This gigantic book (492 pages about a woman whose life was, apart from a few major exceptions, uneventful) is a candidate for being one of the strangest pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered. The title promises a biography of the Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis, and indeed, there’s a lot about her here, as much as anyone actually knows about her (and more that Woolaver has invented; but more about that later). But Maud is not by any means the only subject. Woolaver spends many chapters discussing not only the Poor Farm located next door to the little house Maud shared with her husband Everett, but also, the history of Poor Farms in Nova Scotia and elsewhere. He quite rightly justifies the significance of the Poor Farm in Everett’s childhood—he was kept there along with his entire family — and later also in Everett’s years with Maud—he was its night watchman for a long time; and he also points out that Maud, in the absence of indoor plumbing at home, often visited there to take baths and have her hair done. But Woolaver speaks often of his long-standing ambition to produce a book that would widen knowledge of the shameful Poor Farm system, and apparently thwarted by widespread lack of interest by publishers, etc., in revisiting this sad history, he has, in effect snuck the book about the Poor Farms into this one claiming to be about Maud. There’s a point where what feels like a hundred pages in a row about the Poor Farms lose sight of Maud altogether.
Nor is that the only way in which Woolaver interrupts his biography of Maud with lengthy discussions of other barely relevant matters—quite often, matters concerning himself. Attentive readers can learn at least as much about the forebears, family connections, education, work, publication and travel history, artistic and literary tastes, intense dislike of all current and past administrators of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, friendships and falling-outs, relatives, physical and mental illnesses, financial crises, bookshelf contents, filing habits, and character strengths and failings of Lance Woolaver as they can about Maud and Everett Lewis. This is endearingly wacky, but also, quite annoying.
Even when Woolaver does get around to talking about the Lewises, he tends to do so through a focus on how he learned what he knows about them—who he interviewed, what archives he visited, and so on. The first few chapters describe at astonishing length the various kinds of evidence Woolaver has gathered to support his theory that Maud was born in 1901 and not, as usually assumed, two years later. There are similar lengthy discussions of whether or not she married Everett in a church, whether she knew the work of the American artist known as Grandma Moses, and so on. At times, also, whole chapters are filled with what appear to be fictional short stories Woolaver has written, sometimes about Maud and in what purports to be her point of view, sometimes about the places she lived in and his version of what it feels like to be there.
At one point, Woolaver reveals his own awareness of how annoying all these dissertations and digressions might be: “Oh My,” he says after a lengthy aside about a raft of eccentric and otherwise interesting characters he has known in Digby county,“If we effect a limit on biography, and bow before convention, not much of this has to do with Maud and Everett.” He then goes on to insist that it does, since the people he has described are somehow related to or otherwise connected to people with connections to the Lewises. By this logic he might as well have included me in the book, for I bet I know people whose cousins or uncles once dated the granddaughters of people who went to school with other people who lived down the highway from Maud and Everett. And forgive me for being conventional, but somehow, I retain the conviction that a biography should actually be about the people it purports to be about, not about friends of their friends and relations of their relations, and certainly not about the biographer’s own distant friends and relations.
Woolaver has clearly spend a lot of time and effort in putting together his body of knowledge of Maud and Everett Lewis. He has learned enough about them that he seems to have come to believe that he knows them intimately—so intimately that he’s entitled to reach very specific conclusions not just about what they did, but also, about who they are—what motivated them, sometimes even what they must have been thinking and feeling at certain moments in their lives. Maud and Everett Lewis may or may not have had the attitudes and motivations Woolaver is all too willing to provide for them, first as suppositions and then taken for granted as if they are incontrovertibly true. In his eyes, Maud emerges as something of a angel, and Everett an evil, self-seeking monster. I found both the overly angelic Maud and the overly malevolent Everett equally hard to believe in. Woolaver’s hostile and almost purely negative portrayal of Everett Lewis is particularly hard to accept.
It’s a pity that Woolaver felt so willing to invent reasons for Maud and Everett’s behaviour and then in later pages simply assume his inventions are the truth. It’s a pity that he has allowed himself to include everything he has felt like including, even poetic fictional scenes in which he imagines, for instance, what Maud is feeling and thinking as she has a conversation with a visiting moth. It's a pity that, having chosen to publish the book himself, he didn’t consider also hiring an editor less forgiving than himself—one who would have suggested massive cuts and who would have pointed out that the author Woolaver wants to refer to is Virginia Woolf, not Wolfe, or that the interview of one of Maud’s supportors he refers to is in a different documentary film than the one he names, or that it’s not safe for him to assume that readers will have read the same books as he has and thus immediately be able to make sense of cryptic references to Woolf or W.H. Auden or Graham Greene.
It's a pity especially because Woolaver has in fact, gathered an impressive amount of material on Maud Lewis, her work, her house, and her life in general--public records, school records, reminiscences from people who knew her, and much more. Learning about someone so far from the public eye for so much of her life and therefore, so unrecorded, is not easy. Among other things, Woolaver offers a convincing argument that the illness Maud suffered from in childhood and beyond was juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and provides evidence and makes a persuasive case for the existence of a daughter Maud had and put up for adoption while in her twenties; and his discussion of the ways in which the poor farm affected both Maud and Everett is revealing and instructive. At a quarter of the length and more rigorously centred on its subject, this could have been an excellent book—the materials to make it one are all there, buried in and overwhelmed by a huge excess of far less relevant material. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to know as much as there is currently to be known about the life of Maud Lewis—but with a strong warning about everything else you’ll have to put up with in order to learn about the book’s actual subject, and an equally strong warning about accepting Woolaver’s one-sided interpretations of his central characters.