MEMORIES OF MAY HOLBROOK FROM VANCOUVER ISLAND
The following article appeared in the Saskatoon Western Producer, a well known farm newspaper in Western Canada around 1956 following the death of May Holbrook. Violet McNaughton became the first women's editor of the Western Producer farm weekly in 1925. She retired from this in 1950 but continued to write a column in the paper until 1959. She became a close friend of May who was a regular contributor to the gardening page.
The article was sent to Ann Howard by Bernard Chambers, the nephew of May. It was printed in the Haggs Farm Preservation Society Newsletter No 42, September 2009. Thanks to Clive Leivers for bringing it to our attention.
Jottings by the Way by Violet McNaughton
During the past three winters here in the Saanich Peninsula (on Vancouver island and the location of Sidney , the town to which the Holbrooks moved - Ed) I have frequently talked about the experiences "Beet Greens" and I shared from time to time. We did our weekly shopping, went curio hunting and enjoyed many a pleasant walk and talk together. It was "Beet Greens* who intoduced me to the old-world style Victoria market, to some of the interesting personalities doing unusual things about which I've told. But now I grieve to tell you that "Beet Greens" died suddenly during the summer. She came to see me off on our last visit, waving to me through the bus window. Then just as the bus was starting, she came quickly in and said "Good-Bye" again. It was so unlike her rather reserved self I've wondered since if she had a premonition we would not meet again.
For newcomers to our pages I should explain that "Beet Greens", a prairie pioneer, was one of our early contributors. We became firm pen friends but had never met until recent years. At first she wrote under a Hungarian pen name inspired by a Hungarian neighbor, sometimes she used initials. Later she became quite widely appreciated for her contributions to the garden page under the pen name "Beet Greens". Actually "Beet Greens" was Mrs William Holbrook who lived in Cuffley, Saskatchewan until she and her husband moved to Sidney B.C. As soon as possible after my arrival here this time I called on Mr Holbrook . After he told me of the tragic illness that struck her down I asked him to recall a little more of her story than I knew. "Well" said Mr Holbrook, "ever since she was taken kicking to a dame school at three, May was either a pupil or a teacher- for over 50 years. She taught in England until we were married. Four years later she went back to teach."
Mr Holbrook homesteaded 22 miles from Turtleford in 1914. Mrs Holbrook came a year later. Asked why he went so far from town, my host explained that in that time homesteads were thinning out near towns. (Cuffley post office was established later.) His land was not the best- and it was stony. In 1918 they had a good crop but could not give it away. Drawing wheat over 20 miles to town, sometimes at 30 to 40 below zero, and selling it at 30 cents was no picnic.
Soon Mrs Holbrook started teaching at Pine Ridge school, later at Waukegan (Creefor High House) Elmhurst and Drobot, While teaching school around Cuffley she did not go to town for 20 years. But she often said that was no hardship. She was naturally a student and had her own collection of some 300 books. There was also her garden, even if it was only a sandy knoll. "From childhood May had to have a garden" said Mr Holbrook – “it grew up with her.”
"Beet Greens" as we know her best was great at snowshoeing. Five to ten miles was nothing to her. And she often carried a skier's pack with the pack strap across her forehead. "I've seen May start on a seven mile trip north to the nearest store" said Mr Holbrook (himself for years a victim of arthritis) and watched her coming home almost hidden by her pack- of sometimes 50 pounds. She only weighed 90 pounds herself. May also loved to go out on the water alone" continued Mr Holbrook . "She would row halfway across Bright Sand Lake which bordered our land- even if there were no prospect of fish." And so " far from the madding crowd" out on the prairie, "Beet Greens" made her own way of life.
I had always been interested in knowing that Mr & Mrs Holbrook had, for years, been associated with DH Lawrence who became a noted English writer. Also, that sometime before her death a well known American magazine had asked her to write an aride about him. But until Mr Holbrook loaned me a copy of Portrait of a Genius, But... the life of D H Lawrence by Richard Aldington, I did not know that the Chambers (Mrs Holbrook's family) had occupied such a prominent place in his life. In this book I saw a picture of the Haggs, near Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, Mrs Holbrook's girlhood farm home, where Lawrence had spent so much of his youth. From it I also learned that her sister, Jessie Chambers was “from the age of 15 until his early 20s, the most important person in Lawrence's life after his mother."
Jessie Chambers was the Miriam of his book Sons and Lovers, the Emily of another book, The White Peacock and heroine of several early stories. The Chambers family are the Saxtons of The White Peacock , the Leivers of Sons and Lovers.
Mr Holbrook was happy to talk about earlier days in England when Lawrence and he used to meet regularly and walk out to the Haggs together, for, said he, “I was courting May Chambers and Lawrence was going to see Jessie." My host also told me that Lawrence used to urge May to write. On one occasion he got angry with her saying uWhy don't you write, you little --, you know you can."
Asked to describe Lawrence, Mr Holbrook reminisced “Lawrence was a very interesting man with a wonderful mind. He was a perambulating skeleton to look at yet full of vitality and charm." Well, Will Holbrook married May Chambers, Muriel May Chambers to be correct, but Lawrence and Jessie finally parted. If you read Portrait ofa Genius, But... you will learn why and what an extraordinary man Lawrence was..
"Beet Greens" has passed on but I shall never walk a country road here without thinking of her.