Twenty years after her death, and many more since she faded into obscurity, Nanaimo-born poet Audrey Alexandra Brown is being recognized for “lifetime achievement” at the the 2018 Nanaimo Culture and Heritage Awards.
Born in 1904, Brown wrote her first poem at the age of six and published her first work locally by 16. In her early 20s Brown contracted rheumatic fever, the resulting joint pain and muscle spasms caused her to use a wheelchair for eight and a half years.
It was during this time that Brown’s poetic ascent began after her work caught the attention of the head of English department at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, who promoted her work for publication.
Christine Meutzner, Nanaimo Community Archives manager, described the immobile Brown as a “life observer” whose “imagination was very much an interior world.”
“She herself said that her greatest failure was that she didn’t live a life, she couldn’t participate,” said Meutzner, who along with longtime archive volunteer Daphne Patterson nominated Brown for the Lifetime Achievement Award.
“She got better and she eventually could walk again but she had missed so much of active childhood, active things, so she was sitting in her house looking out and imagining things,” Meutzner said.
In 1931 Brown published her first book of poetry, A Dryad in Nanaimo, “which overnight placed Audrey Alexandra Brown in the forefront with poets of high standing…,” according to a 1944 article in the Victoria Daily Colonist. The Nanaimo Daily Free Press said the book’s initial printings sold out in three months.
The accolades came quickly. The next year Brown was presented a Certificate of Life Membership in the Woman’s Canadian Club of Nanaimo for her “outstanding contribution to Canadian literature.”
As a freelance journalist Brown’s work appeared in the Free Press and in 1936, the same year she moved to Victoria, she won the Members Memorial Medal of the Canadian Women’s Press Club.
In her research at the archives, Meutzner found that there remained a strong connection between Brown and the Nanaimo community in the years after her flight to the capital.
“She did come here and give speeches at various organizations and it’s always ‘Nanaimo girl makes good,’ it’s always like there’s a real pride in her,” she said.
“Referring to the fact that she is usually acclaimed as belonging to Vancouver Island, Audrey Alexandra Brown prefers to be called ‘Nanaimo’s poet’ for her grandfather came to Nanaimo 76 years ago and it is here that her family has resided ever since,” noted a local newspaper clipping from 1938.
In 1944 Brown became the first woman to receive the Royal Society of Canada’s Lorne Pierce Medal for literature. Other winners of the biannual prize include Stephen Leacock, Northrop Frye and Alice Munro. The citation praised Brown as “a singer richly endowed with poetic sensibility, a conscientious craftsman, an observer of the human scene, both detached and participant, a human being with unusual worth.”
She received congratulations from then-prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, a fan who once quoted her poetry in the House of Commons, calling the award “a recognition truly merited of your splendid contribution to Canadian literature.”
Brown was also in correspondence with former prime minister Sir Robert Borden, who once sent her $100 to buy a typewriter. She ended up naming the device “Sir Robert.”
Brown released her fifth and final book of poetry, All Fools Day, in 1948. In his review in the Vancouver Province, writer J.W. Winson declared, “It’s a bright morning in Canadian poetry when Audrey Alexandra Brown publishes a new book.”
That book would be her last. Meutzner said Brown’s romantic, Victorian-influenced poetry fell out of favour by the 1950s with the rise of the more confessional, experimental poetry of the Beats. That change in taste, coupled with a bout of arthritis in 1956, adversely affected Brown’s literary career.
“I read a review by a very interesting person who said [Brown] was ‘bulldozed by modernity,’” Meutzner said.
“The world had changed and she hadn’t changed with it.”
Illness returned to Brown in the 1960s, when the Free Press revealed that the poet had been living in Victoria “for reasons of health” but hoped to return one day to her hometown. But aside from receiving a Canadian Centennial Medal “for valued service to Canada” and being made an officer of the Order of Canada in the late ’60s, Meutzner said Brown largely remained out of the public eye until her death in Victoria in 1998.
The archivist hopes that the Lifetime Achievement Award renews interest in Brown’s work and leads to the creation of a permanent memorial, like a plaque by the library, to leave some evidence of a celebrated poet who was “virtually forgotten.”
“I can’t remember when I did not want to write,” Brown told the Victoria Daily Colonist in 1944. “If all I have written could be joined end to end it would go a number of times around the world!”
In 1934 Brown penned Nanaimo, which was recited at a civic banquet marking the 60th anniversary of the city’s incorporation. From that poem:
“…The sea is at her feet, the dreaming sea
That loves her, and the mountain keeps her rest;
She has a spell to charm the fevered breast
And make the heart forget mortality–
This was her ancient art, and now as then
She lays her fragile net about the souls of men…”
Brown’s collected materials are held in the University of Victoria archives. To view poetry clippings and photographs, click here.
WHAT’S ON … The Nanaimo Culture and Heritage Awards Celebration takes place at the Port Theatre on Thursday, April 5 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are free but must be reserved. Also receiving awards that night are Rick Scott (Excellence in Culture), William Good (Honour in Culture) and Jan Peterson (Honour in Heritage).