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Hundreds and Thousands by Emily Carr (thoughts)

March 7, 2013

Hundreds and Thousands
I am not sure which book blogger recommend I look into Emily Carr’s journals (I suspect Melanie however WordPress searches don’t include comments so I can’t confirm), but I’m deeply indebted to them. I picked up Hundreds and Thousands almost at a whim, when I wanted a break from all of the serious analytical nonfiction I’d been reading, and I found myself almost instantly enchanted.

These journals cover Carr’s life from 1927 to 1941 (she’s a sporadic journal keeper, though, so they only amount to around three hundred pages total), when she was already middle aged and had been painting for years. The first one is about her visit to Toronto’s Group of Seven (famous male artist circle) whose praise of her work marks the turning point in her artistic career. From there, she writes about her daily life, her philosophical struggles (with God, with loneliness), and of course her art. But what I connected with is her writing style: at times cantankerous and moody, it’s usually filled with gentle humour (often directed at herself), a love for nature and pets (she calls her dogs griffons and also has a pet monkey named Woo and beloved rat named Susie who always ends up travelling with her since no one will agree to rat-sit), and a solitariness that made me she was a bit of a kindred spirit. Her imagery is marvelous, filled with unexpected metaphors and anthropomorphism that is precise and whimsical and powerful all at once. Here’s a taste:

The house begins to be a home. The unfamiliar places are beginning to fold the familiar objects into their keeping and to cosy them down. Objects that swore at each other when the movers heaved them into th enew rooms have subsided into corners and sit to lick their feet and wash their faces like cats accepting a new home. The garden is undeniably mine alread, with its neat fence and the griffon dogs. The great brooding maple is thinking of spring and with half-waked sitr is drawing the juice from my little patch of earth. The big fuschia and the young japonica, blushing with its first year’s blooming, are set orderly against the newly painted walls, with thongs of moose hide from the North softly retrainings their young branches. Spring won’t be long now. We two old winter birds will welcome her.

While I enjoyed a glimpse into her artistic processes (I was fortunate enough to see some of her work at Montreal’s Beaux-Arts), it was really the domestic details of her unconventional but homey life that made this such a treat. For instance, she acquires an old caravan, names it The Elephant, and proceeds to go camping in the woods each year with her dogs, rat, and monkey for company.

Her life certainly isn’t all rosy, though, and occasionally she’d write something that broke my heart:

I wonder will death be much lonelier than life. Life’s an awfully lonesome affair.

But overall, in the joys she found in simple things and in her determination to follow her life’s passion despite many obstacles, not to mention in her willingness to stick to her beliefs and values rather than societal norms, I found much to admire. I plan to get my own copy of Hundreds and Thousands so that I can pull it out and reread bits at leisure, as if I were calling up an old friend. In the meantime, I’m already eyeing Carr’s autobiography Growing Pains.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2013 12:25 pm

    There are some really charming copies of her journals around second-hand; I hope you are very pleased with the collection you eventually assemble. [A short-and-sweet graphic novel/illustrated volume that you might like as a companion for your explorations is Nicolas Debon's Four Pictures by Emily Carr. I discovered it during my obsessive reading from House of Anansi's catalogue late last year: a real pleasure!]

  2. March 8, 2013 2:30 pm

    Another one to add to my list. I love reading journals and diaries of creative people.

  3. March 8, 2013 7:02 pm

    This is not particularly germane, but I only fairly recently discovered it so I AM TELLING YOU NOW TOO. (I’m sure you already know.) Hundreds-and-thousands are just sprinkles! I read the term in a Rumer Godden book one time, and she tells what they are but not in a way that made them sound like sprinkles in any way. But that’s what hundreds-and-thousands are. They are sprinkles. Now we all know.

  4. March 10, 2013 8:18 pm

    So glad you read this — you seem to have had the same reaction to it as I did — I so love Emily Carr. Her writing is equal to her painting, I think — both wonderful. All of her books are interesting but her journals are special.

  5. March 11, 2013 1:31 am

    This sounds absolutely enchanting! Am quite determined to get hold of a copy of this as well as her other works now. Thanks for the heads up! :)

  6. March 12, 2013 6:09 pm

    I loved her journals when I read them long ago – in fact, your posts are making me think that I need to reread her again. I have a few postcards of her art, and a few years ago there was a retrospective of her art at the National Gallery that I took my daughter to go see (she wanted to be an artist at the time). I love how she draws the fir trees, the light, the colours are all British Columbia, where i spent some of my formative years. Her journals are homey, you are so right in your description, and I think that makes them accessible. I really enjoyed them. Yes, indeed, I think it’s time to get new copies – somehow I lost mine over the years.

    If you like her, then you will love May Sarton’s journals too, which have a similar internal feel and observation of the world around her. I have just found her At Seventy, which I am looking forward to reading. I love Plant Dreaming Deep, which I bought mostly for the title, and then fell in love with the journal, too :-)

    • March 13, 2013 9:54 pm

      Susan, oh, I agree! May Sarton’s journals are wonderful as well.

  7. March 19, 2013 4:31 pm

    This one sounds great. I’ll have to check it out!

  8. May 28, 2013 8:38 pm

    I just finished Hundreds and Thousands. What a fantastic woman and wonderful journal. I live on a landscape where Catharine Parr Traill lived and wrote on in the mid-1840s. I love the beauty of nature. Emily Carr was absolutely amazing in her ability to capture the vibrancy and life force of the natural world. Thank you dear Emily!!

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