The Dorothy Duncan Fonds

By Shannon Viola

As part of GLIS 641, Archival Description and Access, my peers and I have been tasked with creating finding aids for some of the fonds in McGill’s Rare Books and Archives. My partner, Aeron McHattie, and I have been spending hours in the ROAAr reading room poring over the love letters, typescripts, and scrapbooks of Dorothy Duncan. An American-born Canadian writer, Duncan won the Governor General’s Award for English-language non-fiction in 1946 for Partner in Three Worlds. As I flip through Duncan’s scrapbooks or read her agenda, I feel the presence of a talented, industrious writer who works for the work itself and not for fame—and her claim to fame is often that her husband was Hugh MacLennan, also a writer, and English professor at McGill.

Duncan wrote an article for Maclean’s Magazine in 1945 called “My Author Husband,” a title that seems to overshadow her own work in favor of her husband’s. Duncan writes about her husband’s writing habits, his twofold personality, his dynamism in their twelve years of marriage. She remembers how a newspaper interviewer, who had read neither of their books, wrote that Duncan’s only impetus to write was out of boredom, that she married MacLennan and had nothing else to do in Montreal. Her fonds, however, contains two unpublished novels, written before she married MacLennan. She filled a composition notebook of her favorite quotes and poems in newspapers while she was in high school. Her letters are not the ramblings of a housewife drowning in ennui during a Montreal winter; they are the work of a writer.

Love letters from MacLennan to Duncan, some penned while she was away for the weekend, detail his adoration of her intellect. Duncan’s papers tell the story of their reciprocal admiration and their literary partnership. From the story Duncan’s papers are telling, it is apparent that reading MacLennan is not possible without reading Duncan. In “My Author Husband,” Duncan writes, “It is true that we differ greatly in the nature of our work, but I have still to write a book in which he does not appear.” The love letters from MacLennan echo his wife’s sentiment. If Duncan is remembered as “the wife of Hugh MacLennan,” then it is just as fair for MacLennan to be “the husband of Dorothy Duncan.”

The Dorothy Duncan fonds is available for study in the ROAAr reading room. For opening hours, visit this link.

To read Duncan’s article in Maclean’s, visit this link.

A McGill library search for Duncan’s work can be found here.

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