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Inventing the Meaning:
Sheila Doherty Watson (1909-1998)

She wrote one of the most inspiring Canadian novels of the 20th century, but Sheila Watson hesitated to call herself a writer. Only three short stories appeared before the publication of her revolutionary work The Double Hook, and just one other novel (written earlier) and several short stories would follow. Yet never has a woman of so few words made such an impact on Canadian literature.

As Stephen Scobie wrote in a 1975 tribute to the reserved, self-etfacing artist who appeared to live on coffee and cigarettes, "there is no point in listing the names of those who have been influenced by her; such a list would have to include every serious writer in Canada for the last twenty years." B.C. writer and poet ,George Bowering called The Double Hook "a holy book for Canadian writers," and according to English professor Frank Davey of the University of Western Ontario, it was "considered by many to be the first truly modern Canadian novel."

Beyond her contribution to literature, however, Watson was also one of the most provocative instructors in the University of Alberta's English department during the 1960s and '70s, teaching "heaven knows how many students to read with deep pleasure and very critically," says dean of Arts Patricia Clements who was herself one of Watson's students. "The most extraordinary thing about Sheila's teaching style was that she was not eloquent, she was not always coherent, she didn't give you prepackaged stuff. She got you to invent the meaning."

"Sheila would get half way through a sentence, would fix you with those blue eyes and say, `you know what I mean?' So you would nod and say, `yes,' even though you rarely did," says Clements. "She would have the nerve to sail out there on the wings of a sentence before she had it entirely figured out."

In true modernist fashion, Watson was reserved about the facts of her own life. She rarely gave interviews, believing that literature should speak for itself, that the details of a writer's life only obscure and confuse the relationship between reader and text. Some of those details, however, are difficult to ignore.

Sheila Martin Doherty was born in New Westminster, B.C., the second of four children. Her father was the superintendent of the Provincial Mental Hospital in New Westminster, and the Doherty family lived inside the "self-contained community" of the institution, housed in a tower reached by a circular stairway. For the first 11 years of her life, Sheila was exposed to a range of human nature few see at so young an age. "It made the absurdity of life seem normal to me," she said in an interview with the Western Catholic Reporter. "The irrational was rational ... one got used to people being terribly varied." Since some of these impressions eventually found their way into her short stories, critics inevitably pointed out how Watson's contact with hospital residents helped forge her imaginative universe. The Doherty children, comments Shirley Neuman, who taught with Watson at the U of A, "observed a mental disorder on the one hand and a literal mindedness on the other which may have contributed to the polarity of order and chaos which some critics have detected in Watson's work."

Apart from the influence of this unusual childhood environment, Watson had a strict Roman Catholic upbringing. She went to primary and secondary school with the Sisters of Saint Anne in New Westminster, and her first two university years were spent at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Vancouver. This experience would also resurface later on. While religion is rarely obtrusive or dogmatic in Watson's writing, writes Scobie, "it is always, undeniably present." In 1931 Watson received an honors degree in English from the University of British Columbia, and 09 in 1932 obtained her Academic Teaching Certificate. Her master's thesis on 18th century essayists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele followed in 1933. For the next 10 years Watson took on a variety of teaching assignments at grade schools in several B.C. communities. In one of these, a tiny Cariboo community between Williams Lake and Ashcroft on the Fraser River, she was put in charge of an ungraded class of nine pupils. This community would become the setting for The Double Hook.

Sheila Doherty married the poet Wilfred Watson in 1941 and the couple moved to Toronto after the war. There she taught at Moulton College and enrolled in graduate studies part time at the University of Toronto. She later worked as a sessional lecturer at UBC and also spent a year teaching high school in Powell River, B.C. before moving to Calgary in 1951.

In Calgary, during what she recalled as "one of the few years when I wasn't teaching," Watson wrote The Double Hook, which was finally published in 1959 at the encouragement of Frederick Salter, the University of Alberta's legendary creative writing instructor. Although some of the first reviewers regarded the novel's dense language and complex symbolism as disastrous, it has since become a fixture of Canadian literature courses across the country and has been translated into several languages.

"I didn't want to write a local-color or what you might call a regional novel," Watson said in 1975. "The form of The Double Hook was chosen to give a sense of immediacy, of the intensity of emotion ... that threw me into the dramatic dialogue form of The Double Hook."

In 1957 Watson attended the Univcrsity of Toronto to study the work of novelist-painter Wyndham Lewis. Her doctoral thesis was supervised by the famous ccnnmunicaticms theorist Marshall McLuhan, who was impressed by Watson's scaring intellect and her ability to read literature with a fresh perspective. She completed her doctorate in 1965, but would spend a year working with McLuhan again in 1968 at his Centre for Culture and Technology.

Watson joined her husband at the University of Alberta's English departtnent in 1961, and her reputation as a teacher and scholar began to attract numerous graduate students from across Canada. In 1971 she co-founded White Pelican: A Quarterly Review of the Arts, with Stephen Scobie, Douglas Barbour, John Orrell, Norman Yates, and Dorothy Livesay. The journal ran for 18 issues over four-and-a-half years, establishing itself as a forum for some of the most progressive writing and graphics in Canada.

Two slim collections of her short stories were published during her lifetime, along with some of her scholarly and critical essays. After laying in a desk drawer for 50 years, her first novel, Deep Hollow Creek, finally appeared in 1992. More conventional in form, it is also set in the Cariboo country of B.C.

Sheila Watson died in February of 1998 at the age of 88, following complications from hip surgery. Her husband Wilfred died a few weeks later. Their passing closed the door to an important chapter in Edmonton's cultural history.

"She and Wilfred formed the unquestioned centre around which the literary life of the city revolved," writes Scobie. "Wilfred was writing prolifically — plays, poems — but even Sheila's silence commanded attention and respect."

Published Winter 1999.

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