Elisabeth Harvor

Elisabeth HarvorPhoto: Canadian Poetry Online, U of T Libraries
Elisabeth Harvor
Photo: Canadian Poetry Online, U of T Libraries

Elisabeth Harvor (short story writer, poet, and novelist) was born Erica Elisabeth Arendt Deichmann on 26 June 1936 in Saint John, New Brunswick. Her published works include three collections of short stories, Women and Children (1973), later revised as Our Lady of All the Distances (1991), If Only We Could Drive Like This Forever (1988), and Let Me Be the One (1996); two books of poetry, Fortress of Chairs (1992) and The Long Cold Green Evenings of Spring (1997); an anthology of the work of established and beginning writers, A Room at the Heart of Things (1998); as well as two novels, Excessive Joy Injures the Heart (2000) and All Times Have Been Modern (2004). Harvor is presently (2010) working on editing An Open Door in the Landscape, a new book of poetry, which is slated for publication later this year.

Harvor’s parents, Kjeld and Erica (Matthiesen) Deichmann, were Danish immigrant artisans who made pottery by hand using techniques dating back thousands of years. On her website, Harvor writes, “My parents had lived most of their early lives in cities (in northern Europe) and fell completely in love with the freedom and vastness of Canada. They were also attracted to the romantic hardship of the life they hoped to lead so far out in the country: no running water, no electricity, no paved roads, no doctor” Harvor “On the Connections Between Art & Artifact”). After the death of Harvor’s father in 1963, her mother married diplomat and former president of UNB, Milton Gregg. She then retired from crafting pottery so that she could travel with her new husband to a posting in the Co-operative Republic of Guyana in South America.

Shortly after her fifth birthday, Harvor’s parents sent her to school at a one-room country schoolhouse in Summerville, in the Kennebecasis Valley of southern New Brunswick. In those days there were not many nursery schools or kindergartens in rural areas; consequently, it was necessary for her parents to send her to school at an early age. Harvor says, “I was very worried all through Grade One and did a lot of erasing and cheating” (Interview with author). She goes on to say, “the other children in Grade One—who were two years older than I was—seemed to know everything while I felt I knew nothing. They helped me a great deal, though, by passing the correct answers to questions across to me when the teacher wasn't looking.” After completing that turbulent first grade, she remained at this school until grade eight, after which she moved to Saint John to live with friends of her parents, a doctor and his wife, to attend the Saint John Vocational High School. Other friends of her parents taught at this school: Kay Smith, a teacher of English and drama, and Ted Campbell, a teacher of painting and drawing. A virulent strain of pneumonia ran through this school when Harvor was in tenth grade, and after she became very ill, her parents decided she would return to the country the following year to attend the MacDonald Consolidated School in the village of Kingston. She was valedictorian for her class in grade eleven, and the following year returned to Saint John to live with a Baptist family in the Mount Pleasant area. Here she was to help out in the house after school while she completed her senior matriculation at the Saint John High School, but she discovered that her very few chores made for an awkward social situation (Interview with author).

When she was eighteen, Harvor entered nursing school at the Saint John General Hospital. She was three months into her final year when she came to the conclusion that being a nurse was not her calling. She decided to work in her parents’ pottery studio while she put her formal education on hold. A year later, in 1957, she married an architect (Stig Harvor, who was born in Helsinki and grew up in Oslo during World War II), then lived in Europe with him for nearly two years before returning to Canada.

In Ottawa, where her two sons were born, Harvor read aloud to her children from The Wind in the Willows and many other books, as well as reading a great deal on her own. As she says of her reading over the years, “it provided me with a surprisingly fine informal education” (Interview with author). From her early twenties on, Harvor has lived in several cities: Copenhagen, Denmark, as well as Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Fredericton, and Saskatoon. In many of the Canadian cities she was a writer-in-residence at universities and libraries. She currently (2010) resides in Ottawa once again.

When the youngest of Harvor's two sons left home to attend Concordia University in Montreal in 1981, she too moved to Montreal because rent was very cheap. While there, she also decided to attend university. Having already published stories in The New Yorker and The Hudson Review, the Chair of the Creative Writing Department at Concordia believed she could bypass a BA and proceed directly to graduate school. The Chair of Academic English, however, did not agree, suggesting that she complete a qualifying year to become eligible to apply for graduate school. She followed his advice, won a scholarship to enter the graduate program, and, while completing her graduate studies, was awarded a FCAR (Funds pour la Formation de Chercheurs et l'Aide à Recherche) provincial fellowship. She obtained her MA in Creative Writing in 1986 from Concordia, and then moved to Toronto to become a course director and sessional lecturer at York University. She has since been the recipient of numerous grants for poetry and fiction from the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council, the Toronto Arts Council, and the City of Ottawa Arts Board. Since completing her graduate studies, she has also lectured at Concordia, as well as being writer-in-residence there, mentored and instructed at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, and instructed at University of New Brunswick and the Maritime Writers’ Workshop.

Some of Harvor’s favorite books during her childhood and adolescence were The Stories of Sherlock Holmes, Out of Africa, A Tale of Two Cities, A Town Like Alice, and Great Expectations. When Harvor was younger, her mother would make books from yarn and cardboard for her children so they could fill them with their own stories (Kubacki, “Not the Beth of Little Women” 4). At the age of ten, she announced to her family one night at dinner that she planned to become a writer of “I-books” when she grew up. As she explains, "I, I, I, I, I, the letter that was also a word, a monstrous, arrogant, courageous, passionate, tedious or heartfelt word, depending on the circumstances” (Interview with the author). It was also around this time that her family drove to Quebec City for a holiday, and on their way back east, visited the Granby Zoo. Upon their return, Harvor wrote a poem in a style she calls “epic doggerel” that was about the animals in their cages, and, with the encouragement of her father, she sent it off to the zoo. Several weeks later, she received a letter in the mail from the editor of Le Carnet, the zoological magazine published by the Granby Zoo, who was impressed with her poem and wanted to publish it, providing her with her first publication at the age of eleven. As a young adult, she read the work of Doris Lessing, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, Alden Nowlan, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Grace Paley, and many others. She also fell in love with Leonard Cohen's “mesmerizing melodies and his equally mesmerizing voice as well as the words of his songs” (Interview with author).

Growing up in a nearly primeval wilderness with artisan parents created a strong connection for Harvor between the processes involved in making pottery and writing. Each entailed a long process of creation, which was at times just as painstaking as it was exciting. She likened the underglazing, glazing, and double firings of the pottery to the numerous revisions of a story in which whatever epiphany comes has to be earned. As she states, “even if it seems only to come when the bowl or story is transformed by a real or metaphorical fire” (Interview with the author).

Harvor’s first collection of stories, Women and Children, later titled Our Lady of All the Distances, deals with themes of marriage, sexuality, sexual shyness, children, and all of the rewards and challenges of life. Similarly, If Only We Could Drive Like this Forever concerns the haphazard ways we grow up, as well as the pursuits of happiness, freedom, and love. Let Me Be the One focuses on a wide array of themes: resentment, hope, love, infatuation, and divorce. Similarly, themes of love and infatuation, marriage, and motherhood as well as illness, friendship, and pottery making are the strongest themes in Harvor’s poetry in Fortress of Chairs and The Long Cold Green Evenings of Spring.

Harvor’s first novel, Excessive Joy Injures the Heart, tells the story of Claire Vornoff, a receptionist in a medical clinic who seeks alternative therapy for her chronic insomnia. She rents a car and drives out to Ottersea, a small country town in Ontario, for alarming sessions of therapy that appear to incorporate the ideas of Wilhelm Reich, primal scream therapy, and the bioenergetic theories of body therapists in California. The therapist, Declan Farrell, evokes both Lord Byron and D.H. Lawrence. Claire tries to resist his sexual magnetism and tyrannical beliefs, but to no avail, and is sent on a roller coaster ride of hope and despair. Her second novel, All Times Have Been Modern, traces the complex life of Kay Oleski from her early teens in the Kennebecasis Valley through a brief evocation of her marriage and divorce. When she moves from Ottawa to Montreal, however, her subsequent affair with a younger man leads to a struggle, in Freudian terms, between love and work. Harvor’s primary concern in her writing is to present complex and unpredictable characters who are alive and flawed, who live and breathe, and who get depressed and embarrassed while also making even more than their fair share of foolish mistakes (Interview with author). A review of All Times Have Been Modern in The Globe and Mail confirms that “Harvor draws life from a page, life that continues even after the book closes. You can’t help but wonder how Kay’s doing now” (Leggat D17).

Harvor’s poetry and fiction have been widely anthologized in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and Europe. Her work has also appeared in numerous periodicals and magazines such as The New Yorker, The Hudson Review, and The Malahat Review (Bridge 11). Her first book of short stories, Women and Children, was received with great acclaim; it has been reprinted four times (Kirchoff C8). Likewise, numerous critics in a variety of reviews have also favourably received her works. Heidi Greco asserts that Harvor's third story collection, Let Me Be the One, is:

Startlingly original … [Harvor] insists on participation from her reader ... doesn't fill in all the gaps, doesn't proceed from A to B to C. Rather, it's more a progression from C to G, and then back to D ... Her writing is marked by surprises, a style that's akin to synapses firing in the brain; there are no concrete bridges, just jolts of energy linking cliff to cliff, idea to idea ... (34-35)

About her first novel, Excessive Joy Injures the Heart, Maria Kubacki states: “She’s such a subtle writer that she lulls you into sleepy complacency and then pulls the rug out from under you with an impossibly clever line, a stunningly original image, an observation of Chekhovian depth” (“Excessive” R6). Reviewer Tish Pacey says that Harvor's second novel, All Times Have Been Modern, “…is tight, uncluttered, fresh and vigorous. Harvor has the luminosity of Virginia Woolf, the passion of Sylvia Plath. She belongs in their company—she’s that good” (B7). Critical consensus, then, holds that Harvor has a masterful ability to marry real life experiences with fiction in order to tell a story that touches the heart and resonates with readers.

Let Me Be the One was a 1996 finalist for the Governor-General’s Award, and Harvor's second novel, All Times Have Been Modern, was a 2005 finalist for the Ottawa Book Award. Her first book of poetry, Fortress of Chairs, won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. The Long Cold Green Evenings of Spring, her second book of poetry, was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award. Her body of work has received numerous other prizes and awards, among them the Marian Engel Award for a woman writer in mid-career and the Alden Nowlan Award for Literary Excellence. She is, therefore, among the most successful and accomplished of New Brunswick’s contemporary writers.

Stacy Monteith, Spring 2010
St. Thomas University

For more information on Elisabeth Harvor, please visit her entry at the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English.

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Harvor, Elisabeth. All Times Have Been Modern. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004.

---. Excessive Joy Injures the Heart. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000.

---. Fortress of Chairs. Montreal: Signal Editions, Véhicule Press, 1992.

---. If Only We Could Drive Like this Forever. Markham: Penguin, 1988.

---. Interview by Krista Bridge. Books in Canada 31:5 (2002): 11.

---. Let Me Be the One. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1996.

---. The Long Cold Green Evenings of Spring. Montreal: Signal Editions, 1997.

---. “On the Connections between Art & Artifact.” Elisabeth Harvor Official Home Site. Elisabeth Harvor, (2002).

---. Our Lady of All the Distances. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1991.

---. Personal interview. Feb. 2010.

---, ed. A Room at the Heart of Things: The Work That Came to Me: An Anthology of New Writing. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1998.

---. Women and Children. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1973.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Greco, Heidi. “Let Me Be the One.” Paragraph 21 (1997): 34-35.

Kirchhoff, H.J. “Harvor Returns With Roar After Prolonged Silence.” Globe and Mail [Toronto] 16 Feb. 1988: C8.

Kubacki, Maria. “Excessive Joy Injures the Heart.” Rev. of Excessive Joy Injures the Heart. New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal 30 Sept. 2000: R6.

---. “Not the Beth of Little Women.” Interview With Elisabeth Harvor. Books in Canada 27.4 (1998): 4.

Leggat, Alexandra. “In Which Kay Learns About Love.” Rev. of All Times Have Been Modern. The Globe and Mail [Toronto] 18 Sept. 2004: D17.

Pacey, Tish. “Harvor’s Latest Is an Extraordinary Novel.” Rev. of All Times Have Been Modern. The Daily Gleaner [Fredericton] 06 Nov. 2004: B7.