Ida May Ferguson
Ida May Ferguson (novelist, bookkeeper) adopted a pseudonym, Dyjan Fergus, for her first and only published work Tisab Ting, or The Electrical Kiss (1896, novel). Ferguson was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1871(?). She later moved with her family to Moncton, New Brunswick, where she pursued a career in bookkeeping (Census of Canada, 1891 94). She published her novel at the age of twenty-five. Notably, Tisab Ting is one of the earliest Canadian contributions to the genre of science fiction.
Ferguson was the daughter of Peter B. Ferguson and Isabella (Watson) Ferguson. Both parents immigrated from Scotland. Peter was a plumber while Isabella managed a boarding house (Census, 1891 94). The Ferguson family—consisting of the two parents and daughters Christina, Ida May, and Charlotte—was Presbyterian (Census of Canada, 1881 5). Isabella, in particular, became deeply involved with the St. John Presbyterian Church in Moncton (“Mrs. Isabel Ferguson” 7).
Few details are known regarding the publication of Tisab Ting. However, the critical commentary surrounding the work largely focuses on its early date. Preceding Ferguson’s work was James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, another New Brunswick-authored piece of science fiction. De Mille wrote his book in the 1860s but only published it serially in 1888—just a decade prior to Tisab Ting (Ketterer 9). Both De Mille’s and Ferguson’s works are rather unique, then, for, as David Ketterer writes, science fiction “was and is an overwhelmingly American phenomenon” (1). Much of early Canadian fiction reflected the influence of realism and naturalism. Tisab Ting, with its futuristic setting and supernatural elements, thus deviated substantially from the traditional literary movements prominent in Canada at the time.
The novel centres around a Chinese man, Tisab Ting, who, seeking a wife, visits Montreal. He quickly sets his sights on Petra Bertram, who is quite vocal regarding her hatred of the Chinese race. Through a scientific discovery, Tisab Ting successfully wins Bertram’s affections by harnessing the power of an electrical kiss, effectively placing her in a trance.
The titular character, Tisab Ting, is what John Robert Colombo identifies as the “alienated outsider,” a recurring figure prominent in many works of Canadian science fiction (2). As a Chinese man visiting Canada for the first time, he is viewed as an outsider. Ferguson establishes this in Tisab Ting’s initial description: “His strange appearance, his foreign accent, compel one belief—the Chinaman!” (Fergus 52). The Canadian characters around him constantly denigrate Tisab Ting for both his appearance and dialect, which differ from their own. Ferguson’s use of the outsider figure is therefore consistent with how many science fiction writers represent this type of non-European character. Rather than celebrating and elevating the outsider for what he or she may bring, Ferguson’s science fiction is “the run-of-the-mill formulaic kind that typically support[s] rather than seek[s] to subvert the established order” (Ketterer 3).
“The established order” Tisab Ting perpetuates is that of a structurally racist hierarchy. A product of its time, the novel is steeped in racist language and presumptions. On numerous occasions, Ferguson employs the terms “Chinaman” and “foreigner” when describing the novel’s Chinese character. The book fixates negatively on certain physical attributes that Ferguson associates only with Chinese people. As one character comments: “‘all the civilization in the world would not take away the tawny, parchment-coloured skin, oblique eyes, high cheekbones, coarse, oily hair, characteristic of his nationality’” (Fergus 25). The book groups all Chinese people into one identity, erasing differences and complexities, such that we can only read the novel today through the matrix of its limitations.
In a similar vein, the notion of civilization as advanced or primitive recur throughout the novel. It begins in 1995—set almost a full one-hundred years in the future from the date of the book’s publication. In the intervening years, writes Ferguson, China underwent a “meteor-like course towards civilized greatness, [with] grand educational advantages” wherein the Chinese “are no longer a people who think and live in the past” (85). In writing as such, Ferguson suggests that as of the late-nineteenth-century, the Chinese are an uncivilized people in need of transformation.
Ferguson was certainly not alone in her beliefs, for, at the end of the nineteenth-century, anti-Chinese sentiments prevailed throughout Canada. Pseudo-scientific notions of race caused many white Canadians to view Chinese individuals as inferior and culturally backward (Li 42). Petra’s proclivity for casting Chinese as scapegoats—“‘Everything is the fault of that Chinaman and his wealth’” (Fergus 19)—conforms with white Canadians’ resentment of Chinese labourers for their own economic hardships (Li 24). Moreover, says Peter S. Li, racism against Chinese-Canadians was institutional, evidenced through government restrictions on both immigration and voting rights (37). Therefore, Ferguson and her characters’ racism were essentially locked in the moment of her own time.
The novel’s reception was mixed. An anonymous review in The Canadian Magazine from 1897 was quite harsh. The review calls into question Ferguson’s authority as an author and dismisses her in characteristic paternalistic fashion as a “young lady writer” (“Canadian Fiction” 284). The reviewer compliments the plot’s premise but argues that Ferguson’s writing negates any originality. Overall, “the execution is very weak” (284).
An earlier 1896 review from The Daily Transcript, a Moncton newspaper, offers further comment; however, it is significantly kinder due, perhaps, to the author’s strong ties to the city. The review praises her writing style, calling it “clear and impressive,” whereas a poor title and weak plot undermine the novel (“Tisab Ting or the Electrical Kiss” 2). Finally, the review applauds Ferguson for her debut efforts and anticipates future success: “Her power of imagination gives promise of future developments, which if cultivated, will bear fruit by and bye, winning for her more than local renown” (“Tisab Ting or the Electrical Kiss” 2).
More recently, the novel garnered the attention of Scott Godfrey, who wrote about the novel in Saint John’s Telegraph-Journal in 2016. Godfrey examines the work in the context of the genre of science fiction. He criticizes Ferguson’s imaginative range and view of technological development, stating that Ferguson’s representation of 1995 Montreal is “merely an expansion of the existing world” (Godfrey F6). In light of the work’s shortcomings, Godfrey acknowledges that “though it is easy to find fault with the book, the attempt itself deserves some recognition, even if the execution leaves much to be desired” (F6).
On several occasions, Ferguson references the year 1895—not so subtle hints to when she likely penned the novel. She makes several vague references that promise her 1995 society deviates from that of her contemporary setting, a favourite speculation of writers of science fiction: “The city of Montreal had grown and extended—beyond the most sanguine expectations of the nineteenth-century” (37). However, Ferguson fails to describe any new technologies or introduce unique locales needed to substantiate such changes. Rather, many conventions and practices of the late-1800s transfer over to the world of Tisab Ting.
Although Ferguson never lived up to The Daily Transcript’s lofty predictions, her work Tisab Ting remains significant for being one of Canada’s first works of science fiction.
Kate MacEwen, Fall 2019
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Fergus, Dyjan. Tisab Ting; or, The Electrical Kiss. Toronto, ON: The Hunter, Rose Co., 1896.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
“Canadian Fiction.” The Canadian Magazine 8 (1897): 284.
Census of Canada, 1881, Westmorland County. Canada Department of Agriculture. Ottawa, ON: Library and Archives Canada, 2019.
Census of Canada, 1891, Westmorland County. Canada Department of Agriculture. Ottawa, ON: Library and Archives Canada, 2019.
Colombo, John Robert. Other Canadas: An Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Toronto, ON: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1979.
Godfrey, Scott. “Canada's First True Science Fiction Book.” Telegraph-Journal [Saint John, NB] 9 Jan. 2016: F6.
Ketterer, David. Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1992.
Li, Peter S. Chinese in Canada. 2nd ed. Toronto, ON: Oxford UP, 1998.
“Mrs. Isabel Ferguson.” Daily Times [Moncton, NB] 20 Aug. 1925: 7.
“Tisab Ting or the Electrical Kiss.” Daily Transcript [Moncton, NB] 30 Dec. 1896: 2.