An Emily Carr Story

By David Helme

Here is reminiscence by a former James Bay resident who was invited to tea by Emily Carr. The story takes place in 1925 when the author, Cyril Chave, was 12 and living at 235 Government Street with his parents and younger sister. Carr was living a block away at “Hill House” on Simcoe Street. The action in the story begins on Government Street and ends at Hill House. The story shows Carr taking on a conventional role (teacher/civilizer/facilitator), and playing an active part in the life of the community. In “Miss Emily Carr As Civilizer,” Cyril pays homage to the famous writer and painter.

MISS EMILY CARR AS CIVILIZER*

by Cyril Scowcroft Chave 

  Painting by Marion Elder - photo by Elodie Adams

Painting by Marion Elder - photo by Elodie Adams

In the middle of the decade 1920-1930, Miss Emily Carr was in the habit of walking from her home on Simcoe Street near Beacon Hill Park and on into the city of Victoria. Dressed neatly in old-fashioned ankle-length clothes, she would make her rather slow and stately way down Government Street. Early adolescent boys were vastly amused by the spectacle, particularly because she was usually accompanied by a scampering monkey on a lead and a trio of very small and yappy dogs also on leashes.

Now it so happened that I lived in a home on her line of march and that also I was a member of a group of four "inseparables", or should I say "insufferable", who infested the neighbourhood. If we had been asked at that time any questions about our collective sense of humour, we would have replied that we were tops among the local jokers. Good taste in our pranks had not been noted by any of our older friends and certainly not by our parents.

On one fateful day as we were returning from school, we met Emily, the monkey, and the dogs as they paraded down Government Street.  The monkey was chirruping and jumping and the dogs were scrambling noisily and tangling their leashes. Miss Emily Carr was having quite a time!

It was too much for a group of twelve-year-old boys. As if by some prearranged signal, each according to his nature became wildly creative. One began to compete with the monkey in screeching and belly-scratching, another with tongue extended started scampering about like a dog in hot weather, and still another with leg lifted began imitating peeing against boulevard trees. All of us were barking, yowling, and engaging in other highly exaggerated antics. In the mêlée, Emily stood nobly aloof, her face quite impassive.

Even as we were finishing our impromptu drama, we were taking subconscious note of her poise, and starting to feel the first twinges of guilt. The entire action had taken barely a minute. Then we ran away whooping with glee, quite secure in our belief that we were total strangers to her.

We were wrong. Hardly had we disappeared than she must have decided on a counter-attack. She had one important weapon in her arsenal - a lifelong knowledge of the small Beacon Hill neighbourhood inhabited by both actors and their victim. From the top floor of her two-storey home, Hill House at the top of Simcoe Street, she could easily see all four of our homes, all within a two-hundred-yard radius. Our sense of security was short-lived and unbelievably naive. All she needed was her own bright mind and her telephone.

Within a few days, the Royal Mail deposited letters at the homes of the four smarties. My parents decided that the mature female handwriting on the envelope meant that it should be opened in their presence. Inside there was a short, courteous invitation. It is engraved on my memory:

Miss Emily Carr would be please
if Master Cyril Chave
would take tea with her
at four o'clock next Sunday afternoon
at Hill House on Simcoe Street.

Then began the worming out of possible reasons as to why "a lady like Miss Carr would ever want to invite a scruffy teenager like you to have tea with her." That was my father's wondering comment. Phone calls among the parents elicited that I was only one of four honoured recipients. In the four affected homes, mothers' venting of outrage accompanied the halting half-truths offered to explain these odd invitations. All mothers wanted to know who had pretended to pee against the trees!

Scrubbed, admonished, and very apprehensive, on the due day we climbed the front steps to Emily Carr's home and rang the bell. A most gracious and smiling hostess welcomed us, shook our hands, called us "Gentlemen" (for the first time in our lives) and told us, "How good  of you to give up part of Sunday afternoon to have tea with me."

  Photo by Barry Behnke

Photo by Barry Behnke

To our considerable relief, we could see no signs of the monkey or of the dogs, although from time to time we thought we could hear the monkey engaging in simian prattle in a distant room. At no time while we were enjoying our tea was any reference made by either hostess or guests to the absent pets or to the vulgar dramatic offering on Government Street. Indeed, the very silence on that subject served to underscore the contrast between the bad manners on the street and the gentle manners of those at the tea-party.

Through an agonizing hour we tried to make gentlemanly small-talk, balance teacups, and eat caraway-seed cake, all the while struggling desperately not to knock paintings off the walls with our knees. Yes, with our knees! At that time in her life, Emily had sold very few of her many paintings which were quite literally hanging on her living-room and hallway walls from ceiling to floor. Occasionally we would venture learned comments of the "What lovely trees you paint, Miss Carr" variety. It must have cost her some emotional pain to thank each of us in turn for our "nice comments."

We gentlemen finally departed and even remembered to say our thank-you's to a hostess who quite forgivingly gave us a crinkly smile as she closed her door. Thereafter, whenever we passed her on her journeys there was a delightful exchange of happy civilities.

Cyril, a graduate of the University of British Columbia, made his home in Kerrisdale, a neighbourhood in Vancouver. He was the Head of the English department at Prince of Wales High School between 1947 and 1975. In retirement he enjoyed gardening and travelling in Asia. He was a pioneer in the importing of koi from Japan. He died in 1999.

*“Emily Car As Civilizer” was published in the Vancouver Sun (March 20, 1993) under the title, “Taking Tea with Emily.” “Emily Carr As Civilizer” was obtained from Cyril’s daughter, Rosalind Sanderson, and is used with permission.

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