We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Pearl Luke's _Madame Zee_ · 15 September 06

Dear Anne,

On WWTTA, Leslie R wrote in to tell us about a novel worth reading but which also refuses to present the reality of delusional communities of people who become subject to ruthless leaders:

I recently finished reading a recent Canadian novel by Pearl Luke, called Madame Zee. It’s a historical novel based the life of a woman who was the lover of a cult leader on Vancouver Island in the 1920s.

According to author interviews, Luke’s intention from the beginning was to write a sympathetic account of a woman otherwise depicted as a sadist and a con artist. To feel that sympathy, I think it’s necessary to accept the reality of Madame Zee’s visions, to see her growing interest in the occult as a delving into something real and powerful. I had trouble doing that, so the novel only half worked for me. Her growing involvement with the occult seems to me delusional and absurd, but the novel presents it as a journey into self-knowledge and a revolt against the narrow expectations for a woman of her background.

The parts of the novel I liked best were those dealing with her childhood and adolescence in England, her years of teaching in one-room schoolhouses on the Canadian prairies, and the passion and collapse of her marriage. I think a novel that examined the life of a woman who chose to align herself with the charismatic leader of a cult could have been fascinating, but I think the novel is too determined to see her positively to really get below the surface of what she found in that relationship and with that group of followers on Vancouver Island; it may have begun as an
idealistic vision of a Utopian community, but it didn’t end up that
way, and Luke never wholly accounts for that switch, just assumes it and sets about exculpating Madame Zee from blame for the worst of it. She doesn’t seem to want to let the woman be responsible for her worst actions or be motivated by nasty motives.

It is worth reading, though. I’ve attached some links to relevant
sites—an author interview, a brief review, and an article about her and Brother XII and their community


Anne, as will be see, Luke, the reviewer and the two people writing about this cult see its dangers and we can glimpse what the horrors must have been that occurred between people. The excuses for not delving into the reality would keep all cruelty and desperation hidden away. I agree with Leslie here is an opportunity thrown away, for since then we have had many such self-destructive communities filled with frightened people.

I’m reminded of A. S. Byatt’s Babel Tower where she imagines a similar cult group run by a De Sade figure and actually works out what the realities between the group leaders and their followers would be in daily life: exploitation of the bodies of the relatively powerless by the more powerful, scapegoating, enacting of sadistic and masochistic rituals, and daily manipulations of anxiety accompanied by condescending soothing, all of it in Byatt’s Babel Tower ending in destruction for some and justifiable deep anger in those who begin to see how they have been used and try to take some revenge or wreak from the larger society systems of powerful people punishment and compensation. Tedious though Babel Tower becomes towards the end (as does Whistling Woman—with huge learned essays in occult and other doctrines), did at least have the strength to delve the crueler and nastier truths about such communities and delusions. The excuses given for not telling the truth (ah you might offend a living relative or a dead one) would silence all telling of truths. Atwood’s poem, "Secresy" is the relevant one here.

The reviewer and interviewer clearly assumed Luke’s readership would read such a book to learn history easily and we can see how the novel is still made respectable by insisting on how its facts are right and how it’s prestigious. The latter is effected by awarding big money prizes for books claimed for nationalism.

I will keep it in mind though. Put it on my list of "to be bought." It’s another of these novels which lead us to make strong analogies between our present lives and the past, invite us back into the past and delve into memory.

Still it looks like an pleasurable novel for the reasons the Booker Prize type novels give pleasure: they recreate imaginatively through rich description an imagined past into which we can both escape and react our our lives today. It’s a novel where I could soak up some early Canada and I usually much enjoy women’s romance histories. The real reason Luke kept her heroine idealized is she assumes her woman reader wants to identify with socially-acceptable and conventionally admirable heroine


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From WWTTA:

    Dear Leslie,

    Thank you for the review. It’s another of these novels which lead us to make strong analogies between our present lives and the past, invite us back into the past and delve into memory.

    I went on to read about Burning Ground. Did you read that
    one? Would you recommend it?


    I haven’t read it, although I know of it and it received a great deal of positive critical attention. Madame Zee was my first encounter with Pearl Luke, and based on it, I’d certainly read another book by her. Madame Zee was, I think, flawed, but in some interesting ways.

    Sophie    Sep 18, 12:15pm    #

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