President's Report 2007

Anne Hart

Biographical information

Anne Hart

For her achievements as a biographer and for her contributions to Newfoundland studies, Anne Hart was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree at the fall session of convocation in St. John’s on Friday, Oct. 20, at 3 p.m.

Ms. Hart received an arts degree from Dalhousie University and a library science degree from McGill University. She then started work with Memorial University’s library in 1969 and made it her career until retirement in 1997. For 20 of those years she served as head of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, during which time she developed the collections and the public awareness of them.

She is better known for her unconventional biographies of fictional characters; Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot.

More recently she collaborated with Dr. Roberta Buchanan, professor emerita in English, and Geology alumnus Bryan Greene on The Woman Who Mapped Labrador: The Life and Expedition Diary of Mina Hubbard, which was shortlisted for the Winterset Award for excellence in Newfoundland and Labrador writing.

Oration honouring Alison (O’Reilly) Feder given by Dr. Annette Staveley, Deputy public orator

Mr. Chancellor,

In the early 1960s when Anne Hart found her way to Newfoundland and Labrador, Jane Austen’s words must have echoed in her mind for then “It was a truth universally acknowledged that a young woman in possession of a husband and children must not be in want of a profession.”

Fortunately for this place, Anne, like so many other women writers and explorers before her, had the ingenuity and courage to chart her own course professionally and as a writer to mock gently the folly of those seeking to limit individual freedoms.

Upon entering our neighborhood, Anne made it the “business of her life” to write about the authenticity and complexity of Newfoundland and Labrador, to find humour in “visiting and news,” and with dedication and passion to gather information about our culture and our society.

Anne, building on the work of another preeminent woman, Agnes O’Dea, led a team of dedicated professionals at the Centre for Newfoundland Studies whose mandate – dare I say obsession – was to ensure that no textual or artistic record of the lives lived in this “dear and fine country” would ever be consigned to the bonfire, the municipal dump or the harbour. Be it ever so humble, and ephemeral, it would find a home at the centre. And best of all, at the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, she created a place where students, scholars, artists and the general public felt welcome and at home. With wit and grace, and the occasional dash of steely persistence, Anne taught us all to value the quotidian records of our lives – the diaries, letters, postcards, the sketches, maps and documents of all aspects of life in our community. These inestimable and renewable resources have been trawled and mined by generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. The Centre for Newfoundland Studies is the starting point for those travelling through the time and space of memory, seeking the maps, the routes into our past and towards our future.

Anne, herself a writer, knows the solitary nature of creative and intellectual journeys and knows the need for well-informed guides and trustworthy companions in the arduous quest through the landscapes of the mind. Her poetry and her short stories, published in national magazines, and her landmark fictional biographies of the internationally-renowned detectives, Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, brought international renown to her and to our province. Anne speaks modestly about the “play research” that went into the writing of the Life and Times of Miss Marple and the Life and Times of Hercule Poirot, typically playing down her percipience and flair that seduced the famously defensive guardians of Agatha Christie’s literary estate into allowing the publication of these books. Anne’s biographies put that elderly English gentlewoman, and that fussy Belgian refugee, into the unlikely company of the opium-smoking Sherlock Holmes and the sexually versatile James Bond. And, Mr. Chancellor, while Anne may have found Poirot a bit tiresome, I dare say, she would have enjoyed an evening with the actor, David Suchet, who played Poirot in the popular television series.

In the 1990s, Anne turned her biographical talents away from people who didn’t exist to those who did. Through an harmonious and fruitful collaboration with Roberta Buchanan and Bryan Greene, she told the story of Mina Hubbard’s odyssey in Labrador and thus preserved forever the name of a Canadian woman who found fulfillment and personal freedom by engaging with the landscape and people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

A similar engagement has characterized Anne. On public boards, committees, guilds and councils, at private meetings at her home during legendary dinner parties, and marathon bridge games, Anne has nurtured and promoted established and aspiring writers, steadfastly championed the rights of women, and worked tirelessly for those seeking to contribute to the cultural and political life of this province. Like Virginia Woolf, Anne regards professional and social gatherings as occasions to celebrate the life-giving force of the creative and ethical imagination.

Mr. Chancellor,

Today we lay claim to Anne as our “rightful property,” for like many born and educated in other places, she has enriched our neighborhood. Anne deserves a “Room of Her Own” to finish her next book and, though some might choose a room in a five-star hotel in Mallorca, I know Anne would prefer a permanent home in the pantheon of honorary graduates of Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador. So, Mr. Chancellor, as concierge of this house of many mansions, I ask you to confer on Anne Hart the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa).

Address to convocation

Mr. President and Vice-chancellor, Honourable Minister, Madam Orator of generous words, members of the Board of Regents and the faculty, my fellow graduates this day and families and friends of all here, to say that I am honoured to have received an honorary doctorate from Memorial University is an enormous understatement. And equally enormous, I can assure you, was my surprise on the day I received a gracious letter from Dr. Meisen informing me of this honour and inviting me to address convocation for 10 minutes. I wish I could tell you that I was immediately visited by a wonderful fantasy of myself sagely addressing a captive audience patiently awaiting words of advice. Instead, I have to admit my first reaction was trepidation upon reading Dr. Meisen’s further words that I would be following in the footsteps of “more than 480 distinguished individuals who have accepted our invitation to receive honourary degrees.” What could I possibly add to the distinguished words of the 480 worthies who had come before?

But then I got a grip on myself and looked up the word “letters,” – as in “Doctorate of Letters” and learned that this referred to: A) “literature in general”; and/or B) “an acquaintance with books”; and/or C) authorship. So I decided I’d put aside advice for the moment, take the word “letters” at face value and write a short letter, a love letter if you like, of gratitude to (in the words of Ray Guy) this dear and fine country, and to (in my words) this fine and dear university.

Thank you Newfoundland. Like a number of those receiving degrees today, I came to this place from away, in my case many years ago. I grew up in Nova Scotia, and vaguely expected that Newfoundland would be much like other Canadian provinces, only newer. Even remembering such foolishness causes me to squirm. I could go on and on about how much I have come to love this passionate, singular and witty place, its solid sense of identity, its proud and encyclopedic sense of its past, but my ten minutes are going fast, and I must press on and thank: Labrador, the Big Land, an equally warm, singular and utterly beautiful place, that has most kindly put up with me on pilgrimages in quest of Mina Hubbard, a farm girl from Ontario who, over 100 years ago, intrepidly set out to chart the Labrador interior (though of course its inhabitants, the Innu, had known perfectly well where everything was and where all the rivers ran long before.) How fortunate was Mina to have had with her young Gilbert Blake of North West River, who was to become Labrador ’s most famous guide. And how fortunate was I to have had two such fine collaborators as Dr. Roberta Buchanan, professor emerita in English, and geology alumnus Bryan Greene, former head of the Newfoundland and Labrador Geological Survey. The result of our long haul of research and writing was The Woman Who Mapped Labrador, a book we immodestly regard as the definitive work on Mina Hubbard.

And thank you Memorial University. My gratitude to it began a few days after I arrived in St. John’s, a very new mother with a three week old baby (incidentally, she would one day graduate from Memorial with a MA and a gold medal). At that time, the world was in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, a terrifying time. All thoughts turned to nuclear war. I’ll never forget the day when my husband came home and said: “If the worst happens, the tunnels at MUN are probably one of the safest places in North America .” True or not, I clung to that, and still regard them with affection.

But my great luck began when, some years later, I was offered a temporary part-time job in the University Library’s Centre for Newfoundland Studies while its head was on sabbatical leave. I’d already worked in three other university libraries so I came to this one with certain assumptions, but I began to realize that the ambience of this one was quite different. The other libraries were ones of considerable subtle suspicion of those untidy people – the students – who would persist on taking up time asking questions and removing books from the shelves. In this one – I can’t overemphasize the difference – the people that worked there assumed they were actually the allies of the students, and keenly aware that that's why they came to work every day. This library also had a lively culture within itself, one of depth and great humour, endlessly interesting. As well, it was rife with savvy enterprise in the building of its collections and its attention to scholarship, a diligence that has come to make it recognized as one of the best university libraries in Canada, much of this due to the leadership of two outstanding University Librarians in whose regimes I was destined to serve, those of the late Margaret Williams and of the present University Librarian, Richard Ellis.

And now for the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, a love affair indeed. When I came to it, it was still a comparatively new division – just three people and a handful of student assistants – but already it was growing by leaps and bounds, and the person who was growing it was a most distinguished and enchanting librarian and bibliographer, the late Agnes O’Dea, who I really got to know when she returned from her sabbatical. She’d been given the task of bringing together in one place what printed Newfoundland material the library then held (40 volumes) and build a comprehensive collection upon it. In hunting and gathering Newfoundlandiana, Agnes gave herself a huge mandate: to collect all past and printed works about Newfoundland and all printed works by Newfoundlanders. By the time she retired in 1976, she had grown the 40 volumes to 20,000, and authored a seminal work: The Bibliography of Newfoundland, later published by the University of Toronto Press. In 1987 Memorial honoured her with a doctorate honoris causa.

After being a sabbatical replacement, I had the good fortune of being kept on in the Centre, and eventually succeeded Agnes – a truly generous mentor – as its head. The new university library, the QEII, was opened in 1981, and in it the Centre expanded enormously, including the establishment of an archives, a signal that the Centre was now collecting documentary materials in addition to the printed. In this blessed place I worked for many years, an enormous privilege which makes me feel humble to this day that I, not born in this dear and fine country, was entrusted with one of its great treasures. To all those dear and fine people who worked there with me – I wish there was time to name each one of them – my heartfelt thanks.

So much for looking back, now it time for the ahead. It’s often been standard practice, in addressing graduands, to tell them they are the inheritors of a world of possibilities and progress. In many respects this is still true, particularly for you here who are mostly graduating with good educations in the sciences. I congratulate you. Through your hard work, you now have the knowledge and skills to compete anywhere in the world, to lead creative, productive and interesting lives. At the same time, we're all keenly aware that there are stormy waters about these days, leaving little room for complacency. Some of you will have to choose between staying here, a place which defines many of you, or go elsewhere, often a painful decision. Whatever you do, I urge you to try not to co-operate with the forces of dullness and passiveness, to resist the slow erosion of hard-won human rights and social concerns by the cultures of fear, and to take on your fair share of responsibility for the planet we live on. Above all, I wish you a future of curiosity and courage, love and laughter, wisdom and warmth. This is a joyful day.

Thank you.