How to tell a secret

I’ll Tell You a Secret: A Memoir of Seven Summers
Published on April 1, 2005

I’ll Tell You A Secret: A Memoir Of Seven Summers
Anne Coleman

McClelland & Stewart

Anne Coleman’s beautifully written memoir of summers on the shores of Lake Massawippi not only tells the story of her adolescent attachment to Hugh MacLennan; it also brings to the surface a world submerged for half a century. Her voice rings true, and she writes in a kind of literary innocence as though she were capable of taking us back to those long-ago days in North Hatley. “Here,” she seems to say. “This is what it was really like.”

We’re in no mood to demur. It is idyllic, after all, this world she describes. She is a literary young woman, and she is happy to be home with her family, where she spends blissful summer days alone reading, swimming, and sailing.

It is intimate, too. The secret she has to tell is that she and Mr MacLennan – she never calls him anything else – love each other. She is nearly 14 when they meet in 1950, and he is a handsome and celebrated 43. And it is Mr MacLennan who has sought her out. He knows her name. He has studied how she walks. They have the first of many long conversations about the novels she is reading, about history, about the boarding school she loathes. He is married, but has all the time in the world for Anne. It is entirely believable, and if it weren’t true, someone would have to have made it up.

That someone is Anne Coleman. For she’s not quite as innocent as all that. Time and distance only seem to have preserved the moment unchanged. The world she describes is not purely the world of her adolescence. She is a writer, and she chooses what to highlight and what to downplay. The thoughts the 14-year-old Anne has about women’s lives, and the life that she herself will lead as a woman, are informed by the life that the author Anne Coleman has since led as a single mother and feminist in British Columbia.

So she could have chosen to mediate her thoughts about French Canadians. Here is English-speaking North Hatley as it must surely have been in the years before the Quiet Revolution. And here, too, is the condescending English attitude towards “the French,” an attitude she has dredged up unchanged. The French children “seem to scuttle into the background and melt away as one comes along, and they are smaller and thinner, with dark, narrow faces and shadowed eyes, as though they don’t eat enough or the right things.” This may well be the way Anne thought as a young woman. It would be a thought that a writer closer to the Quebec of today might have coloured differently.

Two Solitudes is about the French and English, and Anne is not the first to doubt that Mr MacLennan himself knew many francophones personally. He himself is perfect: gentlemanly, pedantic, passionate on the tennis court, and deeply repressed off it.

The summers pass and Mr MacLennan’s wife dies. Anne is 21 by this time. One subject she and Mr MacLennan never do manage to talk about is their attachment to each other. In the end she gives up on him and marries the wrong man, crying on her honeymoon.

First, though, Mr MacLennan takes her aside to tell her she is capable of doing something wonderful. It will take time, however: “I have a sense that you will find being young hard, and that your triumphs and your greatest happiness will not come until you are middle-aged.”

Well, Mr MacLennan was right. It did take a long time. And then Anne Coleman did something wonderful. She figured out how to tell us her secret. mRb

Linda Leith is a novelist whose most recent work, "Épouser la Hongrie", is a memoir which has been translated into French (Leméac, 2004) and Serbian (Rad, 2005).



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