"The Silent Flag in the New Fallen Snow": Sara Jeannette Duncan and the Legacy of the South African War

By Webb, Peter | Journal of Canadian Studies, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

"The Silent Flag in the New Fallen Snow": Sara Jeannette Duncan and the Legacy of the South African War


Webb, Peter, Journal of Canadian Studies


The South African War (1899-1902) was the largest war involving Canadian soldiers between Confederation and the First World War. It ignited controversies in Canada that echoed throughout the twentieth century. The war is integral to Sara Jeannette Duncan's The Imperialist (1904) and Cousin Cinderella (1908), two of only a few Canadian novels to depict the war's political and cultural impact on Canada. Although Duncan's novels are typically read as works of late-Victorian social realism, this essay argues that the novels, published in the wake of the South African War, are also quintessential postwar novels concerning ideology and conflict in the nascent twentieth century.

La Guerre d'Afrique du Sud (1899-1902) est la plus grosse guerre à laquelle ont participé les soldats canathens entre la Confédération et la Première Guerre mondiale. Elle a suscité des controverses au Canada qui ont été ressenties pendant tout le vingtième siècle. La guerre est une part intégrale des oeuvres de Sara Jeannette Duncan intitulées The Imperialist (1904) et Cousin Cinderella (1908), deux romans parmi le nombre restreint de romans canathens qui traitent de l'impact politique et culturel de la guerre sur le Canada. Bien que les romans de Mme Duncan soient typiquement perçus comme des oeuvres caractéristiques du réalisme social de la fin de la période victorienne, le présent article avance que ces romans, publiés à la suite de la Guerre d'Afrique du Sud, sont en fait des romans d'après-guerre traitant des idéologies et des conflits du nouveau siècle.

As the fever of empire rose, so did serious doubts about its methods and aims. Hence the Boer War became a battlefield not only of opposing armies, but also of conflicting ideas on empire. (Van Wyk Smith 1978, 36)

The South African War of 1899-1902, in which 7,368 Canadian soldiers served, 270 of them fatally, was Canada's largest military initiative during the nearly half-century between Confederation and the First World War. It involved more soldiers and resources than either the Fenian Raids of 1866-71 or the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, with a death toll only slightly less than that of the Korean War of 1950-53. Imperial in origin, the war in South Africa between British troops, supported by Canadians, and Boer nationalists fuelled debates in Canada over parliamentary process and the structure and organization of the Canadian military, and intensified the public and political debate about Canada's place in the British Empire: "Until overshadowed by the Great War (1914-18)," historian Carman Miller argues, "for many Canadians the South African War was the most significant public event of the twentieth century" (1993, xi).

Published in 1904, Sara Jeannette Duncan's The Imperialist is one of the few Canadian novels of the postwar period to offer a vivid depiction of the political impact and aftermath of the South African War. Traditionally read as a lateVictorian work of social realism about life in a typical small Ontario town, it can also read as one of the first modern Canadian novels to anticipate the war-torn world of the twentieth century, an approach that gains impetus through analysis of its South African War references and postwar context. Attention to this subtext reveals a dark thread of ambivalence - about imperialism, national identity, politics, and war - that underlies the lighter social fabric of the novel. This ambivalence can be traced through the main character, the young lawyer and political hopeful Lome Murchison, as his patriotic evocation of the Battle of Paardeberg during an Ontario by-election thrills his listeners while contributing to his political downfall. Duncan's later novel, Cousin Cinderella, published in 1908, recalls the war through one of its main characters, Graham Trent, a Canadian veteran and decorated hero of the South African War, whose wartime experiences are tempered by his own reticence and the indifference of British society to Canada's role in the war. …

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