1229 Downstairs drama at Craigdarroch

Through the Gate
by Kay Jordan

Victoria: Kay Publishing, 2020
$18.89  /  9781999227906

Reviewed by Valerie Green

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In her book Through the Gate, Kay Jordan has created a story that will undoubtedly inspire young students to enjoy history in a fun way. Rather than give her young readers dates and a myriad of names and dates to remember, she has set her story in a mysterious castle with a cast of characters that are real and memorable.

The story begins in April of 1889 when 13 year-old Elsie Gallagher is watching the funeral procession of coal baron, Robert Dunsmuir, travel through the streets of Victoria. At that time she is earning a meagre living as a newspaper “boy,” disguising herself in baggy pants and a hat pulled down over her unruly, curly hair. Her mother, Honora, works in a nearby tavern washing dishes. Elsie is bitter and cannot understand why Robert Dunsmuir is being revered by the masses as such a great man.

She already despises all the Dunsmuirs and the wealth they have and she blames them for the methane gas explosion in Wellington Mine No. 5, near Nanaimo, which took the life of her father, a miner, leaving her and her mother penniless. Elsie’s mother is merely grateful to now have a job in Victoria and hopes that her fiery-spirited young daughter will eventually come to accept their lot in life.

Two years later, the author’s now 15 year-old protagonist, Elsie, and her widowed mother are hired by Mrs. Dunsmuir herself as servants at Craigdarroch castle. Finding positions at the castle delights Elsie’s mother and she is determined to be a good and faithful employee. Elsie has other ideas.

Postcard of Craigdarroch Castle, circa 1908
Joan Dunsmuir

Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria becomes the setting for Through the Gate as Jordan takes her readers through a back door to eavesdrop on the life and times of the strange and oft-times idiosyncratic Dunsmuir family who live there. Her characters are mostly real people but the story is fictional.

Craigdarroch Castle is an example of the wealth created by entrepreneurs during the industrial age. It took two years to complete between the years 1887 and 1890 and sits high on a hill overlooking the capital city. It was built by Robert Dunsmuir, BC’s richest man, but sadly he never got to live there himself. He died in 1889 shortly before the castle was completed. His widow, Joan Dunsmuir, mourned the loss of her husband and took to travelling for a while. She eventually returned to Victoria and installed herself and her three remaining unmarried daughters and two orphaned grandchildren in the castle. She then began to hire staff. Over the following years there was much dissension between Joan and her two sons, James and Alexander, because their father had left his entire estate, including the Dunsmuir coal business, to his wife Joan and not to them, and they did not think their mother was capable of running such a large business.

The drawing room at Craigdarroch Castle, with Steinway piano. Photo courtesy Andrew Annuar and Travelling Islanders
Joan Dunsmuir’s son, Premier James Dunsmuir

As Elsie and Honora Gallagher settle into their new life as servants, the author gradually introduces us to her cast of characters at the castle—the cook Mrs. Trotter, the housekeeper Mrs. White, Mr. Hayward who runs everything, and a meek maid called Claire who barely speaks, plus the stern Mrs. Joan Dunsmuir herself, her three daughters, Jessie, Effie and Henrietta (called Maud). The two grandchildren, Robert and Lizzie, complete the family.

Elsie tries to remember names and orient herself to the enormous castle, which is overwhelming, and I think Jordan’s young readers might also find the characters confusing because at first there are numerous names to absorb. I found the story dragged a little over the first few chapters but once the plot expands and Elsie’s own character develops, the plot becomes much more interesting. Elsie’s fiery spirit grows and she finds herself in trouble on many occasions.

Elsie’s true passion in life is to become an actress and head to San Francisco, where she and her parents had lived before heading north to Vancouver Island in search of a better life. Once she finds a way how she might accomplish this dream and escape the castle, the story really picks up. She is also torn between her dream and her relationship with a Chinese boy who works in the stables, a delightful coming-of-age romance which is both innocent and endearing.

Kay Jordan. Photo by Jorja Portraits

Alexander and James Dunsmuir also appear in the story. They are depicted according to character, the way history would have us believe them to be. Alexander drinks too much and has an illegitimate daughter and a relationship with a woman in San Francisco, which his mother will not accept. James is politically ambitious, becoming BC’s 14th premier in 1900.

For adults who want to know more about the life and times of the eccentric Dunsmuir family members, the late Terry Reksten’s book The Dunsmuir Saga is the most informative and professional, carefully and meticulously researched. Kay Jordan’s Through the Gate takes one time period in the Dunsmuir family’s life and creates a charming fictional story for young people to read that bring those times to life in a delightful way.

By the time you reach the end of this book, you will feel you have truly experienced life in a castle in those Victorian times. You will also undoubtedly want to visit Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria today. The castle is open to the public and showcases — throughout its four floors — stained glass windows, intricate woodwork, and many of the original Victorian-era furnishings.

Vancouver Islander Kay Jordan has a passion for story-telling and bringing history alive for young people. She has certainly achieved this in her debut novel Through the Gate.

*

Valerie Green

Valerie Green was born and educated in England where she studied journalism and law. Her passion was always writing from the moment she first held a pen in her hand. After working at the world-famous Foyles Books on Charing Cross Road, London, followed by a brief stint with M15 and legal firms, she moved to Canada in 1968 where she married and raised a family, while embarking on a long career as a freelance writer, columnist, and author of over twenty non-fiction historical and true-crime books. She is currently working on her debut novel Providence, which will be published soon as the first of The McBride Chronicles, an historical four-generational family saga bringing early BC history alive. Now semi-retired (although writers never really retire!) she enjoys taking short road trips around BC with her husband, watching their two beloved grandsons grow up and, of course, writing. Editor’s note: Valerie Green has recently reviewed books by Leanne Baugh, Sara CassidyCatherine McKenzieMary-Anne NealVanessa WinnEdeana Malcolm and Janie Chang.

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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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