Denham Intro: CW 1-2, Frye-Kemp Correspondence

Preface and Introduction to the Frye–Kemp Correspondence

Robert D. Denham

[from The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1932–1939. Ed. Robert D. Denham. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996. Collected Works of Northrop Frye, 1–2]


The correspondence collected here contains 266 letters, cards, and telegrams that passed between Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp from the winter of 1931–32 until 17 June 1939. John Ayre, Frye’s biographer, knew of the existence of Kemp’s letters to Frye, but after Frye’s death Jane Widdicombe, the executrix of the Frye Estate, had not been able to locate them among the papers at the Fryes’ Clifton Road home. During the summer of 1992 I called Frye’s second wife, Elizabeth, to see if she would permit me to examine the papers in the attic. She graciously consented, but when shortly after that I learned that she was not well, I decided instead to contact Ian Morrison, her son-in-law, who agreed to look through the papers in the attic. Within several days he delivered to me an attaché case and several dusty shopping bags filled with files, photographs, sketch books, postcards, newspaper clippings, and other miscellaneous documents. Rummaging through this material, I was almost ready to conclude that Kemp’s letters to Frye had not been preserved, but at the bottom of the last shopping bag I finally uncovered them. The letters are now a part of the Northrop Frye Papers at the Victoria University Library.

The division of the letters into six sections follows the six occasions during the course of the correspondence when Frye and Kemp were separated for extended periods. Even though several letters are missing, the present volumes contain all that I have been able to find, and reproduce all of the letters in their entirety. This means that the occasional uncomplimentary references to classmates, friends, and acquaintances who are still living have not been deleted. Kemp, realizing the importance of Frye’s letters to her, had carefully preserved them, and she had held on to her own letters for almost fifty years. Before handing over Frye’s letters to John Ayre, she had clipped the envelopes to them and attached brief notes, describing the contents and occasionally noting sensitive material. Not wanting to hurt or embarrass anyone still alive, she was clearly concerned that Ayre use good judgment in quoting from the letters. But that was more than a dozen years ago (Helen Frye died in 1986), and her effort to safeguard the letters suggests that she knew they would eventually be published. My decision not to expurgate passages here and there has been guided also by the fact that the letters, which are in the Special Collections of the Victoria University Library, are unrestricted and may be examined by anyone.

In one of her letters from England in 1935, Kemp reports on a visit to Carlyle’s house, where she saw, among other memorabilia, “endless letters, in a beautiful hand, all set out for the curious to read.” “Among them,” she says, “were three notes he had written to his wife with Christmas and birthday gifts, such tender intimate notes they were. I felt ashamed to be reading them, for they were never meant to be read by idle passers-by. And even if I did forget who I was for the moment and imagined that I was Jane Carlyle—I looked at her picture on the wall and I was indignant. What right had I to intrude, no matter how sympathetically, into a relationship which was theirs alone? No matter if she herself did write impulsively to half her friends when she was annoyed, and berate him soundly. She was a clever, proud woman, and her portrait was as mute and unperturbed as most of the English I have not met lately. At least all these people could come, but she looked over their heads.” The question Kemp asks of Thomas and Jane Carlyle we need to ask about her own relationship with Frye: what right have we to intrude, no matter how sympathetically, into a relationship that was theirs alone? Frye gave Michael Dolzani and me permission to publish his correspondence, and that permission contained no restrictions or exclusions; however, as the permission was not granted until 1990, four years after Helen Frye had died, I have no way of knowing for certain what disposition she would have wanted for her own letters, which she was reluctant to turn over to John Ayre. She was, of course, keenly aware that Frye was a world-renowned figure, and I rather suspect that that awareness guided her decision not to destroy or restrict her letters. Although I found her half of the correspondence dumped in the bottom of a shopping bag, it was clear that she had at one time gone through her letters, arranging them in chronological sequence and, where there were envelopes, clipping these to the letters. She did this, I believe, in the interest of preservation and with the knowledge that what began in privacy would someday become public. If I am wrong about this, then Helen Frye, like the unperturbed portrait of Jane Carlyle, will doubtless look over our heads. In any case, the letters are published not for “the idle passers-by” but for those who are interested in the early years of a relationship between two extraordinary people.

Kemp had some training as a calligrapher, and her letters are generally, like those of the Carlyles, “in a beautiful hand.” Frye’s scrawl, in contrast, is difficult to read. “You idiot,” complains Kemp in a letter from 1934, “your writing has put my eyes out of gear for the time being”: trying to decipher Frye’s hieroglyphics does breed that kind of reaction. There are, however, sixteen letters Frye wrote to Kemp during the 1934–35 academic year that are typed, as are portions of two of her letters (22 October and 21 November 1938).

My aim has been to provide an accessible text, so I have silently emended the manuscript in a few places where the sense requires it, and have corrected misspellings, most of which are names of people. I have not, however, regularized the differences between British/Canadian and American spellings; thus the text includes both “colour” and “color,” “centre” and “center,” and so on. I have not supplied missing diacritical marks, regularized compounds such as “to-day” and “today,” or, when hyphens are missing from compound modifiers, added them in accordance with current practice. Both correspondents are inconsistent in their placement of commas and periods in conjunction with quotation marks: I have regularized this by following the usual North American practice. I have also standardized the use of the apostrophe with possessives, except when such forms appear in addresses and headings, which have been reproduced as they appear in the letters and on the envelopes. Otherwise, I have not tried to make the punctuation agree with current conventions, except to add an occasional mark to prevent misreading.

All editorial additions are enclosed within square brackets. These include surnames where clarity of reference is called for, and, in the case of persons with the same surname, given names have been added. Generally this practice has been followed only for the first appearance of names in a given letter. Also within brackets are occasional explanations of manuscript blots or other irregularities and of doubtful readings. Both Frye and Kemp frequently give the date and return address for their letters, and when they do not, this information is often available from postmarks or envelope addresses. All of this information is reproduced in roman script at the beginning of the letters and in the headnotes as it appears in the letters themselves or on the envelopes. When such information is missing, I have in most cases been able to infer the missing date and return address from internal evidence; these inferences are italicized in square brackets. Uncertain inferences are followed by a question mark. When the correspondents occasionally use square brackets, I have replaced these with braces: { }. Underlined words and phrases in the text of the letters have been italicized.

For some readers a great deal of the information contained in the notes to the letters will be commonplace; others, no doubt, will find the notes too bulky. But the annotations have been prepared with the widest possible readership in mind, and those who prefer to read the letters as a more or less continuous narrative can, of course, simply ignore the notes. More than thirteen hundred people, including writers, musicians, artists, and political figures, are mentioned in the letters. These people are not identified in the notes, but the appendix, which contains brief biographies of almost eight hundred of Frye and Kemp’s contemporaries, some of whom appear scores of times, is intended to help readers keep track of the cast of characters. References to material in the Northrop Frye Papers, including both the Northrop Frye and the Helen Frye Fonds, give the year of accession, followed by the box and file number, as in “1991, box 3, file 2.” The letters themselves are in the Helen Frye Fonds (HFF), 1991.


The letters between Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp in the 1930s are a remarkable body of correspondence. The narrative of their early relationship is itself a compelling one, reading much like an epistolary novel. The story they tell is a romance: two people fall in love, want to get married, and are confronted with obstacles blocking their path, including lack of money and the education they both need to advance their careers. The latter is most often what keeps them apart. The primary obstacle to be overcome—their separation from each other—is, of course, the very ground for letter-writing in the first place. We follow them for seven years through the twists and turns of their early life, and what emerges, in Frye’s case, is a portrait of a critic as a young man. But Kemp, about whom we have known less, is a compelling figure in her own right, and the letters bring her portrait as a young woman into much sharper focus. The story clearly has two centres of interest, and what we learn about both are the conventions of love stories: dreams and nightmares, desires and anxieties, triumphs and tragedies. But the story, as one might expect, is much more than a love story. The letters disclose, for one thing, the seeds of Frye’s talent as a writer, illustrating that both the matter and the manner of his large body of work had begun to take shape when he vas only nineteen. Frye was a prodigy, but Kemp had a very keen mind as well, along with a gift for expressing herself, and the correspondence would clearly have much less appeal were it not for the substantial amount of space they devote to exploring ideas—discussions of books, music, religion, politics, education, and a host of other topics.

But the Frye–Kemp narrative is much larger than the story of two individuals. As the register of names in the index reveals, it has a very large supporting cast. Some play central roles, while others make only cameo appearances, but altogether more than eight hundred friends, colleagues, relatives, and acquaintances figure in the story. The letters, therefore, always move out into other communities. There is the community of Victoria College, and within it members of the class of 1933, an extraordinarily tight-knit group in the 1930s, and it remains so, for those who are still alive. With only the evidence of these letters, one could write a fairly full account of Victoria and Emmanuel Colleges in the 1930s. There are the art and music communities of Toronto, in which both correspondents move quite freely. There is the community in and around Stone, a farming village in southwestern Saskatchewan, and Frye’s reports from that desolate area contain as good a social history of the summer of 1934 as we are likely to get. There is the community of Frye’s home town, Moncton, New Brunswick; the community of Kemp’s neighbourhood on Fulton Avenue in Toronto; and the summer community of Gordon Bay on Lake Joseph, Ontario. The worlds of Helen Kemp and Northrop Frye continually expand, and after seven years we have travelled with them to Chicago and Ottawa, to Montreal and New York, to London and Oxford, to Paris and Brussels, to Rome and Florence. And we have seen through their eyes the early years of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the struggles of the United Church of Canada, the activities of the Student Christian Movement, the appeal of Communism, the rise of Fascism, and the beginnings of art education in the galleries of Canada.

The centre of this expanding universe—the place Kemp and Frye always come home to—is Victoria College. The Frye-Kemp relationship begins at a Victoria College Music Club performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers in February 1931, when they were second-year students at Victoria. Kemp was the accompanist for this production, and Frye assisted with the lighting. They perhaps saw each other during the summer of 1931, when Frye had a job at the Central Reference Library in Toronto, but it was not until the following year that their romance began in earnest. In one of her letters from 1937, written when Frye was in Rome after his first year at Oxford, Kemp reminisces about his first visit to her home: “I kept counting back to see how long ago it was that you first came to see us and I gave you a raw carrot to eat. It is six years ago, and I’m always a little amazed at how strong-minded I was, my poor dear, you hadn’t much chance, did you? I remember being sorry for you being so far from home, then scared to ask you to come to tea, then amazed that I had been so bold, and pleased when you were evidently shy and glad to come, and I was vaguely irritated and embarrassed (how many r’s) when you made fun of me for playing Goossens, and perplexed at having asked George [her former boyfriend] when I was obviously more interested in what you would do next. Six years. I love you very much and I’d like to tell you so here, to-night, now.”

The first letters between Kemp and Frye that we have come from the winter of their third year at Victoria, and during the summer of 1932—before they both returned to Victoria for their final year—they began an extensive correspondence that lasted until June 1939, writing to each other whenever they were apart. There were five other separations: during the summer of 1933, when Kemp was in Toronto again and Frye was visiting his sister Vera in Chicago and taking in the World’s Fair; during the summer of 1934, when Frye was a student minister in Saskatchewan, riding the circuit among three small parishes in the parched wheat fields of the plains, and Kemp was in Ottawa on a scholarship at the National Gallery; during the school year 1934–35, when Kemp was studying art history at the Courtauld Institute in London and Frye was at Emmanuel College; and for the academic years 1936–37 and 1938–39, when Frye was at Merton College, Oxford, and Kemp was in Toronto, serving as a don at Victoria and working at the Art Gallery of Toronto. They were married during the course of this correspondence, on 24 August 1937.

John Ayre, Frye’s biographer, had access to Frye’s letters to Kemp, and he quotes from more than half of them.[1] Ayre knew of the existence of Kemp’s own letters to Frye, but she withheld them from him, and they did not come to light until 1992. Of the correspondence that passed between Kemp and Frye from 1932 to 1939, 255 letters, 7 telegrams, and 4 postcards are extant. Of these, 138 are from Frye and 128 from Kemp. Ayre’s Northrop Frye: A Biography devotes ninety pages to the story of Frye’s life from 1932 to 1939. Less is known about Kemp during these years, but much of what we now know emerges from the letters collected here. Ayre’s biography naturally covers those gaps in the letters when Frye and Kemp are together in Toronto, and during these periods only an occasional letter passes between them.

Kemp was born on 6 October 1910, on Montrose Avenue in Toronto, the daughter of Stanley H.F. Kemp, a Victoria College alumnus and a commercial artist, and Gertrude Maidement Kemp. Helen was the oldest of four children. Her brother Roy graduated from Victoria College with a degree in history in 1938, and spent most of his adult life as a photographer in New York City. Marion, the third child, left Toronto for South Africa when she was twenty to marry another Torontonian, Ernie Harrison, who had found work there. Harold, Kemp’s younger brother, also attended Victoria, but he left college after one year to enlist in the RCAF and was killed in a bombing raid over Germany in 1944.

Before she enrolled at Victoria College, Kemp had attended the Normal Model School in Toronto, the Earl Kitchener Public School, and Riverdale Collegiate Institute. During her first year at Riverdale, where she received the highest standing in the first eight forms, she took part in the Saturday morning classes at the Ontario College of Art. She then studied at the Danard and Hambourg Conservatories of Music, graduating with honours and receiving the AHCM in 1929. Uncertain as to whether she should pursue specialized study in music, Kemp enrolled in the three-year pass course at Victoria in the fall of 1929, the same year Frye entered. After repeating a year’s work (she failed her course in 1931), she graduated in 1933 with second-class honours in the general pass course, along with Frye, who was in the four-year honour course.

The letters collected here open a window on the formative years of a young man who became one of the outstanding critical and creative minds of the twentieth century, and they reveal an articulate young woman whose self-awareness, idealism, and pragmatic good sense enabled her to establish her own place in the often turbulent 1930s. The introductory headnotes to each of the six sections outline many of the key episodes in their life together and provide a sample of the issues that engaged them. One of these issues is letter-writing itself. “Wandering is the secret of successful letter-writing,” Frye says in one of his first letters. “By all means, however, let me have all of your wanderings, logical and illogical.” And Kemp says in a letter from August 1933, “My letters to you will look like a diary very probably, for I want you to know what is happening to me—it is one way of amusing myself, telling you what is happening to me. I may make good natured fun of your straw hat, or the way you plant your feet, or some of your small-boy tricks that make me gasp when I recall that you are the age of my brother’s friends—but underneath all that is the fundamental trust in you. You know that.” “You’ll get a flood of letters from me,” Frye writes from the mission field, “some passionate, some bored and bothered, some mere calf-bawling and self-pity, some purely sexual—I can feel the need for you as a general Slough of Despond fairly obviously. Take them all, but not seriously. I don’t want to distress you.” Both correspondents occasionally reprove each other about the letters they have received. “Your letter smells of the cloister a bit too much,” writes Kemp, “and it rather set me off.” And Frye now and then chides Kemp, saying that her letters are “too selfish” or “a little hard on the nerves.”

Paragraph after paragraph is filled with talk about letters. At one point Kemp speaks of the difference between writing letters and keeping a diary: “A nurse from Montreal who is going as companion to a sick friend just poked her head in and wants to know what I am doing. Writing letters? Oh yes, she had a lot to do too. Didn’t I just hate writing letters? I said no, I really didn’t dislike writing letters. {Not to you.} She said a friend gave her a diary and wants a faithful account of her travels written from day to day. I was reminded of Mark Twain and of Jack Oughton asking me if I were keeping a diary. I said no, that writing letters would have to serve. Writing a diary would be quite interesting to read, I suppose, later on. But I have a feeling that for me it would be like going behind a barn and talking to myself. I like to talk to you, because then I feel that I am sharing something with you as I want to do always. But if it is just for myself—there is nothing to that.” Frye also understands letter-writing as a form of dialogue: it is not just a record of what has transpired but a conversation. As Kemp and Frye attempt to overcome the space of separation, their dialogue is motivated by a number of final causes. But the reasons for writing often become formal causes as well: correspondence as a subject is repeatedly foregrounded, so that the letters are frequently self-reflexive.

Both Kemp and Frye speak of the anxieties caused by delayed correspondence. Both are apologetic when they go for more than a week or so without writing. Both are jubilant when letters do arrive. Both express regrets when their letters are especially dismal or carping or brief. Both are impatient with the postal service: letters from Oxford to Toronto sometimes take as long as twenty days, and keeping track of when mail is received and posted in southwestern Saskatchewan, where the farmers are part of the delivery service, is a regular chore during Frye’s circuit-riding summer: “I am beginning to get a bit more cheerful now, sweetheart, particularly since your last letter came. I got over to Stone last Thursday, and found letters from mother and from Ida [Clare]. Next day the letter from you should have come, but it didn’t: I picked it up at [Walter] Meyer’s on Saturday, just after I had dashed off the beginnings of a note to you, which you will have long before this letter gets [to] you. I’m over at Stonepile again, and this letter will probably go out on Saturday again: I managed to get last week’s letter off by Wednesday, as the George Mackintoshes were going into town. I got a letter from Jean along with yours, so it appears that the outside world is taking a bit of interest in me after all. It doesn’t take long for a letter to get here, but it takes a while for me to get my hands on it.” The tracking down of letters becomes a minor preoccupation for both Frye and Kemp throughout the course of the correspondence.

Both writers reread the letters they have received. “If I had read my Bible as often in the last two days as I had read your letter,” Frye says in May of 1934, “I’d have Isaiah finished at least. It was a good deal of a life-saver, as you may have guessed from the tone of my preceding letters.” Two weeks later he remarks, “I love your letters so. I suppose I have read them each a dozen times.” And Kemp: “Of course I read all your letters, over and over again. Especially when I can’t just imagine what you are like.” Sometimes the letters fail to summon Frye’s image: “I was as homesick as the dickens last week for some four days, for no very good reason, but that passed too. I read your letters to see whether I could feel that I knew you, and I didn’t, and I dissolved in total gloom. Things get pretty bad when I can’t even imagine you.” Kemp even exhumes letters written four years before: “I just pulled out one of your letters written in July 1932. It rather gave me a start, the working in and out of your very logical brain in response to my affectionate advances. Poor Norrie! I wish you were here to let me bewilder you again. Oh hell, I can’t write to you to-night. I’m so tired I can hardly hold a pen. I had better leave off.” Wish-fulfilments appear everywhere in the letters. Frye writes in1939, “Any one of your letters can give me a choking feeling that interferes with a Cinzano, but this one seemed to live and breathe you so much that the bottom just dropped out of Paris, and there was I, homesick and miserable. I can’t let myself get that way, though, and I don’t as a rule. You’re so sweet you must be all a dream. Often you are.” Kemp even reports a frightening dream in which one of Frye’s letters is momentarily exposed: “I woke up with a start lately with a nightmare in which I thought I had given one of your last letters to an utter stranger to read, and how I snatched it back when I remembered what you had said in it.”

Both Kemp and Frye are always, quite naturally, eager to hear from each other, yet at the same time they realize what an imperfect tool letter-writing is. In a letter from May 1934 Kemp says, “I am sorry to have written in jerks but it seems so hard to write fast enough. I find letters more unsatisfactory than I ever could have imagined—by way of trying to talk to you. It all seems so hanged one-sided—all this deferred reply, long-distance sort of thing. And I can’t tell you tonight how I love you because I want to show you and have you read me a story and put me to bed. And there it is.” Or again: “This having to write everything is an awful nuisance.” Or still again: “It is quite a good idea not to write to me every other day as Art [Cragg] does to Florence [Clare]. Because letter-writing is often a dissipation of energy.” Frye similarly laments the limitations of correspondence, seeing it as a form of transference and sublimation: “I am quite well aware of the fact—was as soon as the summer began—that I write extraordinarily bad letters to you and very infrequent ones. The reason is, I think, that the man who can pour out reams of love letters is far more in love with himself than with his correspondent. He devotes his energy to utterance, or self-expression, and transfers his affection from the lady to the paper. Denied the supreme satisfaction of bed-sheets, he sublimates himself in letter-sheets. I carried on this literary flirtation with you some years ago, in the first summer I was home and we corresponded. But since I have grown to love you so immeasurably more than I did then, or could then, the ideal lady at the other end of the postal service has become a part of myself, and when I write I am painfully conscious only of your absence. Hence these awkward, stammering, whining, almost illiterate letters.”

Frye gives fairly extensive accounts of his sightseeing travels: “Your letters,” Kemp tells him, “sound like an intelligently conducted travel tour.” She responds to his accounts of the Chicago World’s Fair by saying, “I am enjoying things by proxy.” But Kemp worries that her own travelogues are less replete with details. “I’m afraid I don’t tell you much in my letters,” she writes from Rome. “I might just as well be at home for all the travel descriptions I produce, but I hope you don’t mind. I can’t get down to describing sunset from the Ponte Vecchio, somehow. I seem to be getting more tongue-tied than ever, and I can’t chatter brightly about the spirit of Florence. A spirit or a mood is something one lives through, but how can I explain it afterwards?”

The most common refrain throughout is “I love you,” but the more extended declarations of love, though conventional, are seldom trite, and the variety of ways Kemp and Frye discover to express their affection without degenerating into cheap sentiment is uncommon, especially for people as young as they. Still, they sometimes fail. Two weeks after he has turned twenty, Frye writes, “Don’t you see, darling? I can’t write you a sustained love letter, because when I try—and I have tried—the result sounds like a Chopin nocturne scored for brass.” The reaction to letters is sometimes a source of bafflement: “I have still to understand,” says Frye, “what it could have been about my letter that drove you forth into the night like the hero of a Strindberg play, unless it was a purely physical reaction from a long and exasperating period of concentration.” More than once Frye tells Kemp not to worry if she cannot decipher his scrawl, for he has said nothing of importance. In a letter from January 1935, he says, “I could kick myself for writing you such infernal rubbish. Please excuse it, and remember next time that you have to allow for the fact that my state of feelings would be described far more fully and emphatically to you than to anyone else, so that my making so much fuss doesn’t mean what it would to an outsider.”

The correspondence is certainly ample (as Kemp says, “I never seem to be able to stop with a note when it comes to talking to you”), but it is still only part of a much larger network of letter-writing: both Kemp and Frye frequently refer to letters to and from other correspondents—family, colleagues, employers, friends, classmates, and relatives. In a letter of January 1935 Kemp reveals that she has “fifteen letters to write to-day.” “I love to get letters,” she adds, “but the pleasure brings also the need of answering them, and I have not learned lo spare myself—I can’t just dash off a note and call it a letter. But I shall try this time—unfortunately I started off with one to the family, and now here you are, and I can never be brief about either one of you.” Although Kemp chides Frye for not writing to his Victoria College superiors, he nevertheless maintains a substantial correspondence with others. Sometimes he includes information he wants to reach Kemp in his letters to others. After he has completed his first exams at Oxford, he tells her that he has filled one of his letters to her friend Barbara Sturgis “with the sort of Oxford gossip that doesn’t get into my letters to you, on the principle that she’ll come around and read it to you.” Both correspondents, moreover, serve as intermediaries, delivering messages to others.

During the year she is in England, Kemp carries on an extensive correspondence with her father, S.H.F. Kemp, who writes her almost every week. Although her letters to him have not been preserved, in his very extensive letters to her he himself occasionally comments on the art of letter-writing. Responding to her early messages from London, he says, “You write a splendid letter, Kemp. You have the knack, seeming to know just what we want to hear. Keep that up girl, it is a fine start”; and six months later he repeats the compliment: “You write just the kind of human documents I want.” He recognizes something uncommon in Frye’s letters and urges her to save them, even though he is clearly not persuaded that Frye is the right person for her. “Apart from the illegible character of his handwriting, [Frye’s] letters are so away and beyond the ordinary that they are worthy of keeping for the rest of your life. The fact that they are so hard to read in the longhand in which they were written would be far effectual enough against perusal by the ordinary busybody.”[2]

Then there are those occasions in the letters that focus on the published correspondence of others. Laurence Housman’s edition of War Letters of Fallen Englishmen moves Kemp to meditate on hope and friendship, and she wonders whether the current generation “would write with the same faith and sincerity—when the youngsters with brains are busy debunking and writing flashy criticisms of the work of others. A generation is growing now which must feel that there is no place for it in the world. To the serious-minded this is ruinous. To the frivolous, equally so, but in a different way.” She is attracted to Marcia Davenport’s biography of Mozart because it is through letters, especially Mozart’s own “voluminous correspondence,” that the characters speak for themselves. And she observes that Julia Cartwright’s biography of Beatrice d’Este gives a good picture of the state of affairs in fifteenth-century Italy because Cartwright has dug into the Sforza correspondence. For his part, Frye says to Kemp, “Your letters are beautifully written and a treat to read, and would be if I were a third party instead of the addressee. Women seem to be able to achieve an absolute command of self-expression denied to the more abstract male. Some women, that is, like Katherine Mansfield and Ellen Terry and Helen Kemp.”

In her letter of 13 May 1935, Kemp, writing from London, says, “My dear, I’ve forgotten when I last wrote to you—it may be a few days or it may be a month ago, but I’ve just had a letter to-day, and one last week and it does feel so luxurious that I’ve spent the last half hour reading eight pages of your last one and laughing more than I’ve done for some months! You sound quite your usual self,—and while I’m not gurgling at your seriousness,—some of your similes were a little too much for the chaste purity of the Adam room at the Courtauld Institute. Some of its ghosts must have scuttled into corners if they were looking over my shoulder. Serves them right anyway, proper old girls, they should keep their noses out of things. Though why they should, I don’t quite know, for I’m curious enough about them, and would feel no misgivings whatever in poking into their affairs, if I thought I was the only one doing it, I suppose. I remember telling you how indecent I thought it was to look at Carlyle’s love notes to his wife.”

The similes Kemp refers to are from Frye’s letter of 3 May 1935, where he says, “I stand more or less paralyzed, wanting badly to commit myself to something, communism, Catholicism, pedantry in any line, and realizing that I can’t; that the only thing I can commit myself to is my religion and my wife, one being in the clouds and the other in Europe. So I rush around squealing, like a pig in a fire, or sit around with large ideas and not doing anything about them, like a eunuch with an erection.” Kemp worries that Frye’s language might be too indecorous for the moral propriety of the other women students at the Courtauld. But her reference to Carlyle’s love letters brings us back to the issue raised in the preface to the present volume: should anyone lay eyes on what Frye wrote to her—or she to him? If so, would Helen Frye have thought differently sixty years later? The publication of these letters is, of course, an implicit answer to these questions. But even Kemp, at age twenty-four, is not altogether certain why she thinks the “proper old girls” at the Courtauld should “keep their noses out of things.” The cause of her uncertainty is curiosity, and I believe she would have granted that our own curiosity is sufficient reason for permitting others to share this seven-year period of the lives of two uncommon people.


Summer of 1932

The first of the Frye–Kemp letters that has been preserved appears to have been written during the winter of 1931–32 when Frye was spending the Christmas holidays at the home of a classmate, Del Martin. Several other letters were exchanged when they were both in Toronto. But the majority of the 1932 correspondence was written between the time that Frye left college on 27 May for his home in Moncton, New Brunswick, and his return to Toronto in mid-September. During this time Kemp was in Toronto at her parents’ home on Fulton Avenue, except for a three-week interlude on Georgian Bay at the summer cottage of a classmate and life-long friend, Jean Elder, and for a visit to the home of her paternal aunt and uncle in Forest, Ontario. Frye spent the summer holiday working at the public library in Moncton, and Kemp also had a library job—at Victoria College. In late August and early September she worked at the Canadian National Exhibition on Toronto’s lakefront, serving soup and hot beans to the fair-goers. Her parents were at their Gordon Bay cottage for much of the summer, so in addition to her library and CNE jobs she kept house at their Fulton Avenue home as well.

As a conservatory student, Kemp showed considerable promise as a musician. One reviewer said of her first public recital, performed in February 1929, that she “played with fire and conviction.”[3] The next month she was featured with the cellist Marcus Adeney in Kitchener, Ontario, sharing the stage with the Kitchener-Waterloo Philharmonic Choir.[4] But, as her letters to Frye make quite clear, she did not forsake her interest in music after enrolling in Victoria the next fall. Frye was also a pianist, and the early letters especially are filled with references to the music they are listening to and practising: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Glinka, Schubert, Gluck, and Brahms. “Thank God for Bach and Mozart, anyway,” says Frye. “They are a sort of common denominator in music,—the two you can’t argue about.” We find them both working their way through Czerny’s piano studies, and Kemp is fond of practising quintets and trios with her brother Roy and her fellow musicians from the Danard Conservatory. There is a great deal of discussion of music as well, and the musical tastes of each come through quite clearly. We also learn what they are reading—from Cervantes to D.H. Lawrence. By this time Frye was already deeply into Blake and zealous in his enthusiasm for Spengler. The Decline of the West, he says to Kemp, is “a book that I am hoping against hope that you will read this summer.”

Before enrolling at Victoria, Kemp had also entertained the idea of specializing in art. This was an interest fostered by her father, who, early in his career, had been an associate of Arthur Lismer and Tom Thomson. Her letters to Frye contain a number of whimsical line-drawings, but even the best of these hardly suggest the genuine talent she had as an illustrator, which is revealed in the sketch-books that have been preserved and in the map she drew of the University of Toronto campus.[5] Although Kemp never pursued drawing as a career, art, especially practical art, remained a central interest throughout her life. When she was a young woman, this interest developed in the direction of art education, and in the letters from the mid-1930s we see the role played by Lismer in launching her career in adult education at the Art Gallery of Toronto.

The correspondence of 1932 reveals that the two young students had developed a genuine affection for each other during the first fifteen months of their relationship, and they are seldom diffident in expressing their sentiments. At the same time it is clear that neither wants to be taken for granted: one of the first things Frye reports when he is back in Moncton is that he has seen his ex-girlfriend, Evelyn Rogers, and Kemp shortly reciprocates, revealing that she has been out with George Clarke, her ex-boyfriend. The former girlfriend and boyfriend, in fact, make rather frequent appearances throughout the correspondence. Frye’s letters from the first summer reveal a young man who feels imprisoned by the provincialism of Moncton, and he is ill and depressed for much of the summer. The focus of his interests, in addition to Kemp, is the social and intellectual life of Victoria College. “I should rather starve in Toronto,” he tells her, “than feed in luxury here.” To maintain contact from his remote outpost he corresponds throughout the summer with his friends—the “chain-gang,” so called because of the round robin “chain” letters they circulate. He is rejuvenated when classmates visit him in Moncton, and he is eager to receive news from Victoria about his course standing. Kemp has her own melancholic spells, but in contrast to Frye she is caught up in a swirl of activity, rubbing elbows with the artists and architects and musicians of Toronto (Marcus Adeney, Harold Chapman, Joyce Hornyansky, Evlyn Howard-Jones, Geoffrey Waddington, Ruby Dennison, Charles Comfort, Reg and Mary Thornhill), playing trios with her brother Roy and his friends, sketching a campus map, hitch-hiking to Lake Joseph, spending the weekend with a friend in Stouffville, ambling through the Todmorden slums at night, serving soup at the Canadian National Exhibition, and trekking to the Art Gallery of Toronto.

Frye is only nineteen when the letters begin, but already at this age he shows a penchant for the clever phrase and the ironic mode, as in his letter of 5 July, where he lampoons a bit of dramatic doggerel he had turned up in the Moncton Public Library. The child is father of the man in other areas as well. In a 1990 notebook, Frye remarked, “Any biography would say that I dropped preaching for academic life: that’s the opposite of what my spiritual biography would say, that I fled into academia for refuge and have ever since tried to peek out into the congregation and make a preacher of myself.”[6]4 The choice between preacher and teacher, a choice which Frye never really resolved, is one he wavers back and forth between, even as a teenager. In the early letters he can assume both roles, as when he lectures Kemp on, say, music or humour or Sinclair Lewis, or when he sermonizes on the nature of love or religion. Frye’s future vocation is one of the more extended topics of conversation in the 1932 letters, and Kemp is no less urbane than Frye in her reflections on the issue.

These are the depression years, and the lack of family resources makes both Kemp and Frye wonder whether or not they will be able to return to college for their final year. Kemp’s father, for twenty-five years the chief graphic designer for the Crown Cork & Seal Company, had little work during these years, and Frye’s father, a hardware salesman, was continually trying to keep one step ahead of the creditors. But return to the university they do. As Frye says to Kemp, “There is only one refuge in Toronto for an ambitious adolescent, and that is the University. This applies equally to both of us.” The letters from the summer conclude with Frye itching to get back to Toronto and to write on his “definite heroisms in literature—Donne, Milton, Bunyan, Swift, Blake, Dickens, Browning, and Shaw.” He announces that Browning is, in fact, his “favourite poet,” and he proposes to write a paper on Browning for Pelham Edgar and one on Romanticism for G.S. Brett, both of which projects he carries out during his final year at Victoria.

Three letters are written after Frye and Kemp return to campus, and by the end of the first chapter of their relationship fairly round portraits begin to emerge from what they reveal about their intellectual and emotional lives, from the parries and poses of their early romance, from the vignettes they draw of daily life in Moncton and Toronto, from their complaints about the shortcomings of their religious upbringing, and even from the stories they tell.


Summer of 1933

The letters from 1933—twenty-five in all—were, like those of the preceding year, written during the summer. Following his graduation from Victoria,[7] Frye visits the home of another classmate, this time Graham Millar in Hamilton, Ontario. Toward the middle of June, he travels to Chicago for a six-week visit with his sister Vera[8] on Chicago’s South Side, the site of the World’s Fair. Initially he stays in a rooming house across the street from his sister’s apartment but is driven out by the bedbugs and moves into a University of Chicago boarding house. Frye makes a number of sallies to the Midway and provides detailed accounts of the various national exhibitions. More interesting, however, are his reactions to the fair-goers and to American culture generally: “there is something epic and transcendent,” he says, “about American vulgarity.”

In spite of the suffocating heat, Frye manages to see some of Chicago’s main attractions, making several trips to the Art Institute, visiting the aquarium and a Marshall Fields exhibit of the treasures of the Russian royal family, and attending a musical; he even witnesses the planes of General Balbo roaring over the city. The bedbugs and the Chicago heat are not the only problems. Vera, who teaches at Evergreen Park, a suburban school, is not being paid by the school board, and in late July, not counting the money for Frye’s ticket home, she is down to her last two dollars. Frye ends up typing a thesis to earn an extra ten dollars. His boarding house has a piano, but he practises very little during the summer, though he is called on to play for the graduation exercises at Vera’s school. After some uncertainty about his destination after he leaves Chicago, in early August he heads north for the Kemp cottage at Gordon Bay on Lake Joseph, where he stays for several weeks before returning home to Moncton by way of Toronto: thus there is a gap in the letters for most of August. The financial problems of his parents have worsened. His father is trying to sell building materials in the Maritimes during a period when there is practically no construction under way, and the family is behind in its rent. As a consequence, Frye announces, “I cannot come back this fall, sweetheart. Don’t worry—I’ve canvassed the possibilities . . . there isn’t anything I can do, just now, that will remedy the situation immediately.”

Except for a few weeks at Camp Onawaw,[9] where Kemp works as a counsellor, she spends the summer with her family at their Fulton Avenue home in Toronto and at their cottage on Gordon Bay. Toward the end of the summer she serves soup again at the Canadian National Exhibition and attends a church conference at Couchiching.[10] In October she exuberantly announces that she has landed a job at the Art Gallery of Toronto under a new program of grants for art education. Arthur Lismer, whose agenda was to strengthen the art education program of the gallery, had tapped her for the position, which was in effect a training program for museum and gallery workers.

While Frye is reporting on the sights and sounds of Chicago, Kemp keeps him posted on family news, the local gossip, and her reading and music, and throughout the summer she fusses over the endpaper illustrations she is drawing for a volume in Perkins Bull’s historical series on Peel County. Among the half-dozen books on her summer list, she is particularly taken by Marcia Davenport’s biography of Mozart, writing a rather extended reaction to the book and concluding with a brief dissertation on marriage. Frye is less clear about his own reading, though we learn from the first letter in this section, when he is at the Millars’ home in Hamilton, that he is reading Shaw’s plays—or rather rereading, for, as he tells Kemp, “I read all of Shaw at fifteen.” In this same letter we find the earliest record of Frye’s interest in Clementi, who “really is a tremendous genius—something of Mozart’s polish and Scarlatti’s vigour held in solution.”

Kemp announces in June that she is attending a meeting of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the democratic socialist party that had been organized by farm and labour groups in Calgary in 1932, and Frye replies that the CCF “should be the typical party of Canada and the political expression of the same movement of which the United Church is the religious expression.” More than a month later, writing from Moncton, Frye is less sanguine about the CCF but he does inquire about the local organization and eventually ends up making a speech to the group on “The Historical Background of Socialist Thought.” Kemp, who fears that such a topic is not going to hold his audience, gives a talk herself to the Riverdale CCF club on the duty of women in politics.

The protestations of love continue to flow freely from both sides, though in his letter of 12 September Frye takes a more indirect route with his “Parable of the Agate.” The letters from 1933 conclude with two that were written after Frye had returned from Moncton, one a letter of apology to Kemp over some unnamed incident, and the other written during December, after Frye had finished his first term at Emmanuel. This second letter was posted from Honeywood, Ontario, where Frye had gone once again to spend the holidays at the home of his classmate Del Martin. He has taken his copy of Blake—one Kemp has given him—along with him to Honeywood.[11] “I’ve finished the Minor Prophecies and am halfway through the Four Zoas,” he reports. “Your Blake looks like a blizzard had hit it—pencilled notes by the dozen on every page. I’ll have to get you to give me another copy sometime, and I won’t mark it up.”


Summer of 1934

The letters from this period begin with Kemp at the National Gallery in Ottawa, where she had embarked on a training program for museum work. At the initiative of Arthur Lismer, who was educational supervisor at the Art Gallery of Toronto, Kemp had become an assistant at the gallery in Toronto during the second week of October 1933. Lismer had learned that the Canadian Committee, established by the Carnegie Corporation to study the problems of Canadian museums, wanted to train recent university graduates for museum work. The plan had two phases: students were to gain experience at local museums and then be sent to the Courtauld Institute at the University of London and to galleries on the continent for further study. Lismer, recognizing Kemp’s potential as an art educator, hired her for the first phase at the Art Gallery of Toronto and then recommended that she continue her museum training at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.[12]

In January 1934, Kemp applied to H.O. McCurry, secretary of the Canadian Committee, for an eight-month apprenticeship. Her application was approved, and in February she spent one week in Ottawa assisting Kathleen Fenwick, curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery, in lecturing on an exhibition of nineteenth-century painting. She then returned to Toronto and busied herself for the next month with the activities of the art gallery—lecturing on Holbein, conducting classes for a French exhibition, assisting Lismer with his Thursday morning study classes, doing clerical work, and in general familiarizing herself with the operation of the gallery.

For his part Frye had completed his first year at Emmanuel College, having received firsts in five of his eight courses. In February, he had presented a paper on Blake’s prophecies in Herbert Davis’s graduate seminar. This paper, which eventually developed into Fearful Symmetry, has not survived, though a number of the papers Frye wrote for his Emmanuel courses have.[13] On 13 April Frye read another paper on Blake. In this one, he tells Kemp, “I combined what I knew of Blake with my romanticism epic and gave them the works.” A week later he dismisses the Sunday school class he has been teaching, and on 30 April he leaves for the mission field in Saskatchewan, but not before getting nabbed by a plainsclothesman who accuses him of window-peeping at the women’s residences. With the help of an alibi from Ida Clare, a classmate, he is able to extricate himself, but the episode so rattles him that he forgets to check his trunk onto the train heading west.

Kemp’s letters to Frye during this period begin in April when she leaves for Ottawa to begin her duties at the National Gallery. The apprenticeship involves studying Italian and German painting, learning about the gallery’s collection, arranging reproductions of drawings, lecturing to students from the Normal School, and writing reports on the loan exhibition service. Practically the first thing Kemp tells Frye is that her rooming house in Ottawa has “a whole pile of music on top of the piano” and that she can practise on it whenever she likes. And in Frye’s first letter we learn of his having played piano pieces by Tartini, Bach, Corelli, Handel, Mozart, Bruch, Mendelssohn, and Kreisler. He follows this, in his next letter, with an account of the Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms he has heard during Toronto’s Centennial Week. The performances of Wagner and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony puzzle him, especially the latter, because it “isn’t pure music, like a fugue or a sonata, working out its own self-directed laws, nor programme music, depending on the shape of something externally obtruded for its form.” He then takes Ida Clare, in whom he has more than a passing interest, to the Bach B Minor Mass. The focus of both correspondents, at least in the early months of their 1934 separation, seems to be music: “I can’t talk to you much about music, except our piano work,” Frye says, “but I can write.” As for Kemp’s writing, she complains of the troubles she is having with her thesis. Frye replies with a lesson on style, and this is followed in a subsequent letter with a sermon on the emotional attitude necessary for vital prose. In his letter of 24 April, he gives a particularly spirited tribute to Kemp’s abilities: “You’ve got genius in you,” he begins, and he ends with an injunction for her to get to work on her thesis.

Before Frye’s westward trek, we overhear a good deal of local gossip mixed in with accounts of daily activities. Kemp gets along well with H.O. McCurry, the assistant director of the National Gallery, and his wife, Dorothy, as well as with the curator of prints, Kathleen Fenwick, but at the same time she recoils at the “bitter chastity” of the women in her boarding house. Overhearing Pelham Edgar tell D.C. Scott what a remarkable student Frye is, she inflates with pride. Back in Toronto, Frye is now the one mingling with the cultural gentry: Marcus and Jeanne Adeney, the Bertram Brookers, Yascha Pye, and Harry Adaskin. From the flurry of Frye’s social engagements in April of 1934 one would never guess that he would develop the reputation of a shy introvert. Meanwhile, he is planning to study in England and write a thesis on the relation of Christian theology to music.

The centre of interest in the letters from the summer of 1934 is Frye’s mission-field experience. While Kemp remains in Ottawa, working at the National Gallery and trying to complete her thesis, Frye is shuffled back and forth among the families of the three small charges he is serving—Stone, Stonepile, and Carnagh—staying with a different family each week. Two thousand miles away from Kemp and the city he loves, he is completely out of his element and frequently registers his misery. But for all his distress, he has a genuine concern for the farmers and their families, whom he visits regularly either on horseback or on foot. He reports on three of his sermons—on idolatry, motherhood, and original sin—but his preaching is particularly difficult because he has “to talk about the Christian religion in fairly broad terms, as Catholics, Anglicans, Christian Scientists, Adventists and Lutherans all come to hear me.”

Conditions among the farmers in southwestern Saskatchewan in the mid-1930s were particularly bleak and alarming. The dust storms, which had begun in 1931, were extraordinarily harsh during the summer of 1934. On 19 May Frye writes that the area around Stone “isn’t that dried out area—that’s around Regina.” Some rain did come in early June, but by the middle of the month the blowing topsoil began to ravage crops and gardens. This, coupled with the intense heat, lack of rain, expensive seed that produced little or no yield, rising debts and unpaid taxes, and a grasshopper plague of Biblical magnitude, caused many farmers to flee the region. Frye gives some sense of the stoicism of those who remained, but the agricultural and economic collapse of the region was more devastating than his letters suggest.

Frye is sometimes almost self-assured about his summer experience. I n early July he says, “I think I’m consolidating my position here all right. I’m not popular—I’m no cowboy—but I think I’m respected, and in some places well liked”; and in his next letter he remarks, “I’m doing fairly well here, and I seem to be making some impression, and a few quite good friends.” He wants to give the people “not an abstract set of ideas, or even a new slant on religion, not primarily, but the impress of a personality they’ll remember just long enough to consolidate their faith and their liking for religion.” But his moods of satisfaction are the exception rather than the rule. After only ten days on the field, he is already calculating when he will hold his last service and head back for Toronto. He does remark that he loves and admires the people, but he remains intellectually lonely: the culture of his charges is “hollow” and “inane,” and the people have reduced religion to nothing more than moral conventions. He reports that he is “getting a sound and accurate knowledge of the Bible,” but after only six weeks he is “thoroughly cured of any desire to enter the active ministry.” Blake remains his “only devouring enthusiasm,” and he intends to use the summer to get a head start on his Blake thesis.

Part of Frye’s general melancholy comes from the living conditions. He begins his stint with an attack of bedbugs, finds himself bathing in greasy washtubs (only one family, the Bonfoys, seems to have a bathtub), and is compelled to sleep with the hired hands. “I am not happy,” he says in his letter of 14 May, “but the only things worrying me now are the grasshoppers, shyness, bugs, horses that run away and are stupid old fools anyway with trots like earthquakes, vulgarity, no pianos, no Helen, homesickness, four months, etc.” He continues to fight the bedbugs throughout the summer, and his difficulties with his horse Katy are not relieved until she is replaced by Bessie. Frye is also anxious about Kemp’s relationship with her former boyfriend, George Clarke. When Kemp recounts a particularly vivid dream, Frye interprets it as a wish-fulfilment and suggests she stay away from Clarke; and when she later reveals that she is to have lunch with Clarke, he worries that she may be starting “a serious connection with George again.”

But what most distresses Frye is the possibility of Kemp’s going off to England before he returns in September. She announces in her letter of 9 May that she will wait a year, but by the end of the month, following the advice of both Margaret Ray, the assistant librarian at Victoria College and Kemp’s confidante, and Arthur Lismer, she changes her mind and decides to go through with the application. She tries to soften the blow of the year’s separation by reminding Frye of how pleasant it will be in Toronto, what with his Blake group and other friends. Frye tries to dissuade her from going, writing in early June that she is “too green for intensive technical study,” and his next letter begins with the self-pity of a lover’s complaint: he is irritated by their being apart and fearful that with an extended separation he might lose her. Kemp’s reply enjoins him to be practical and asserts that her “two ambitions in life,” marriage and a career, “are going to be fulfilled.” The issue eventually becomes whether Kemp might postpone her departure for England so they could spend a few days together. Frye says he “will move heaven and earth and several preemptions in hell” to leave for Toronto on 16 September, a week before his mission-field commitment is officially fulfilled.

Kemp meanwhile completes her apprenticeship at the National Gallery and on 18 June returns to Toronto, where she finishes her thesis, “The Educational Work of an Art Museum,” and has it shipped off to the assistant director of the gallery, H.O. McCurry. After working in the Victoria College Library for a few weeks, she leaves for Camp Onawaw on 6 July, serving again as a kind of cultural counsellor for the young campers. A month before he is to leave the mission field Frye declares balefully, “My work is completely demoralized and disorganized. My visiting is far behind; my reports aren’t started; my correspondence is tied up; the thesis is in abeyance, and I don’t give a damn about anything.” In late August Kemp leaves Camp Onawaw for a week at the family cottage on Gordon Bay, where the final letter from this period is posted. She then returns to Toronto to ready herself for the year in England. For his part, Frye does manage to leave his field a week early, and their scheme to meet before Kemp sails is successful: they rendezvous on 19 and 20 September at a Montreal hotel, registering, apparently, as Mr. and Mrs. Frye.



After staying with Frye in Montreal on 19–20 September, Kemp sets sail for London on 21 September, and she begins her first letter two days later on board the RMS Ausonia. Arriving in London, she settles into an undergraduate residence at 7 Taviton Street and begins her work at the fledgling Courtauld Institute.[14] The Courtauld had a skeletal full-time faculty—the director, W.G. Constable, and four additional teachers. Most of the lectures and classes, in fact, were given by outside scholars, many of whom were from the museums and galleries in London. Kemp has some difficulty adjusting to the British form of academic life. “I don’t like the utter and absolute isolation of one group from another,” she writes, adding that “there is hardly any social intercourse among the students.” On 24 November she moves out of the undergraduate residence into a house at 5 Torrington Square, where she begins her friendship with Millicent Rose, a bright, aggressive Communist who, having completed a Cambridge degree in English, is also studying art history at the Courtauld Institute. On the advice of Geoffrey Webb, her tutor, Kemp soon gives up on attending lectures, which she finds exceedingly dull, and spends her time instead going to galleries, museums, and churches. “I am beginning to get a pretty fair idea of the nature of Gothic architecture,” she writes, but her knowledge comes primarily, not from tutorials, lectures, or books, but from visits to Canterbury and Southwark, Westminster Abbey, and the Temple Church. Kemp, it is clear, does not relish solitude: she visits her London friends, Stephen and Edith Burnett, socializes with the students in her boarding house, and attends Communist meetings with Millicent Rose.

One little episode reveals Kemp’s typical attitude toward her program of study: in October she initially plans to attend a lecture by Bernard Ashmole on Egyptian archaeology, but when she discovers that Albert Schweitzer is the same night giving a lecture entitled “Religion in Modern Civilization,” she abandons Ashmole, whom she knows is going to be dull, and rushes off to hear Schweitzer. She very seldom reveals specific details about her program in art history, but Schweitzer’s lecture, which sparks her curiosity much more than Ashmole’s, occasions an extensive digest of his talk. On the whole, Kemp seems to be rather casual about her course at the Courtauld. She spends her first two months “fluttering about,” and when she does turn her attention to learning some art history, she becomes anxious about being able to accomplish the task in one year. “I’m almost afraid of June coming the day after to-morrow,” she frets, “and so much to be done. But all one’s life is like that, and if they expect me to have anything more than the mere beginning of a taste for sculpture and painting in eight months, they are indulging in rather fond delusions.” She has her moments of confidence, as when she reports that her papers “on a general outline of art history . . . would shame any yankee college for scope,” and when she finally gets around to meeting with Constable, he tells her that her work has been “excellent.” But on the whole, Kemp’s work seems to lack focus: she is doing little more than “tucking in a fair amount of information in a quiet way, not worrying, because I can’t be bothered.” Part of the problem is that she receives no guidance. Webb, her tutor, hasn’t the slightest idea of what she is doing, which makes her sceptical of Constable’s praise, and she laments the complete absence of any counsel: “We haven’t had any supervision all term and no essays to write as Webb is too busy or too lazy to read them and always postpones his session with us (Millicent and myself).” Two weeks before her exams Kemp remarks that she is “at last getting some idea of what this course is about,” but by then it is too late for her to fill her head with the kinds of information her examiners want.

The year for Kemp has its emotional peaks and valleys. She has moments of quiet retreat and moody introspection, but, as she is essentially a gregarious person, she manages to develop friends, some of whom become close companions. She attends the Promenades, the Courtauld Ball, a production of Hamlet, and a number of concerts, though she finds little time to practise the piano herself. She shows a particular sympathy for Gordon Snelgrove, a fellow Canadian student, and nurses his fragile psyche at regular intervals. She also mothers Frye when he complains of being overworked and continually tired.

In turn, Frye assumes the role of Lord Chesterfield, offering Kemp frequent advice about how she should best take advantage of her year abroad and even suggesting at one point that she devote herself to a study of Blake’s art. But her interests lie elsewhere: “I think that there are a few little problems with regard to art and the artist’s public which could be dealt with to greater advantage than a study of Blake by me. I am not up to it as yet—the trouble is that I haven’t thought much about Blake, I suppose.”

On 20 March 1935, Kemp sets out with Millicent Rose for Italy, spending three weeks in Rome, Tivoli, Orvieto, Assisi, Perugia, and Arezzo and three weeks in Florence. After returning to London in May, she devotes the next month to preparing, somewhat half-heartedly, for her exams, which she writes on 17–18 June. A month later, after an interlude in Brussels where she represents the Art Gallery of Toronto at a conference of the British Museums Association, she learns that she has failed her exams, and she writes broken-heartedly to Frye: “Exam results came out to-day. I failed. It looks pretty grim, written like that, but there it is. And I’m not doing any howling. I feel like a general after a lost battle, but I’m all ready for the next one. . . . I don’t feel ashamed or degraded or any damned thing at all, for I haven’t time to waste now. But I have wondered what you would think. And that has been my worst disappointment. If this makes any difference to you I shall just fade out of the picture so far as you are concerned. It may be better that way. I will not have you marrying a stupid woman.” In his reply Frye proposes to Kemp that her “mental outlines don’t altogether fit those of an exam, which places such a premium on glibness and assumes that brilliance is the most valuable of intellectual qualities. First-rate people don’t do things brilliantly, they do them readily; and I think that this will make you much more clear-eyed and self-assured and take a lot more of the flutter and splutter and gawkiness out of your work than the most meteoric examination success could possibly have done.” The next day he cables her, “FORTUNES OF WAR CHEER UP AND SHUT UP LOVE.” Years later Frye remarked that Kemp “cherished [this telegram] all her life—I think of it as the best literary effort of my writing career.”[15]

Kemp seems much less eager than Frye to speak of their plans to marry, and whenever she appears hesitant, Frye breaks forth into a declaration of love, as in this oracular pronouncement: “We shall live a divine comedy together, our inferno a boiling torrent of sexual love, our purgatory the perfect peace of repose through the satisfaction of desire. We shall descend hell as lover and mistress, you as my monopolized hetaera, into the chambers of the virtuous heathen and the glib liars, talking, chattering and laughing endlessly of our ambitions, interests and studies. We shall be submerged in devouring flames of passion, swept into a delirium of touch. We shall sink to the depths of the universe and beyond, to the utter quiescent coma of union and surrender. Everything hot and troublesome and individual will fall away and leave us together. Then we shall gradually separate, and, immeasurably strengthened and purified, pass through love to the final paradise of friendship, when each will be in possession of an inward privacy of soul, to be respected because of the other.”

Back in Toronto Frye is not without his own moments of depression and physical debilitation. In December he writes, “At present I am excessively morbid, given a great deal to self-loathing almost, certainly self-contempt, engaged in being utterly sick and weary of my apparently inexhaustible capacity to waste time, rush wildly down blind alleys, over-exert myself, do all sorts of fool things.” Three months later he describes his life as “a series of frenetic spasms of activity coupled with an inertia and a lethargy so terrible I wonder if I’m losing my mind.” The persona that emerges from most of the letters of this period, however, is much less Hamlet-like than the half-mad idler he describes. He is taking seven courses at Emmanuel College, two graduate English courses, and is teaching two courses at Victoria, where he has been appointed reader in the English department. He discovers friends in Roy Daniells, a junior colleague at Victoria who has just returned from studying in England, and Wilson Knight. Frye’s two graduate courses were Herbert Davis’s on satire and J.R. MacGillivray’s on Shelley and Keats.[16] The flurry of activities he describes to Kemp hardly suggests lethargy: he immerses himself in Frazer’s Golden Bough[17] and Wyndham Lewis, plays the piano for an Emmanuel musicale, leads the Emmanuel debate team to victory against law students from Osgoode Hall, and assists Norman J. Endicott in preparing a new edition of Representative Poetry, an anthology used by the combined English departments at Toronto.[18]

In a frenzied burst of energy in December Frye writes five essays and takes three exams at Emmanuel. He decides not to spend the Christmas holidays at the home of his former roommate, Del Martin, as has been his practice in the past. Instead, he remains in Toronto, goes to the Kemps’ home for Christmas day, travels to Hamilton in January, and then on to Welland to visit two other classmates, Graham Millar and Jean Cameron. Frye wants to abandon his theology course and devote all his time to Blake. The Blake seminar, which Herbert Davis had continued from the previous year, is, Frye confides, “my chief interest,” and on 25 October he presents a paper on Blake to the Graduate English Club: “It will be the groundwork of the thesis. You see, whenever anybody in the three family colleges does anything really well, the professors always come over and tell U.C. [University College] all about it, whereupon U.C. lays for these white-haired youths in the Graduate English Club. They’ve been laying for me for two years now. So I’ve got to smash them and establish myself. I don’t want to get a reputation as a monomaniac (Mary Winspear said, ‘If your name is on the notice what’s the use of announcing the subject?’), but I simply haven’t time to do anything else. So Blake it is.” The members of the Graduate English group, he reports in his next letter, were “tremendously impressed.” Frye does not begin to work on Blake in earnest, however, until the Easter term. He fails to write Kemp at all during February, because he has spent six weeks tearing Blake apart, producing a preface and first chapter: “What I have done is a masterpiece; finely written, well handled, and the best, clearest and most accurate exposition of Blake’s thought yet written. If it’s no good I’m no good. There isn’t a sentence, and there won’t be a sentence, in the whole work that hasn’t gone through purgatory. Christ! why was I born with brains?” Pelham Edgar, Frye’s former teacher and now a colleague, suggests that there may be some money to send Frye abroad for the next academic year. When he nudges Kemp to get her scholarship renewed so they can be in England together, her spirits are boosted. But Frye discovers in April that a Massey scholarship for him to write his Blake thesis is not forthcoming, so he decides to stay in Toronto for the summer and prepare for the three courses he is to teach the following year. He takes his theology exams in April, this time earning seven firsts and one third (in homiletics). In May Roy Daniells returns to England to continue his studies, and Frye moves into Daniells’s room for the summer.

Although Frye spends a week in June with Kemp’s brother, Roy, at the Kemps’ cottage at Gordon Bay, there is little time to relax during the summer months. He gives a talk on Blake to a Toronto women’s club, marks essays for J.R. MacGillivray’s summer school class, and is “giving birth to a novel.” “When I get time to read anything,” he says, “I read Rabelais.” But Frye’s focus during the summer is on Blake, his spirit having been “loosened up” by the news that Kemp will not be staying in England for another year. Toward the end of June he reports that he is “working like the devil on Mr. Blake, the devil’s spokesman, at least for a while. The harder I work the shorter it’ll be. I have worked, off and on, about four years on Blake, and now I know at last what’s going into my MA thesis and what into my PhD thesis. I shall finish the former by the end of July, I think, if this working streak keeps up, and after it’s submitted in the fall I’m going to move heaven and earth to get it published, somehow. My ideas have never been expressed before, yet they’re so damned obvious I’m terrified for fear someone will beat me to it. Barring that, barring various accidents and so on, if I can get this thesis into the hands of the right people, I can pretty well take what I want within a very few years. [Herbert J.] Davis, who is extremely cautious, told me that the first draft of my opening chapter, which is to be entirely revised and rewritten, would set, the way it was going, a new standard in MA theses. The PhD thing will be all about Blake in his context—romanticism and so forth. But that will be just one more job, not a case of hysteria and religious fanaticism and hypnosis and windmill-tilting, like this one. Of course, there is still the possibility that this will be the PhD and that I shan’t bother with my MA at all.”

In July Frye travels to Brechin, Ontario, to spend a week with classmate Florence Clare and her family. His final missive of the summer to Kemp is the telegraph he sends on 2 August, and in late August he hears from her that she will return to Toronto in mid-October. Whatever letters may have passed between them before Kemp’s return we do not have.



From the time of Kemp’s return from England in October of 1935 until August of 1936, no letters pass between the two correspondents. During these ten months Kemp seems to have been renting a flat, having moved out of her parents’ home, and Frye was living, at least officially, in the Emmanuel College residences. Ayre traces what little we know about their lives during this period. Kemp busied herself with the educational projects of the art gallery, arranging lectures and study groups, and Frye, having set aside his Blake thesis, threw himself into his teaching, assisted E.J. Pratt in reviewing poems submitted to the Canadian Poetry Magazine, and wrote a half-dozen reviews on opera, ballet, and music for Acta Victoriana, the Canadian Forum, and Saturday Night. Toward the end of the year he tried his hand at fiction-writing, producing the first two of his several “fables,” and he published his first essay, “Wyndham Lewis: Anti-Spenglerian,” in the Canadian Forum. Several stories he sent to the Atlantic Monthly were rejected. He naturally spent a number of hours at the art gallery, attending the lectures Kemp had organized and using the collection of art books in the gallery’s library. After his ordination in the United Church in June, he spent a month at the Kemps’ Gordon Bay cottage working on his Blake manuscript. Meanwhile, Pelham Edgar, who wanted to see Frye become a permanent member of the English staff at Victoria, promoted his case for a Royal Society fellowship that would support a year’s work at Oxford. Frye received the award—$1,500 to study the symbolism of Blake’s prophecies—and so planned to set out for Merton College in the fall (Ayre, 118–23).

Following that year’s hiatus, the letters resume after Frye has left Gordon Bay for Moncton, where he spends a month before sailing for England. This is the first trip home he has made since the summer of 1933, and the visit produces little comfort. He is distressed that he will not see Kemp for a year. His mother, now sixty-five, has aged considerably, and his father is barely managing to eke out a living. Frye arranges his passage to England from Montreal, rather than Halifax, with the hope that Kemp might meet him there before he sails. “I want to see you,” he writes. Kemp replies sometime during the third week of August (the letter is missing from the files), saying that she is ill. Frye quickly advises her to see a doctor when she returns to Toronto from Gordon Bay, adding that she shouldn’t “jump to conclusions quite so quickly this time—I’ve been away two weeks, remember.” Kemp writes again from Gordon Bay with the news that she “may have to have some kind of treatment” for she seems “to have missed a month,” and the subsequent letters confirm what they both suspect—that Kemp is pregnant, apparently for the second time. “I keep telling myself,” Frye says in his next letter, “that I can’t have caused it both times, that there must be something else the matter, but that doesn’t work.” On 27 August, Kemp, having gone back to Toronto with her mother, sends Frye the news that she has had an abortion, performed by a doctor who has learned a new method in Germany. Abortion was illegal at the time, but Kemp’s mother, working through a nurse who was “very competent, experienced and sympathetic,” is able to make the necessary arrangements.

Throughout their correspondence in late August Frye is distressed that Kemp may be moving back home to live with her parents and not, as she had planned, sharing an apartment for the year with her friend Barbara Sturgis. He is also troubled that Kemp is being “stampeded” by her family to abandon her plans for “living independently” in order to help with the family’s expenses, particularly the fees for her brother Harold’s music lessons and college tuition for her other brother, Roy. Consequently, he gives her a rather stern lecture at a time when she needs empathy. Although he shortly apologizes for his “rather unnecessary outburst” and sends $15 to help pay for the operation, on the whole he seems somewhat insensitive to Kemp’s plight.

One of the ironies of this unhappy episode is that Kemp’s father was engaged in making birth control information available in Canada. When Kemp was in England two years before, he had requested that she send him Marie Stopes’s books on birth control, which were considered contraband in Canada; and he circulated these books, as well as others already in his possession, to a number of friends and acquaintances.[19] The same year, Kemp herself had given the promiscuous and somewhat naive Millicent Rose one of Stopes’s books to read.

After her recovery, Kemp returns to work at the Art Gallery of Toronto on 1 September, and on the same day she receives a telegram from Frye, asking her to meet him at the Bonaventure Station in Montreal. Though strapped for money, Kemp does take the train to Montreal, where they have a day together before Frye boards the Alaunia for London on 4 September. In mid-September she rents an apartment with Barbara Sturgis at 24 St. Joseph Street, but stays there for only a week or so because Jessie Macpherson, the dean of women at Victoria College, taps her to become a don in one of the women’s residences. T hus, in late September she ends her arrangement with Sturgis and moves into Wymilwood at 84 Queen’s Park Crescent. Her first letters abroad contain advice to Frye about room and board in London, news of their Victoria College circle of friends and the art gallery staff, and family gossip. She also sketches the first chapters in the saga of Robert K. Arnold, a member of the German department at Victoria, and Magda, his wife—a continuing melodrama in which Kemp is confidante to both parties. In early October she attends an art conference in Cleveland with three members of the art gallery staff, and she occupies herself with a flurry of chores for a show of Soviet art and a Van Gogh exhibition.

Meanwhile, Frye, after an uneventful voyage, arrives in London on 14 September, and sets himself up in Bloomsbury, just off Russell Square, at 90–92 Guilford Street, the same boarding house where Kemp had stayed when she returned from Italy in April 1935. He looks up Cameron Caesar and Don Stuart, Victoria and Emmanuel classmates respectively, visits Veronica Wedgwood on two occasions, records his impressions of England, and manages all the while to take advantage of London’s bookshops, concert halls, and galleries. He also travels to Cheltenham to visit W.F. Jackson Knight, a classics scholar and brother of University of Toronto professor G. Wilson Knight. The trip to Cheltenham, Frye writes, “was fascinating—it was like being dragged through one Constable painting after another.” He gets along well with Knight in spite of Knight’s Fascist sympathies because they speak “the same language.” On 9 October Frye leaves London for Oxford, but not before he sends Kemp birthday greetings and another earnest declaration of love. He is promptly introduced to his tutor, Edmund Blunden, and launches immediately into his first paper—an essay on Chaucer’s early poems. “Blunden said very flattering things about it,” Frye reports, “but he obviously isn’t very fresh on Chaucer.”

At this time, there were three courses in English literature at Oxford, which were, as Frye described them later, “arranged in order of prestige. Course I consisted largely of Gothic and Old Norse. Course II embraced English literature, but embraced it only as far as the year 1500. Course III, which was strictly for the birds and Rhodes scholars, went on until 1830. . . . I decided to read the third course, but even so I found myself doing most of my work on the earlier period, Old and Middle English, largely because it was new to me.”[20]

On arriving at Oxford Frye says, “I am completely surrounded by shell: I have no curiosity: don’t want to go see anybody, or go for a walk: just want to sit in my room, devour books nervously and feverishly.” Still, he appears to involve himself in Merton College life rather quickly, having tea with fellow Canadian Douglas LePan, joining the Oxford Union, and making friends with Joseph Reid, a Rhodes scholar from Manitoba, and two Rhodes scholars from the United States, Rodney Baine and Alba Warren.

In mid-October Frye has a chance encounter with Elizabeth Fraser, a Canadian graphic artist with whom he and Kemp had had a passing acquaintance in Toronto. “We parted with expressions of esteem,” he writes, “and promises to come together later. I may give a tea for her and LePan soon. She looks interesting.” But before he can send an invitation, Fraser asks him over for a meal, which he accepts, showing up at her place two weeks later. Thus begins the most intriguing relationship Frye has during the year. Fraser, a pipe-smoking free spirit who is twelve years older than Frye, is trying to survive in Oxford by illustrating books. One of her projects, described in some detail in Frye’s letter of 3 November, mystifies him because he cannot imagine why she is drawn to the turgid prose of the text. But he says she is “a very remarkable girl” and is attracted to her ideas, which he says “have been gradually developing the way mine have on Blake, into a more and more objective unity all the time,” as well as to her drawings, which he sees “as sincere as the book is faked, and as concrete as the book is vague.”

Frye and Elizabeth Fraser share each other’s company on a number of occasions during November and December, having tea together, going on a “pub-crawl,” hiking to the countryside and surrounding villages on numerous occasions, and seeing plays and movies together. “God knows what one can make of the girl,” Frye writes. “Her relief at finding someone who wouldn’t blush and look the other way when she powdered her nose and who wouldn’t think she was a fallen woman if she wanted to go find a bush in the course of the walk suggested that she had been making rather a fool of herself in front of Englishmen recently—I suspect she has a genius for that.” They continue to see each other frequently throughout the 1937 Easter term. Toward the end of the term Frye writes to Kemp that Elizabeth is “a lonely girl with lots of courage, pride and sensitiveness, but she is a swell girl. She hits hard and rubs people the wrong way, in a way I think you understand, after six years of me, but she’s more honest and straightforward than I am and has more guts. You’ll love her when you meet her.” Both Frye and Fraser teeter on the brink of insolvency, frequently borrowing money from each other, and each is attracted to the other’s creative bent, even though Frye hardly knows how to respond to some of her illustrations and designs. John Ayre describes their relationship as a “lonely hearts” one that “centred on discussions of art and the damnation of poverty” (133). It is certainly that, but, as Fraser’s letters to Frye suggest, there may have been a romantic involvement as well.[21]

Back in Toronto Kemp is fully engaged in the bustle of Victoria College social life, in the educational programs for teachers at the art gallery, and in the duties of her donship at Wymilwood. She also finds time to lecture at the Royal Ontario Museum, first on French Rococo and then on classicism, and to write an occasional article. Like Frye, she has to watch her finances carefully, especially since she has borrowed money for her brother Roy’s tuition. Her time is divided between two new groups of colleagues—the dons in the women’s residences and the art gallery staff—and she keeps Frye apprised of the agonies and the occasional ecstasies of both. In her work at the art gallery she rubs elbows with a number of prominent figures in the Toronto art scene, including Yvonne Williams, Gordon MacNamara, Charles Comfort, Douglas Duncan, Gordon Webber, and Harold Stacey. She initially intends to return to the Courtauld Institute in June to retake her examinations, but the prospect for this dims as the year progresses. She has her own “lonely hearts” relationship with Douglas MacAgy, a bright young art student who plans to study the next fall at the famous Barnes collection in Merion, Pennsylvania. Twice she tells Frye she is quite fond of MacAgy, but this sentiment never elicits a response from Oxford.

Frye has his moments of loneliness. “Here I am,” he writes in November, “in the greatest university in the world, studying the only subject I care a damn for, and still all I can think of is how much I want you, and how much more I want you. Seven months to keep telling you I love you without proving it.” He speaks of his “invincible shyness,” but he is hardly a recluse. He is elected to membership in the prestigious Bodley Club, and he tells Kemp a great deal more about his social life than about his studies. Blunden does not want to see Frye’s papers, so he forgoes the purchase of a typewriter in favour of a piano. He strengthens his ties with Rodney Baine and Alba Warren, and develops a new friend in Mike Joseph, a New Zealander studying at Oxford. Once the piano is delivered to his Merton room, his circle of companions widens.

Frye’s reports on his Monday evening tutorials with Blunden are sketchy at best. His first three papers are on Chaucer, and for each Blunden does little more than flatter Frye with approval. Regarding the third paper Frye says, “Blunden threw flowers at my feet yesterday, I think because my paper was clever, vague and short—Canterbury Tales. Told me I’d made a real contribution to criticism, etc. etc., and then talked about Blake for the rest of the hour.” The topic for the fourth session is not named, though they do discuss Skelton, and Frye follows this with a paper on Wyatt. Then, for his 30 November tutorial Frye decides he is not going to write a paper, saying instead, “I’m going to go in and twist his neck with my bare hands. I’ve scared the shit out of him, in the Burwash phrase, and I’m just beginning to realize it, and to comprehend why he gives me that dying-duck reproachful stare every time I finish reading a paper to him. He returned the Blake with the remark that it was pretty stiff going for him, as he wasn’t much accustomed to thinking in philosophical terms.” Frye had taken his Blake manuscript to Blunden two weeks before, wanting him to read it and send a favourable report to the Royal Society committee in Ottawa before the end of the term. On 17 December 1937, Frye writes, “I don’t think Blunden liked my thesis much—he said something vague about all the sentences being the same length—what I think he really resents is the irrefutable proof that Blake had a brain. I am afraid I shall have to ignore him and just go ahead.”

Frye is examined on the last day of the term by the dons and warden of Merton. The examination “lasted ninety seconds, & consisted of a speech by Blunden and a purr from the warden.” By this time Frye is miserable and penniless, waiting to receive the next instalment of his Royal Society grant so he can go to London for the Christmas vacation. But his spirits are lifted by the arrival of ₤50 from the Royal Society and by “a fairly concentrated dose” of Elizabeth Fraser. On 19 December he escapes to London for the holidays, staying with Edith and Stephen Burnett, friends of Kemp through Norah McCullough, the educational supervisor at the Art Gallery of Toronto. Elizabeth Fraser shows up in London on 26 December for a five-day visit, and she and Frye attend two performances of Murder in the Cathedral (Fraser gets sick at the first performance and has to be hauled home in a taxi). They also wander out to Hampton Court to see a painting by Mantegna, a German edition of whose work Frye has already sent Kemp as a Christmas present. Mantegna, he says, “must be the very greatest painter who ever lived.”

Meanwhile, Kemp, whose salary at the art gallery has been raised from $750 to $900 a year, spends most of the holidays preparing a lecture on Greek sculpture for one of her study groups and shuffling among the women’s residences to fill in for vacationing dons. She still worries about returning to London to retake her exams, but in mid-January both John Alford, professor of fine arts at Toronto, and Martin Baldwin, director of the art gallery, discourage her from trying for the diploma. Her busy schedule at the art gallery actually precludes devoting the time required for serious preparation, and in February Peter Brieger, who has left the Courtauld to join the art department at Toronto, gives her the same advice. Eventually, H.O. McCurry sends word from the National Gallery in Ottawa that she is “under no obligation” to try the exam again. In the fall Kemp had resolved to learn German and had four lessons from Magda Arnold, but her enthusiasm wanes during the course of the year, and after February she says no more about it, having apparently abandoned the project. On 20 January she reveals that she has begun to “feel at home in the job” in Wymilwood, but by the end of the month she complains about the “don racket,” with its “internal politics and small feminine rivalries.” She regularly mails Frye a packet of New Yorkers and provides him a steady stream of news about family and residence hall life, pregnancies, romantic entanglements, marriages, and deaths.

During his last week in London Frye tracks down several Toronto friends and lunches with Veronica Wedgwood, and on 15 January he returns to Oxford, where the next day he writes Blunden’s term exam. He reports that he was “disgusted” with his exam but that “Blunden was very pleased . . . and said nice things.” His tutor in Anglo-Saxon from Balliol, J.N. Bryson, had announced a Beowulf exam, and Frye spends six days of his vacation reading the “stupid dreary story,” only to discover on his return that Bryson had cancelled the exam.

Early in the new year Frye and Kemp begin to question each other about their plans for the summer, but he decides to postpone any decision until the Easter vacation, when he will know whether he can afford to remain in Europe for the entire summer. For her part, Kemp does not seem particularly eager to meet Frye in London, and although she says in her letter of 19 February that her family is urging her to go abroad if she can manage it, she lists a number of reasons why planning such a trip would not be wise: her family may not be able to pay back the money she has lent them, it would be easier for Frye to travel on the continent with a male companion, he could see more if she were not along, he might be able to get a job as a tutor in Danzig, she does not want to get too deeply in debt, and the coronation of George VI will make for “a very bad summer.” Frye hints that he might like to come to Gordon Bay after the term is over; yet he tells a Victoria classmate, Doris Moggridge, that Kemp might be making the trip. Kemp then changes her mind, writing on 3 March that she has begun to arrange her vacation schedule just in case she “can afford a summer in Europe.” Frye finally concludes that he cannot make a decision until he gets a report from Geoffrey Keynes on his Blake manuscript and hears from Victoria whether the college will support his staying through the summer. By the end of March Kemp is making plans to take a freighter to England, travelling with Peggy Kidder, a secretary at the art gallery.

In March Kemp begins another art gallery project, writing and presenting talks for CBC radio, all the while supervising the teas and cocoa parties at Wymilwood. In April Eric Havelock offers her the job as art editor for the Canadian Forum, a position that Frye mildly encourages her to accept. Throughout the spring she seems particularly intent on keeping Frye posted on the lives and loves of Roy Daniells, whom she had first met when he came to London toward the end of her year there, and of Dorothy Drever, one of the members of the Frye–Kemp inner circle from the class of 1933 at Victoria. Frye was attracted to Daniells the first time they met (they had been junior instructors together at Victoria), and they developed into lifelong friends. Kemp sees Daniells regularly throughout the year. He is a don at Victoria’s Middle House, and they frequently chaperone with each other at the various social functions of their residence halls. But Kemp’s attitude toward Daniells cools somewhat as the year progresses. She is particularly annoyed by his doting regard for Ev Stewart, a 1935 Victoria graduate, and as the year progresses she becomes increasingly disturbed by his fussiness and lack of manners. Frye interprets Daniells’s behaviour as being “scrupulously honourable” toward Kemp, but she still maintains that he is rude and ignores her. As for Dot Drever, Frye says, “I’d rather like to keep in touch with [her] a bit this year,” and Kemp obliges by sending frequent bulletins about Drever, especially her Communist activities. The more Drever becomes a convert to party propaganda, the more Kemp distances herself.

Frye declares at the beginning of the Easter term that he and Blunden “are definitely going to get along well this term.” But he provides even fewer details than he did the first term about his tutorials. After writing an essay on Fulke Greville, he boasts, “These essays I’m doing are mostly publishable, I should imagine: certainly I’ve collected a lot of material for future books.” On 8 February he reads Blunden his anatomy paper—a paper that would develop six years later into one of his first major published essays—”The Anatomy in Prose Fiction.”[22]In late February he spends a week preparing a paper on T.S. Eliot for the Bodley Club in lieu of writing one for Blunden, and two weeks later he announces that he has stopped writing papers altogether.

In mid-March Frye heads down to London again for a brief visit with Edith and Stephen Burnett before setting off on 18 March with Mike Joseph for a month’s tour of Italy. After spending the night in Paris, they proceed to Genoa, Pisa, Siena, and Orvieto, arriving in Rome on the evening of 22 March. Frye wishes he had stayed in North Italy. In his second letter from Rome he registers his categorical aversion to almost everything Roman, his invective extending for several pages.

Frye and Joseph meet Rodney Baine in Rome, as well as the two Americans—Lou Palmer and Charles Bell, both studying at Exeter College. Palmer and Bell travel on to Assisi, Perugia, Arezzo, and Florence with Frye and Joseph, and they meet up again with Baine in Venice, as well as with Lou Palmer’s mother and sister. In his second letter from Italy—a combination of a Baedeker and a gallery guide—Frye takes Kemp on a breakneck tour of some two dozen churches, museums, and palaces. She refers to his “onslaught” of Rome as “breath-taking,” but it is hardly a match for his travelogue of Florence (“the best town in the world”), San Gemignano, Ravenna, Venice, Verona, and Mantua—a 5,300-word letter that Kemp says she “nearly had to take a half-holiday to finish reading.” “I know so little of painting,” Frye says, and he worries that without field-glasses he is missing much of what he should be seeing; yet he does have an extraordinary eye, and his witty and sometimes irreverent accounts of Masaccio and Bartolo di Fredi, for example, make for lively art criticism. Just as lively are his stories, which have a good measure of the wit that was to become his trademark.

Kemp announces in late April that she indeed will be coming to England, sailing on the Empress of Britain on 12 June. Frye, meanwhile, has still heard nothing from Victoria, mostly because the college has heard nothing from him. Since January Frye has hinted that the only thing standing in the way of their getting married on his return would be his winning an IODE grant—an $1800 scholarship offered by the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire. That would enable him to stay at Oxford for another year. But throughout the year he makes no effort to apply, and he waits until late April to ask Kemp to inquire about the application procedures. She does write to the IODE committee on 31 May, saying that Frye needs financial assistance, but nothing comes of the inquiry. Frye apparently is not altogether serious about staying in England for another year—or else the whole episode is an example of his general ineptitude in dealing with practical matters.

On 1 June Frye cables Kemp, saying that he must come home and asking for money. She has already passed on second-hand information (what Roy Daniells has heard from Principal Walter Brown) that Victoria might have a $600 scholarship for him. But Frye remains quite muddled about his own plans. He thinks that Principal Brown had promised him that the college would finance his second year. But when Brown’s letter finally arrives, it contains no such news. Frye proposes two possibilities: “One is to grab Brown’s six hundred, trust to God for the IODE or something, and hang on. The other is to propose that if he has anything for me next year and will take me without a degree, I’ll grab it. I feel nervous now that Brown has started to welsh, and I’d like to have that job cinched. I’m not getting enough out of Oxford to make sacrifices worthwhile to finish my course here.” It takes Frye three days to realize that the first option is ill-advised, so he asks Kemp to send him $100 so he can come home. “I’m sorry to spoil your trip,” he writes, “but the only excuse I have for staying here—getting the Blake published—would keep my nose in the B.M. all day while you were cooling your heels somewhere else.”

In the seven letters that pass between them in May, they appear to be talking past each other: Kemp is planning to come to Oxford; Frye is planning to come home. She is convinced that he would not be in such dire straits if he had kept in touch with authorities at Victoria, and she scolds him for not writing to Principal Brown, Pelham Edgar, and other members of the English department: “Really—I can’t write reports to these people about you. If only you’d write them a short note from time to time and keep them mollified. But there you are, and you send Brown a letter at last from Italy, after Roy [Daniells] has tipped you off—to say nothing of what I’ve poured forth by way of invective. Really, Frye, you are an idiot.” Frye replies, rather lamely, that he has sent Edgar four of his essays, telling Edgar he had been in bad health all year. At this point Kemp takes matters into her own hands and goes to see Principal Brown. On 29 May she dispatches the facts of the case as Brown outlined them to her: “You have not kept in touch with the English Department, you have not made any request for money. The only thing that might have been done, which evidently could have been arranged quite easily, was a renewal of the Royal Society award for a second year. But Pelham Edgar has been very much hurt at your lack of courtesy (Brown) in not keeping in touch with him and has done nothing about it. The word is the same all along the line: you haven’t written to any of them but Brown and he knows that that was because [Roy] Daniells told you to, and then you didn’t even drop a line to Daniells. It is a bit thick, you know.” In the meantime Kemp cancels her passage to England and sends Frye $100. He shortly confesses that “it’s perhaps as well that somebody has some idea of how to manage my affairs, as I obviously haven’t much idea of it myself,” adding that he has been “a complete fool with Edgar.” To make amends he posts the first chapter of his Blake manuscript to Edgar.

After announcing in February that he was “going to get a lot of Blake done,” Frye has not produced as much as he had hoped. In March Kemp asks, “How is the Blake anyway?” Frye had expected to finish the manuscript in Italy, with the help of Mike Joseph, who was “interested in literary symbolism,” and this leads Kemp to report to Principal Brown that “the Blake was nearly finished.” But Frye does little work on it in Italy, and when he arrives in Padua his bag, with the Blake thesis in it, is mistakenly left on the train by Charles Bell and sent on to Venice. Frye intends to get the manuscript into the hands of Geoffrey Keynes and to send a copy to a publisher before he leaves for Canada. He writes Kemp that “the Blake is the only thing I can do now to recoup myself. I am sure it will be published, and that it will attract a lot of attention when it is published. Things will look different then. The whole story looks very different to me than it does to you, but you’ll understand much quicker if I don’t go into explanations or excuses. I’m damned sorry about spoiling your trip this summer, much more grateful than I can possibly say for what you are doing, and I concede that I have spent the year sleepwalking, oblivious to everything, with my sense of proportion, perspective, good manners and common sense totally atrophied.”

Blunden has suggested Faber & Faber as a publisher, and a day or so before he returns to Canada in late June Frye does send off his manuscript, which he has called The Blake Prophecies, to R.E. Stoneman at Faber & Faber. What Frye submits is actually only the first two chapters; he takes chapters three and four, which are twice as long as the first two, back to Canada with him, where he intends to make a final revision. Elizabeth Fraser serves as his intermediary, the correspondence with Faber & Faber being directed through her. On 6 July Stoneman rejects the manuscript because he “cannot foresee a wide enough sale.”[23] Fraser mails the rejection letter to Frye at Gordon Bay, but holds on to the manuscript so it can be sent out again, asking him to forward to her “a series of fresh & inspired letters to all the publishers.” Frye obliges in late July with a letter to Cambridge University Press.

At this point Fraser seeks Blunden’s advice, which is to send the manuscript to Jonathan Cape if Cambridge rejects it. “Blunden,” Fraser reports, “thinks it is a good book, but he wishes it was more freely supplied with breaks, of the sort he describes as ‘landing-stages.’ He would like you every now and then to get off from your subject & sidle up to it. He wants in other words bits of relief. The pictures will supply this to some extent, & if the selection is right I myself feel that they will supply it all.”[24] Blunden also advises Frye to inform Geoffrey Keynes that the manuscript has been sent to Cambridge. Fraser, now acting more or less as Frye’s agent, does send the manuscript to Cambridge on 31 July, saying that the other two-thirds of the book will follow in September; Cambridge replies, not unexpectedly, that it will consider the manuscript, but only after it has the complete text in hand.[25] Frye does send the manuscript back in the fall, but in November Cambridge rejects it, and Fraser posts it back to Frye, thus bringing to an unsuccessful close Frye’s first effort to have his Blake book published. It will be ten more years before it finds its way into print.

After Frye arrives back in Canada on 1 July, he travels immediately to the Kemps’ cottage at Gordon Bay. Three weeks later he takes the train to Toronto to negotiate the terms of his contract for the next academic year with Chancellor Edward Wallace. But as Frye has very little to show for his year in Oxford—no book and no degree—he is in no position to negotiate. Chancellor Wallace indicates that he will recommend a salary of $1500 to the board, which is $300 less than a lecturer’s salary, and tells Frye that he cannot become a member of the permanent staff until he has had “at least two years’ training abroad.” Frye believes he will inherit the courses of Roy Daniells, who has just accepted a position at the University of Manitoba, and in his last letter from 1937 he tells Kemp his probable teaching schedule: a first-year course in the sixteenth century, a third-year course in Milton, and a fourth-year course in nineteenth-century thought. “They sure picked up a bargain,” he writes. “I shall remember it when the time comes to discuss my ‘obligations’ to Victoria College.” On 23 July he heads back to Gordon Bay, bringing to a close this chapter of the Frye–Kemp correspondence.



Before the final group of letters there is a fourteen-month break in the correspondence, and, once again, the details of the Fryes’ lives during this period are sketchy. Frye had told Chancellor Wallace, as indeed he and Kemp had told a host of others, that they were to be married, and exactly a month after he left Toronto for Gordon Bay, they returned to Toronto, where, on 24 August 1937, classmate Arthur Cragg performed the ceremony in the Emmanuel College chapel. When Frye sends news to Elizabeth Fraser of the impending nuptials, she replies curtly, “Good. But see that your marriage doesn’t get in the way of finishing Blake by Sept. 1st.[26] Returning from their honeymoon at Gordon Bay, the Fryes set up housekeeping in the University Apartments at 6 St. Thomas Street, near the Victoria campus. Ayre reports that they “settled into a genial round of parties largely centred on the core of voluntary staff of Canadian Forum” (144). Still strapped for money, Frye appeals to Daniells early in the term for a loan to pay off his Oxford debts. “Can you lend me seventy dollars ($70.00)? The Bursar of Merton wants to be paid twenty-five pounds for last term. I’ve got it, as far as salary goes, but not now; I can pay you back in two months. I wrote that bastard explaining that I had been recently married and would like to be let off battels until next year, when I returned to Oxford. He said he had every sympathy with married couples, but that a year after marriage events frequently transpired which proved even more expensive, so I have to pay up. I hate Oxford, but, like war, one has to be in it to realize how awful it is.[27]

Frye had begun writing for the Canadian Forum in 1936, and during the 1937–38 academic year he produced several more pieces before he headed off to Oxford the following fall—an article on music, another on surrealism, and a review for the Forum, as well as a satire for Acta Victoriana.[28] Helen Frye herself wrote brief essays on two artists, Yvonne Williams and Fritz Brandtner, for the Forum.[29] Ayre notes that in February 1938 Frye read a paper on the techniques of modern writing to the University of Toronto Press Club and recycled several of his Oxford essays for the Graduate English Club (146–7). They both lecture on art to a group organized by Barker Fairley, professor of German at University College and a painter in his own right. In late March Frye learns that he has been awarded a $750 Trick Travelling Fellowship to complete his studies at Oxford. On the whole, Frye writes to Roy Daniells in July, the year was rather successful, adding that his best experience was with the music group of the Women’s Literary Society at Victoria, composed mostly of his first-year honour students. He and Helen spend June at Gordon Bay, after which he teaches a summer school course on nineteenth-century poetry and prose before gathering himself together for another year at Oxford. “The Blake,” he tells Daniells, “is in good shape, except for the recasting of some of the work on the major prophecies. I couldn’t have picked a subject calling for more exacting writing and arrangement of material. It takes its own time.”[30] On 23 August, Frye, having returned to Gordon Bay, writes to Chancellor Edward Wallace: “At the moment I am resting from the summer school, escaping the worst of the heat, and feeling generally rather poised and hovering, with all my possessions packed away and ready to take off for England as soon as my boat sails on the 24th of September. I am feeling a bit let down without anyone to teach here in Muskoka; the woodpeckers and bluejays catch a didactic glint in my eye and uneasily get out of the way.”[31]

In late September Frye leaves Montreal on the Empress of Britain, visiting briefly with his aunt Hatty Layhew before he sails. The spectre of war haunts the letters he writes on the voyage over, and the signs of a nation preparing for war greet him as he enters the English Channel. He stays in a London boarding house for a week, goes to a sherry party thrown by Elizabeth Fraser, and on 6 October (Helen Frye’s birthday) leaves for Oxford. For his second stint at Merton, he takes up residence in a boarding house some distance from the college, sharing a suite with Rodney Baine and Mike Joseph. The day after he arrives he goes to see Blunden, and he gets to work immediately, writing papers first on Crashaw and Herbert and then on Vaughan, Traherne, Herrick, Marvell, and Cowley, all of whom, he writes his wife, he has “ideas about.” Blunden advises him to postpone his Blake thesis and to study for the “schools”—examinations for the degree.

His first week back Frye attends lectures by David Nichol Smith, the Merton Professor of English at Oxford, and J.R.R. Tolkien, but finds little to recommend either. “Nichol Smith,” he says, “wouldn’t be bad for my sort of job: getting one point per lecture hammered home, but to me he’s prolix & dull. Then there’s Tolkien on Beowulf, dealing with a most insanely complicated problem which involves Anglo-Saxon genealogies, early Danish histories, monkish chronicles in Latin, Icelandic Eddas and Swedish folk-lore. Imagine my delivery at its very worst: top speed, unintelligible burble, great complexity of ideas and endless references to things unknown, mixed in with a lot of Latin and Anglo-Saxon and a lot of difficult proper names which aren’t spelled, and you have Tolkien on Beowulf.” Frye reports that he is writing a paper on the Dark Ages, apparently for J.N. Bryson, his Anglo-Saxon tutor, and in late October he grumbles that he has tied himself “in fearful knots over a paper on the character book.” “That drew a suggestion,” he adds, “for exploring 17th c. scientific works, so I’m quitting work for the term, as far as extras are concerned.” Frye does, however, give a talk on “A Short History of the Devil” to the Bodley Club.

Frye’s circle of friends expands to include three more Rhodes scholars—Alan Jarvis, from the University of Toronto; Charles Bell, from Mississippi, who has set up a ménage with Mildred Winfree; and Tom Allen, from Queen’s University. Allen has a piano, so Frye, Stephen Corder, and an unnamed cellist, form a trio and frequently congregate in Allen’s room to play Haydn, Brahms, Ravel, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. “The trio and the dark beer,” Frye reports later, “will be the only two things I’ll miss next year.” He actually sends back more detailed reports of his musical activities and gallery tours than of his literary studies. In October he goes with Alan Jarvis to see Sir Michael Sadler’s art collection, sending Helen what amounts to a gallery guide. He also meets the artist David Jones at Campion Hall, and writes a review of the Canadian exhibition at the Tate Gallery for the Canadian Forum. Helen wants Eric Newton, art critic of the Manchester Guardian, to review the show as well, which he eventually does after Frye serves as intermediary. In November Frye takes a day-trip to London with Mike Joseph to see Guernica, a Chirico show, and another exhibition of modern paintings. Guernica, which was shown along with its preliminary drawings, especially impressed Frye.

Back in Toronto Helen Frye continues to work at two jobs, serving as staff lecturer at the art gallery and as a don in a women’s residence at Victoria. One of her ongoing responsibilities at the gallery is to schedule talks for CBC radio. She reports that she is “doing a lot of new things this year and getting away with it,” including voice instruction from Sterndale Bennett, a local theatre director and actor. Bennett’s lessons help build her confidence as a speaker, and she prepares a radio talk entitled “Art for Everyman,” which is broadcast on 1 November 1938; she also arranges loan exhibitions, labels lantern slides, and lectures to Victoria College students. But she complains that she is “disgruntled about things” because the art gallery is lifeless and the residence life “isn’t nearly as tolerable as it was two years ago.” She grouses about the provincialism of Victoria College—in fact, she and Frye both grumble throughout the letters about Victoria’s Victorianism. But her active schedule at the gallery leaves little time for sustained complaining. The first week of November, for example, finds her speaking on mural painting for the League for Social Reconstruction, lecturing to 180 members of the Women Teachers Association, giving two other talks, and organizing various teas and breakfast parties for the students at Oaklawn, a women’s residence at Victoria College. Her group of friends, like Frye’s, expands to include the Faculty Women’s Association, the staff of the Canadian Forum, and members of the art community. She continues to record disheartening episodes in the ongoing saga of Magda and Bert Arnold.

Meanwhile in Oxford, Barbara Sturgis, Helen’s friend, stops by for a visit toward the end of the term, and Frye attends plays by Monk Lewis and Henry Arthur Jones. When the term is over on 3 December, he goes to London, where he stays, as a guest of Mike Joseph, at New Zealand House. He equips himself with a new suit, visits the Burnetts and their two German refugees, goes to three art exhibitions, and pays a call on Elizabeth Fraser. “I very much admire Elizabeth,” he confides, “but I confess she puzzles me. I’m afraid, too, that she’s getting to be my maiden aunt, whom it’s something of a duty to see. But that’s unfair. I do like her very much.” Frye then sets out for Paris by way of Rouen with Rodney Baine and Mike Joseph. They take in the usual Parisian sights, and although Frye writes that he is not living a life of dissipation, he does record a number of drinking bouts. After Baine has left to tour Normandy, Frye and Joseph take a side trip to Versailles: “when you get in the dead centre of all the algebra and sit down there the sheer monstrosity of the scheme does get you, all right, like Hitler’s voice.” They meet Baine in Chartres, where, with the bitter cold, Frye “thought more about [his] toes than about the medieval soul”; and the three of them return to Paris for Christmas. The frigid weather (it is the coldest winter since 1879) makes sightseeing difficult even for a Canadian, and the short days compound the problem: “it’s nearly dark at three and the economical French would sooner die than turn on a light.” Still, Frye manages to see Saint-Chapelle, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Musée de l’Homme, a number of gallery exhibitions, the Jeu de Paume, the Musée de Luxembourg, and the Musée de Cluny. The paintings he catalogues consist mostly of modernists—Kandinsky, Klee, Chagall, Despiau, Borés, Kisling, Masson, Soutine, and Utrillo. He hears concerts by Yves Tinayre and Jacques Thibaud as well.

Helen spends “a grand week” after Christmas in Chicago with Frye’s sister Vera, and in her first letter of the new year she begins to wonder whether their vague plans to meet in England for the summer will materialize, and if so, how they will pay for the trip. “I wish you’d start thinking about finances after March,” she writes in early January, “and let me know what you are planning. I need a new coat just now and if I get it I’ll be starting from scratch again by the first of February, so that it will take some time for me to save much. I thought of going to New York and New England if Europe is out of the question, and of course I’m expecting to do it with you, or at least some of it. But how are you getting enough to keep you there in the summer, even if I do? Or if I came over in the spring—what then? You figure out something and if you can borrow enough perhaps I can come.”

Frye returns to London by way of Amiens, where his brother Howard had been killed in World War I. “I don’t know whether he’s buried near here,” Frye writes, “or in the Canadian cemetery at Vimy. Or rather, I don’t know where his cross is: I suppose the bomb that hit him did the burying.” He is struck by the sculpture of the cathedral at Amiens (“the symbolism is better organized and more completely worked out” than that of Chartres) and by “the terrific reaching for height and those superb flying buttresses” of the cathedral at Beauvais. What most affects him, however, is a particularly nightmarish wooden statue of the crucifixion at St. Etienne’s Church in Beauvais. “It caught my eye,” he reports, “because that’s a very bad and very rare medium for a crucifixion, and as I looked at it it got worse . . . . It’s one of the most wilfully grotesque things I’ve ever seen.”

Back in London, Frye again visits the Burnetts, who now are harbouring two additional refugees, sees Elizabeth Fraser, and heads back up to Oxford. Meanwhile Helen repeats her admonitions for her husband to settle his plans for the summer, and she hints that Martin Baldwin is pushing her to apply for a scholarship at Yale. When she learns that Frye has about ₤60 left for the rest of the term, she suggests that if she can scrape together enough money she may be able to sail for England in June, arriving there about the time he finishes his exams. In late January she predicts she can save about $300, but a few weeks later she announces she is “insolvent again,” and she seems to hedge about going abroad: “You know, if we really were sensible, I suppose I’d be saving to buy furniture or something to fill up space when you come back.” Frye’s accounts of his tutorials are sketchy: “Blunden continues vague and complimentary. He says things like ‘I wish you’d write these things down, just as you say them: I think there’s something to be said for a book of table-talk,’ or ‘I don’t care about a paper: it’s enough just to get you talking.’ But he doesn’t seem to remember what I’ve told him particularly.” In early February Frye reports on doing a paper on King Lear that “Blunden seemed to like,” but adds, “otherwise I’ve done little work.” Two weeks later, however, he does write a paper on the history of the language for J.N. Bryson.

Frye worries about his appointment at Victoria for the fall of 1939. He expects to have a staff position, but in late February he has received no official confirmation, and this puts him in an especially dark mood: “I’m hoping for the best. At the worst I can join the Chinese army. I think I can pile up more concentrated misery in this place than I could in hell. I detest England and I loathe Oxford: I think I always have done.” But “the coming of spring,” he says, “has lightened my misanthropic soul very considerably,” and just before the end of the middle term he plays the part of a professor in a farce staged by the Merton Dramatic Society. After taking the first week of his Easter holiday to prepare for his exams in Old English, Middle English, and Chaucer, he spends two weeks of his vacation in Blackpool at the home of fellow student Bunny Mellor. Eager to return to Canada, Frye writes, “Wait till I get back and we’ll make things hum in that hick town of ours. My lectures next year will be twenty-five times as good as they were last year, and I can lecture on anything from Beowulf to Beverley Nichols at a moment’s notice. Once these silly exams are over—but I won’t lay plans yet. Reading Latin and Greek, either original or translation, is the next thing I have to do. And then, when I hit a PMLA conference they’ll think it’s an air raid, or the Martians.” In late March Frye visits his Oxford classmate Jack Mason at the home of Mason’s aunt and uncle in Preston.

At the beginning of April Helen is still uncertain about the summer trip: “I spend my time alternately counting days and counting money—the one side still comes out too much, the other too little, but I’m still hoping.” But financing the trip is not the only problem: the menace of Hitler’s despotism is now more threatening than ever. “I don’t know whether I’ll be seeing you there or here,” she writes. “I simply cannot read what is to happen in the next three months.” But Frye, who has left his boarding house and moved back into residence at Merton for the spring term, remains sanguine about his wife’s coming and their taking a trip to the continent. In April he feels that war is not imminent, but by the middle of May he writes that he feels “a little more apprehensive about war scares lately.”

Helen, meanwhile, is searching for an apartment in Toronto for the fall and begins to envision their life together in the community: “I’m looking for a coach-house apartment or a separate flat or an apartment or a very small house. It certainly will be private for I want privacy! For a few hours a week anyway. I’m beginning to feel that you and I have got ourselves involved in a public career that we’ll find hard to kick over. I don’t think that I shall want to stop working at the Gallery next year: I’m getting ideas about it. And now that I’m learning to speak to crowds is no time to stop. I’d be home shouting in your poor defenceless ear and driving you crazy. Anyway, I’m thinking of a house to live in.” She eventually gets a second-hand report that Principal Walter Brown is expecting Frye back in the fall, and she passes this information along to him in her letter of 15 May—information that, of course, relieves the major anxiety they have both had.

During the second week of June, Frye writes his examinations and sits for his viva voce, earning a first, the only Merton student for the year to achieve such a mark in English literature. In mid-June Helen sets sail on the SS Georgic from New York, and she is met by Frye at the Waterloo station when she arrives in London. His telegram to her aboard ship is the last piece of correspondence in the present collection. They do get to take a hurried trip to the continent, leaving London for Paris in late July and meeting Mike Joseph in Florence for a two-week tour of northern Italy. On 12 August they sail from Southampton on the Empress of Britain and arrive back in Montreal on 23 August, thus bringing to a close the last of the separations that have generated this exceptional body of letters.


[1] (Intro. n.1) John Ayre, Northrop Frye: A Biography (Toronto: Random House, 1989). Hereafter cited as Ayre.

[2] (Intro. n.2) S.H.F. Kemp to HK, 17 October 1934, 9 April 1935, and 25 September 1934. HFF, 1992, box 2, file 3.

[3] (§I n.1) “Recital Is Given: Young Pianist Charms Large Audience with Varied Program,” Toronto Daily Star, 12 February 1929, 19. The Toronto Globe called Kemp’s performance of works by Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Goossens, and Liszt “successful” (9 February 1929, 19). The recital also included a Brahms trio, which Kemp performed with violinist Ruby Dennison, her instructor at the Danard Conservatory, and cellist Marcus Adeney.

[4] (§I n.2) See “Philharmonic Choir Scores Again before Music Loving Populace of the City,” Kitchener Daily Record, 6 March 1929, 1, 13. The reviewer remarks that “while the choral work was of a high order, the evening’s enjoyment would have been greatly lessened by the non-appearance of the assisting artists, Marcus Adeney, cellist, and Miss Helen Kemp, pianiste.”

[5] (§I n.3) For Kemp’s early sketches and the drawings she did when studying at the Courtauld Institute and travelling on the continent, see Helen Frye Fonds, 1993, box 1, file 3, and box 4, file 2. For two of the former, see illus. 6 and 7, this volume; for examples of the latter, see illus. 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21, this volume.

[6] (§I n.4) Typescript in Northrop Frye Fonds, 1991, box 39, file 8.

[7] (§II n.1) For an account of Frye’s senior year see Ayre, 78–81, which focuses on the editorials he wrote for A cta Victoriana and his papers on Romanticism and on Browning, written respectively for G.S. Brett and Pelham Edgar.

[8] (§II n.2)Vera Victoria Frye was born in Lowell, Mass., on Christmas day of 1900. She grew up in New England and then in Sherbrooke, Que., where Frye himself was born twelve years later. After attending Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., she left for Chicago, where she got a job at the School of Osteopathy on Ellis Ave., eventually becoming registrar, librarian, instructor in physics, and secretary to the dean. She was then hired to teach at Central School in Evergreen Park, a Chicago suburb, and during this time continued her education, first in English and then in psychology, in graduate school at the University of Chicago. She taught third through eighth grades at Central School for thirty-four years, retiring in 1962. She died in Los Angeles on Good Friday of 1966.

[9] (§II n.3)A summer camp for girls on Lake Vernon in the Muskoka lake district near Huntsville, Ont.; HK worked at the camp during the summers of 1933 and 1934, teaching art classes and helping with musical and dramatic activities.

[10] (§II n.4)The Central Area Conference of the SCM, held at YMCA Park on Lake Couchiching, near Orillia, Ont., 13–22 September 1933 and subsequently; in previous years the conference had been held at Elgin House.

[11] (§II n.5)In a letter sent to Pelham Edgar in 1948, NF writes: “In my fourth year I could hardly talk about anything but Blake, and Helen gave me the one-volume Keynes Poetry and Prose for my graduation present.” NF to Pelham Edgar, 9 August 1948, Pelham Edgar Collection, VU Library.

[12] (§III n.1) On 3 January 1934, Arthur Lismer recommended HK to the Canadian Committee “as a most acceptable and fitting person to enter upon the necessary training here and abroad, with the aim of becoming a useful and well-informed member of museum or art gallery staff in Canada.” See the letter of Lismer to H.O. McCurry, assistant director of the National Gallery of Canada, in the NGCA. (His letter is mistakenly dated 3 January 1933: it was written in 1934.)

[13] (§III n.2) Altogether, sixteen of Frye’s Emmanuel College essays have survived; see, for example, “The Age and Type of Christianity in the Epistle of James” (written for Prof. John Dow’s New Testament course), “The Relative Importance of the Causes of the Reformation” (written for Prof. Kenneth Cousland’s Church History course), and “The Relation of Religion to the Arts” (written for Prof. George McMullen’s Public Speaking course) in the NFF, 1991, box 37, file 9.

[14] (§IV n.1) The Courtauld Institute had been founded at the University of London in 1931. It offered courses for the B.A. honours degree and the academic diploma in both art history and archaeology, as well as for the M.A. and Ph.D.

[15] (§IV n.2) “Memoir,” an unpublished typescript, read at a memorial service in honour of HKF in September 1986. Northrop Frye Fonds, 1991, box 50, file 3.

[16] (§IV n.3) On Frye’s relationship with Wilson Knight, who had formerly taught at Trinity College, see Ayre, 111–13. In his letters Frye does not mention the course on satire, but see Ayre, 104, 107.

[17] (§IV n.4) Sir James Frazer’s classic study of myth, ritual, and folk customs; originally published in two volumes in 1890, it eventually expanded to twelve (1911–15), followed by a supplementary Aftermath. Frazer’s work had a profound influence on Frye’s thinking.

[18] (§IV n.5) Ayre reports that during this time Frye was also reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Eliot, Joyce, Augustine, Hugh of St. Victor, and Mâle’s The Gothic Image (107–9).

[19] (§V n.1) Shortly after she arrived in London in 1934, HK sent her father a copy of Marie Stopes’s Birth Control Today. Replying to her after he had received the parcel, he said, “Later on, when I can send you a little money to cover the price, I am going to ask you to try the same plan & wrap up separately like you did this one, two or three others I see advertised in the back cover of this book, such as Enduring Passion, Roman Catholic Methods of Birth Control, Mother England, and even maybe Contraception, all by Marie Stopes. . . . The new book is very wonderful, going straight to the point. Very very wonderful. . . . I may want to get one or two more copies of the one you sent me. My, I think if some philanthropist could only spread a few thousand of them all over the country, how wonderful it would be, away and above the very problematical benefits derived from such things as ‘missions.’ But then I have always had the subject very much at heart.” S.H.F. Kemp to HK, 9 November 1934, HFF, 1992, box 2, file 3. In his weekly letters to HK in 1935, S.H.F. Kemp frequently speaks of his crusade to make birth control information readily available. He even toys with the idea of writing a book on the subject himself (19 March 1935, Helen Frye Fonds, 1992, box 2, file 3).

[20] (§V n.2) “Literature and Society,” Reading the World: Selected Writings, 1935–1976, ed. Robert D. Denham (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), 183.

[21] (§V n.3) See Elizabeth Fraser’s letters to NF in the Helen Frye Fonds, 1991, box 3, file 1.

[22] (§V n.4) Manitoba Arts Review, 3 (Spring 1942), 35–47.

[23] (§V n.5) R.E. Stoneman to NF, 6 July 1937, Helen Frye Fonds, 1991, box 3, file 1.

[24] (§V n.6) Elizabeth Fraser to NF, 30 July 1937. The material in this and the preceding paragraph about Fraser’s role in getting Frye’s manuscript to the printers comes from her letters to him dated 24 June, 8 July, 26 July, 5 August, and 11 November 1937, Helen Frye Fonds, 1991, box 3, file 1.

[25] (§V n.7) J.C. Roberts to Elizabeth Fraser, 4 August 1937. Fraser forwarded Roberts’s letter to Frye on 5 August 1937, along with a copy of her reply to Roberts, saying “I shall get the second part [of NF’s manuscript] to you as quickly as possible.” Helen Frye Fonds, 1991, box 3, file 1.

[26] (§VI n.1) Elizabeth Fraser to NF, 7 August 1937. Helen Frye Fonds, 1991, box 3, file 1.

[27] (§VI n.2) NF to Roy Daniells, undated, but written in November 1937. Roy Daniells Fonds, box 3, file 8.

[28] (§VI n.3) “Music and the Savage Breast,” Canadian Forum 18 (April 1938), 451–3; “Men as Trees Walking,” ibid., (October 1938), 208–10; “Lord Dufferin,” ibid., (April 1938), 458; and “Face to Face,” Acta Victoriana, 62 (March 1938), 10–12.

[29] (§VI n.4) “Yvonne Williams,” Canadian Forum 18 (June 1938), 80; and “Fritz Brandtner,” ibid., (December 1938), 272.

[30] (§VI n.5) NF to Roy Daniells, 20 July 1938. Roy Daniells Fonds, box 3, file 8.

[31] (§VI n.6) NF to Edgar W. Wallace, 23 August 1938. UCC/VUA, 89.130V, box 26, file 286.

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