Hello, friends! Last week, I attended the fanciest party of my life: the Governor General’s Literary Awards gala at Rideau Hall. (Non-Canadians: Rideau Hall is the residence of the Governor General, the Queen of England’s representative in Canada.) Here’s what it looks like in daylight:
We arrived after dark. Because the hall is under renovation, I was directed around the side of the building and down a service hallway. As a result, the grandeur of the building rather sneaked up on me. Still, after checking my coat, one of the first things I saw was an oil painting taller than I am:
The awards ceremony took place in the ballroom, which looks like this:
Yes, that is indeed Queen Elizabeth in the painting. There was a piano quartet playing at the other end of the room.
The awards were given and accepted in both official languages, which I continue to find deeply moving. In the present political climate, Canada’s commitments to official bilingualism and multiculturalism appear as wilfully optimistic and constructive endeavours. They make me feel deeply patriotic.
That evening, I was particularly keen to meet Martine Leavitt, winner of the Young People’s Literature – Text category for her novel Calvin. Martine’s acceptance speech was thoughtful and witty and humble – just the qualities that I adore in her fiction. She began by quoting Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes: “If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood.” While I respect the truth of this observation, I am so grateful that writers like Martine manage to direct their most interesting thoughts into work they share with us.
The gala itself was utterly luxurious: simultaneously deeply feudal and pleasantly corrupting. Even now, several days after the fact, I find myself highly ambivalent in my response to it. I now know what it feels like to be Cinderella at the ball, or Elinor Dashwood at that fancy London party. It was also marvellous, if unintentional, research for writing a high-society scene. The food was lavish (tasting-size portions of dozens of luxurious things), the surroundings opulent. It was a meticulously constructed fantasy of an old order in which everybody knew his or her place and, for once, I was among those whose only job was to be pleased.
I can see how one could so easily slip into such a comfortable place. It wouldn’t take long to grow accustomed to being honoured and served, or to become amnesiac enough to fully identify with that position of ease. I also began to feel a bit like a lab rat in a test: there was a particular mirrored door through which waiters arrived, bearing trays of hors d’oeuvres. After a couple of dozen trays have appeared, it’s a bit surprising when they stop.
There’s a deep, childlike pleasure in having your comfort anticipated (“Would you like an umbrella?” “Oh. It must be raining.”); in handing your food-stained plate to a person who appears delighted to take it from you. And if you were routinely addressed as “Excellency” (as the Governor General and spouse are), how long would it be before you came to believe in that too, however unconsciously?
Later in the evening, we were offered a tour of a more private wing – one which is not usually open to the public. As a history nerd and professional nosy person, how could I resist? But it was even more interesting than I’d anticipated. You see, I grew up understanding that the Governor General is the Queen’s proxy in Canada. But that knowledge was always purely theoretical. What I didn’t appreciate is how Rideau Hall enacts that position in a concrete way: merely walking into the building is a confrontation with vested power.
In the large drawing room pictured above, that power is even built into the cornices of the room: after the death of Queen Victoria, the ornamental mouldings in most rooms were re-done in a more “masculine” style, the better to reflect the new male monarch, Edward VII.
My favourite part of the tour involved the greenhouses. There are five in total, although we saw only one.
I’ve been wondering what it would be like to feel less ambivalent about the whole event: to fully give myself over either to the fantasy of being a “distinguished guest”, or else a straightforward urge to burn the place to the ground. Are we all merely “passing”, knowing that our ancestors would have been clearing dishes and holding umbrellas? That mine would have been further excluded by racism? I suppose you could legitimize this particular party because it’s a celebration of excellence in the arts and its guests “earn” their invitations through their work. But that’s just a handful of evenings in the calendar. What about the others?
I don’t know yet. Maybe I never will. But my god, it was a great party.