both its literal and metaphorical senses, comes to an end. The child they thought would save them has come,10 they have reopened doors and broken silences, and weathered the storm of betrayal. The note of optimism that closes the book is atypical, but welcome. It is the rain the town had prayed for with such insincerity finally come.