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The lost prose of Anastasia English


Bert Riggs,

(an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University),
whose column, A Backward Glance
appears in the Telegram each Tuesday

Transcribed From the Telegram

By: Barbara McGrath



Who was Newfoundland's first woman novelist? The response most people would give to that question is Margaret Duley, who published four novels between 1936 and 1942. The first woman to actually publish a novel in Newfoundland did so in 1899. Her name was Anastasia English.

Born Anastasia Mary English in St. John's, she was the oldest daughter of Elizabeth Born and Joseph English. Her exact date of birth is
unknown, but she was baptized at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Feb. 22, 1863, which would probably place her birth some time late in 1862 or early in 1863.

Joseph English, originally from Job's Cove, Conception Bay, was a newspaperman, founder and publisher of The Terra Nova Advocate (1875-1890), a newspaper dedicated to espousing the views and championing the causes of Newfoundland's Roman Catholic adherents.

Elizabeth Born's father was a civil servant; after his death, her mother became the housekeeper at the Colonial Building.

A literary family

Anastasia grew up in a literary family. In all likelihood, she was educated by either the Presentation or the Mercy Sisters, both of whom operated
convent schools in St. John's in the 1870s. There is no doubt she was well educated, especially in the classics, English literature, music and the
Bible, all of which are reflected in her writing.

Just when Anastasia English began to write is also unknown. She probablybegan writing while still at school and had practised her craft for many years before attempting publication. She was well into her third decade when her first book, the novel Only a Fisherman's Daughter appeared in 1899.

It was a tale set in a Newfoundland fishing outport, relating the trials and tribulations of a young woman and her relationships to the people of the community.

While there are no extant reviews or sales figures for Only a Fishermen's Daughter, it must have sold well, as she published a second novel,
Faithless: A Newfoundland Romance, in 1901.

Just three years later, in 1904, came a third, Alice Lester: A Newfoundland Story.

That third book is the one for which there is newspaper coverage. The Evening Telegram for Aug. 8, 1904 carried a lengthy commentary, praising the book and its author thus: "At the modest sum of fifty cents it should meet a ready sale. Miss English wrote for the love of art, but the public cannot express their appreciation more truly than by promptly exhausting the edition. The carping critic may find defects and blemishes in her work, but the 'tout ensemble' does credit, not only to the gifted writer, but to her city, of which she is a resident and a native. Those who have read her previous books will notice that in facility of description and vividness of narrative, Miss English has excelled, and will unite with us in warmly congratulating the lady novelist of Newfoundland."

After the publication of Faithless, English took a rest from long fiction, to concentrate her writing efforts on the short story. It is quite possible she had written and published short stories before 1907, but it is that year that she received public recognition for her work in that genre.

She was awarded second prize (for a sum of $3) in a Christmas short story contest sponsored by the newspaper The Free Press for Snowed in at Tickle Harbour, or Granny Hunt's Prediction.

The following year she won first prize ($5) in the same contest for Looking for Santa Claus. The Free Press, in acknowledging her accomplishment, remarked, "Miss English is one of our best-known local writers, and always has an interesting story for Christmas ... We would greatly miss (her), were her name not to appear amongst our prize winners."

Collection of stories

By 1912, she had enough short stories to publish a collection under the title The Queen of the Fairy Dell & Other Tales.

Many of English's short stories appeared in one of many Christmas annuals that were published in St. John's for the Christmas season. These annuals were begun by the local newspapers as a Christmas supplement in magazine form in the 1870s and 1880s, but some developed a life of their own, independent of sponsoring newspapers.

For more than 40 years, Anastasia English was editor of Yuletide Bells, one of these annuals. In addition to her short stories, she would often write editorials for the annuals, and sometimes her poetry would also be included.

English published a fourth novel, When the Dumb Speak in 1938, some 34 years after Faithless had appeared. She continued to write short stories well into her retirement.

Anastasia English never married. She and her sister Annie lived with their brother Joseph until his death in 1946; the sisters moved into St. Patrick's Mercy Home after it opened in 1958. Anastasia died there on May 30, 1959.

Today, 101 years after the publication of her first novel, none of her books are in print. They are available only in libraries or from antiquarian book dealers. She remains unheralded for her contribution to Newfoundland literature, for leading the way for the many Newfoundland women writers who have become worthy successors to her legacy.

 Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. ...


This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (October 2000)
REVISED: 24 May 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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