By Vasanthi Pendakur
Madge Macbeth was a prolific American-Canadian writer of short stories, novels, plays, travel books, newspaper articles, and interviews throughout the first half of the 20th century. She was deeply involved with authors’ associations and in theatre, being a founding member of the Ottawa Little Theatre and the first female president of the Canadian Authors Association, a position she held for three terms.
Macbeth was born Madge Hamilton Lyons in Philadelphia, to Bessie Maffitt and Hymen Hart Lyons, on November 6, 1878. As a child, she produced plays and edited her own newspapers. She may have been influenced by her grandmother, Louisa Hart Maffitt, who was one of the first professional American press women and a suffragist.
After the family settled in Baltimore, Madge Lyons was sent to Hellmuth College in London, Ontario, for her education. In her memoir Boulevard Career, she recalled that Hellmuth in the 1890s did not teach Canadian literature and that its curriculum centred on the classics. After completing her schooling, she performed as a mandolinist and vaudeville actress for a few years before marrying Charles Macbeth in 1901.
The couple first moved to Detroit, and then settled in Ottawa. Macbeth instantly loved Ottawa. In her writings, she stated that Ottawa “provided a means of satisfying my in-born and unquenchable love of people.” This is certainly true. She became friends with many of the leading lights of Ottawa, including the photographer Yousuf Karsh and Mayor Charlotte Whitton.
Disaster struck around 1908. Macbeth’s husband caught tuberculosis and later died, her young son became ill, and her mother lost all her money. Writing was one of the few professional careers open to women at the time. As she recounted in an interview with Maclean’s: “I began to write…with the deluded idea that it was something I could do at home. Long since I have learned that it is just the place where one can’t write in peace.” At the time, the Canadian market for writing was small. Editors were looking for American or British writers, and in many instances Canadians were confined to advertisements or second runs.
Macbeth began with short pieces in magazines, and had a few early successes with her novels The Changeling (1909), and The Winning Game (1910). This was followed by a dry spell. A helpful mentor at this time was Marjorie MacMurchy, one of the earliest press women in Canada. MacMurchy suggested Macbeth try getting interviews with members of Parliament, because magazines were more interested in public officials than in fiction.
Her luck returned. A Canadian editor accepted a piece she had written, and soon other work followed. Macbeth wrote anything she could get her hands on: advertisements, brochures for the Canadian Pacific Railway, serials, novels, travel books, plays, radio dramas, propaganda (during World War II), newspaper articles, and columns. She wrote under her own name and various pseudonyms, both male and female. Her writing style and subject matter changed from book to book, but most of her pieces were suffused with a strain of humour or satire, and her main characters were usually women. She wrote about marriage, sex, travel, adventure, religion, and political intrigue. Later in her career, she travelled extensively, usually alone, for lecture series or for material to turn into more books.
Many of her novels focussed on the middle and upper classes. In fact, popular political satire novels, like The Kinder Bees (1935) and The Land of Afternoon (1924), were based on her knowledge of upper-class society in Ottawa. Both were written under the closely guarded pseudonym of “Gilbert Knox.” One of her most popular novels was Shackles (1926), which highlighted first-wave feminist thinking of the time. The novel is the story of Naomi Lennox, a middle-class woman fighting for respect as a writer and for freedom within her church and marriage. The book was highly praised by some and condemned by others for its portrayal of sex in marriage.
Macbeth’s articles discussed similar themes as well as showcased women in the arts, business, education, and suffrage. One article entitled “How much sex should be put into novels?” was published in 1947. In it, Macbeth argued that authors were reporters describing the world around them. She was critical of authors using too much sex in their books, but argued that ignoring it completely was also a disservice to reality and literature. One exchange with a reformer went like this: “Why don’t you authors write about nice things?” He complained. … “Do you enjoy uplift books?” I shot at him, “Or do you want them published for the other fellow?”
Throughout her career, Macbeth was deeply involved with authors’ associations and in theatre. Not only was she the first female president of the Canadian Authors Association, but she held the position for three terms, a record at the time. She used the position to promote Canadian literature and continually supported younger writers. As well, her interest in theatre led to the founding of the Ottawa Drama League, later the Ottawa Little Theatre. Her stated goal with this project was to “wean children from cheap movies, to give them a knowledge and love of good dramatic literature.” Macbeth pestered MPs for support until the project came to fruition. It is now one of the oldest theatre companies in Canada.
Macbeth’s work was very progressive, but elements of her writing show her Victorian upbringing. While her subject matter was enlightened, her books tended to fit into the conventions of the time. She supported fledging writers and was proud of supporting herself and creating space for other women to do the same. At the same time, she wrote articles arguing that women had forgotten their domestic responsibilities, and called spinsterhood “a half baked life.” She wrote as a member of her class, and some of her language would not be used today. These contradictions are symbolic of her long career and the changes that took place in society from her Victorian upbringing to her death in the 1960s. Boulevard Career ends with a discussion of how much society, and Ottawa in particular, had changed over her career, especially for women. Her writing and her life were part of this change, half in the future and half in the past.
Macbeth donated her papers to the National Archives in 1958. The fonds includes manuscripts of many of her novels, copyright information, and correspondence on a number of topics, including Macbeth’s lecture series, her involvement with the Ottawa Drama League, and her work with the Canadian Authors Association. The fonds also comprises diaries, scrapbooks, and a large collection of photos of Macbeth over her life. These photos show her dramatic side and her love of the theatre. The fonds gives us insight into her long career and ensures that her work will be remembered.
- Flickr album
- Madge Macbeth Fonds
- Boulevard Career
- Madge Macbeth Won Success As A Writer By “Cruel, Heart-Breaking Stuggle”
- The Life And Times Of A Literary Chameleon: Madge Hamilton Lyons Macbeth
Vasanthi Pendakur is a project manager in the Online Content team at Library and Archives Canada.