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Thinker and Wanderer: Newfoundland’s Margaret Duley

For the week of Monday September 24, 2007

On September 27, 1894,

Margaret Iris Duley
© Memorial University of Newfoundland Libraries

Margaret Iris Duley – suffragist, feminist, and the first Newfoundland novelist to attain international popular acclaim – was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Margaret was an imaginative child who excelled in reading and acting, talents that she later cultivated at the Royal Academy of Drama and Elocution in London, England.

Returning home before the outbreak of the First World War, Margaret became active in the Women’s Patriotic Association (WPA), a group organized to provide small necessities to the Allied soldiers. Socks were one such necessity – the WPA produced 62,685 pairs – and socks became the subject of Margaret’s first published work. The epilogue poem, A Pair of Grey Socks, was her contribution to her mother’s modest booklet of the same name, a dedication to the Newfoundland Regiment fighting overseas.

Eyes of the Gull (1936)
© Margot I. Duley
When hostilities ended, the WPA formed the framework for the Women’s Franchise League and Margaret took on an active role, speaking at Ladies Reading Rooms and Current Events Clubs in support of women’s suffrage. After gaining the right to vote in municipal (1920) and parliamentary elections (1925), the “free thinking, free spirited, outspoken and charismatic” Duley shifted her advocacy to women’s workplace and pay-equity issues, an unpopular position in 1920s Newfoundland.

Cold Pastoral (1939)
© Margot I. Duley
Margaret’s first novel, The Eyes of the Gull (1936), was immediately popular in England, Canada and Europe. While the broader Newfoundland society criticized the book, her family and close friends were supportive and urged her to continue. Never married, Duley gave birth to four more fiction novels – she referred to them as her “brain-children” – three of which attracted an even larger international readership. Her almost poetic novels were rich depictions of the people she had known, and the island settings and landscapes she had explored. Her novels abounded with vivid images of both the beauty and harshness of Newfoundland and Labrador. Each book contained strong, independent women characters confronting such social issues as abortion, divorce and female sexuality; subjects considered unsuitable for public discussion by Newfoundland society.

Duley’s first novel was written in an established British literary model based on the male perspective. However, with her second novel, Cold Pastoral (1939), she rejected this style and began to incorporate 20th-century literary styles and themes, narrating each successive novel from a feminist viewpoint and attitude built solely from her experiences in Newfoundland.

For her significant contributions to Canadian literature and Newfoundland culture, Margaret Iris Duley was designated a National Historic Person in 1976.

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