Interview with Elaine Kalman Naves







“A writer is always a little bit on the outside anyway”




While reading a history book might pose a challenge for a general reader, writing history could be even more daunting for a non-professional. An established writer and journalist, though not a historian, Elaine Kalman Naves has managed to pull off a fascinating and readable work of history by uncovering a-century old secret. Shining light on a sex scandal that shook up Confederation-era Montreal, she describes a society in the round: its mores and manners, its laws and punishments, its illnesses and treatments, its hypocrisies and pleasures. At the heart of Portrait of a Scandal is an illicit love story and a public trial.

Portrait of a Scandal describes a process that caught up in its web and cast under public scrutiny one of the most prominent and respected families in the city, that of William Notman, “Photographer to the Queen.”  Focusing on one court case, it digs up old ghosts and mysteries, holding the reader’s attention as compellingly as the most exciting of thrillers.




The cover of her last book, Portrait of a Scandal







FM:        Elaine, in the field of Quebec English literature you are well known for Journey to Vaja and its sequel Shoshanna’s Story, two memoirs or family biographies partially set against the backdrop of the Holocaust. Did Portrait of a Scandal come as something of a surprise for your Montreal readers, and, for that matter, the city’s literary establishment?


EKN:      I think perhaps people have been little taken aback. Especially since the secret at the heart of the story is an abortion. Readers have asked rather searching questions of me about my interest in the subject. I have had to dispel the notion that I have some particular personal history that prompted my interest.


FM:        Your interest in history goes back to your university years. Later, you taught high-school history, and then you worked at a historical research centre at what is now Concordia University. So you obviously do have credentials when it comes to working in this area. Nevertheless, I am going to ask you to talk about the difficulties of ferreting out one of the most hidden and well-kept secrets of Montreal.







EKN:      Well, to start with, there was no evident story even to look for. In fact, I wasn’t looking for one, at least not consciously. I was doing research on the life of William Notman for a radio program on CBC Ideas. Which, when you think about it, is a challenge of its own – describing photographic techniques  for a non-visual medium! So William Notman was this really esteemed, really talented, and highly successful photographer – the most commercially successful photographer in 19th-century North America. The McCord Museum of McGill University holds his archives and it was there that I was doing a lot of my research. And after I had conducted a few interviews with the leading expert on William Notman’s life, out popped a question from my mouth that I never planned to ask. The question was, “Were there any black sheep in the Notman family?” And, well, my expert said that yes, there was one in particular. But that was just the beginning. Because even my expert, who knew that there had been a trial, did not know what the trial was about. She thought it was murder, when in fact it was abortion.




       Elaine and her husband, Archie Fineberg




FM:        And did you drop your research on William Notman at that time, and turn your attention to his younger brother, Robert, who was facing this trial?


EKN:       No, I couldn’t do that! I was still very interested in William, and I had the documentary to prepare. But in some of my spare time, I began searching for the story of the trial. Of which there was no trace in the official Notman archives. Most of this information was to be found in the newspapers of the day, and these were only available on microfilm, and very hard to decipher. So it was quite the challenge!




       Elaine’s enormously important family.




FM:        Were you shaken up by what you discovered, and how difficult was it to go public and wreck an established myth, the one of a family who made history in this country?


EKN:     I was indeed very, very surprised. I was unaware completely of the extent of abortion in North America at the time, nor about the laws relating to it. I found this to be completely fascinating. But I didn’t see it as a wrecking the Notman family reputation at all. I thought it was a very human story, and I found it really interesting to juxtapose the two brothers: William, the great success, and Robert – who was also talented both as a photographer and a businessman – the black sheep. And I also found it very instructive to compare Alice Notman, William’s eminently admirable wife, with Robert’s mistress, Margaret Galbraith.







FM:        What do you think about women like Margaret Galbraith? Is she a victim? Did she win the case in the end? What do you think about the late development of her story?


EKN:       I think she was both a victim and an architect of her own tragedy. She did not have very many options, but she might have decided to keep the child. When you examine the evidence, it appears that both she and Robert were very intent on pursuing the abortion. But, Felicia, I am not going to tell you about the end! Because the end was so very, very surprising. I hope your readers will discover it for themselves.


FM:       Has this process changed anything in Montreal’s polite and conventional mentality? Are there any consequences in the long run?


EKN:     Obviously back in the day, Montreal’s so-called polite and conventional mentality was rocked by this story. But I think any long-term consequence has to be seen in the light of what I was able to discover about the history of abortion. And we must not forget that abortion remains a hot-button issue today.






FM:     Let’s talk a little about you. You left Hungary in the wake of the Revolution of 1956 and lived in England before coming to Canada. Why did your family decide to leave Hungary at that time?


EKN:    There was at the time a widespread exodus of Hungarians fleeing communism. The particular story of my family – the special circumstances around it – are described in my book Shoshanna’s Story: A Mother, A Daughter, and the Shadows of History. Our own desire to leave the country is linked to my family’s experiences in the Holocaust, and also to my mother’s desire to be reunited with her sister, who had left the country earlier and was living in Montreal.


FM:   How did Montreal look at the time you crossed the ocean? Which were the things that shocked you the most compared to your previous life?  What did you like or dislike in your new city?


EKN:    I was a child of eleven in 1959 when we arrived to Montreal. We had spent two years in England, where – by luck – we had been given a mansion to live in because we were refugees. At the same time my parents were working at factory jobs. I fell in love with England, with my English school, and with our beautiful house. By comparison, in Canada, we lived the life of true immigrants. We had a small apartment, right underneath the city’s busiest highway, the elevated Metropolitan Boulevard. It was ugly and sterile. I hated it.







FM:   How different is contemporary Montreal compared to what you knew before? What challenges are facing newcomers nowadays?


EKN:     Montreal is a far more cosmopolitan and multicultural place today. At the time we arrived, although was predominantly a French city, immigrants were still only being welcomed into the Anglophone community. Back then, if you were an immigrant child, almost automatically you were integrated into the English-speaking system. Today it is very different. The French language has become the true public language of Quebec, and immigrants are channeled into French society and French schooling. Newcomers face a more difficult economic situation than the one facing immigrants at the time that we arrived. The job market is very tight, and there are two languages to master. At the same time, the condition of being an immigrant is much more widespread today with people from a huge variety of backgrounds being simultaneously integrated.







FM:        In the interview that Linda Leith gave me for this same issue, we speak about her book Writing in the Time of Nationalism, where she reveals the contradiction that Quebec English writers have to face. Surprisingly, using English in Quebec to write books, and I am talking here mainly about fiction books, could be a sort of handicap. English writers in Quebec belong to none of the official sides, French Canadians or Canadian mainstream. In a way, they are settling in an in-between limbo, the third solitude, to paraphrase McLuhan’s well-known syntagm. How do you feel about it? Have you ever experienced the distress of being an outcast while using the most popular and coveted language in the world.


EKN:      I think this simply comes with the territory. I have been working for a long time in this place, and I guess I’ve come to terms with its idiosyncrasies. It’s very true that we are a minority within a minority within yet another minority. We write in English in a French province in a country that is dwarfed culturally by its behemoth of a southern neighbour. But a writer is always a little bit on the outside anyway. However, I would certainly never consider myself an outcast. Nobody forced me to be a writer, and I see my job as trying to be as good a writer as I can be within the context.







FM:        What about your family? What role do they play in your life?


EKN:    An enormously important role An enormous one! I am fortunate in still having my mother, who celebrated her ninety fifth birthday recently. I have two wonderful daughters, who have given me four beautiful, healthy grandchildren. My husband is a gem, and through him I have inherited a fifth grandchild. My one sorrow is that three of our four children and all our grandchildren live in Toronto. This is the part of being an Anglophone Montrealer that is less than desirable. Over time there has been a large exodus of younger people following jobs elsewhere. Firstly I’m very fortunate to still have my mother who celebrated her ninety fifth birthday last month. And I have two wonderful daughters who have given me four beautiful grandchildren. I have been blessed with a gem of a husband, through whom I have inherited a fifth grandchild. Alas, three out of our four children and all the grandchildren live in Toronto. This is the downside of being an Anglophone Montrealer. Many members of the younger generation have left of job opportunities elsewhere.







FM:        What  are your projects for the future? What are you working on?


EKN:        A big new departure for me, I am working on a novel!











By  Felicia Mihali

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