by Doug MacDonald
In the summer of 1908, eleven-year-old Dorothy Dumbrille, along with her parents, Rupert and Minnie and her siblings Miriam, John, Helen and Oscar, moved to Kemptville. The family welcomed her youngest brother, Rupert, in 1911. The Dumbrille home was the large brick house at Oxford Street West and Harriet Street. Dorothy’s father was Rector of St. James Anglican Church, and the family’s home from 1908 to 1927 was the Anglican Rectory.
In the 1930’s, Dorothy wrote that Kemptville was “our childhood home, for we spent nearly twenty years there…I was a tom-boy when we went to Kemptville, loving nothing better than running wild in the fields at the back of our house (there were fifteen acres of farm attached to the property) and playing for hours with John and Oscar on the breezy lawn. It was an ideal home – far off the street on a high hill. We had a lovely lilac hedge along the driveway. Even yet, I never smell lilacs that I do not think of Kemptville and its associations.” The Dumbrille children attended the Kemptville Public School on Oxford Street, and the Kemptville High School on Prescott Street. Dorothy’s formal education ended with matriculation from Kemptville High School.
Mid-World War I, in September 1916, Dorothy took a job in Ottawa with the Department of Militia and Defence, her salary $43.40 a month. In December 1920, Dorothy resigned and moved to Philadelphia to live with her sister Miriam (Dumbrille) McFarland, after taking a business course, she worked for the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Co., eventually as secretary to the Vice President.
Dorothy returned to Canada four years later to marry James Travis Smith. The couple were married at St. James Kemptville on December 27, 1924, the ceremony officiated by her father. Dorothy’s husband was a school teacher in Alexandria, Ontario, where she resided for the rest of her life.
The Smiths only child, a daughter, was stillborn on October 18, 1926 at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. Dorothy suffered serious complications, and an operation. She was hospitalized for nine weeks. This added to the emotional elements that would influence her writing, along with her Anglican faith and upbringing, the loss (according to Dumbrille family lore) of a sweetheart in WWI, the death of her baby in 1926, and the fact that two of her brothers, John and Oscar, served overseas in WWII.
By the early 1940’s, Dorothy Dumbrille, writing under her maiden name, was a recognized poet and novelist, described in the 1946 publication, “Canadian Novelists, 1920-1945″, as “a writer of versatility and promise”. Her radio plays, broadcast on CBC, were popular, and her poetry was widely published in newspapers, including: The Ottawa Citizen, The Montreal Star and The New York Times. In July 1942, Ryerson Press published “Flying Colours”, an anthology of contemporary patriotic verse from Canada, the United States and Great Britain. There, among poems by such luminaries as Rupert Brooke, Bliss Carmen, Rudyard Kipling, John Masefield, John McCrae, A.A. Milne, Duncan Campbell Scott, and Walt Whitman, is Dorothy Dumbrille’s poem “Christmas, 1940″. Not bad company for a graduate of Kemptville High School!
In 1990, “The Feminist Companion to Literature in English” described Dorothy Dumbrille’s novels as “lively social history”. She wrote three novels, and what was, in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, considered contemporary fiction may now, some eighty years later, be viewed as historical fiction, reflective of themes, attitudes and prejudices of the era. Her books are also a reminder of how much Canadian society has changed.
With the publication of her novels, Dorothy had become a celebrity in Kemptville. Jane vonBoettiker, daughter of local pharmacist Mervin Wilson, recalled that her father would display the latest Dumbrille book in a glass case in his Rexall Drug Store on Prescott Street. Dorothy would, on occasion, be present to sign her books.
Dorothy Dumbrille wrote at a time when women writers were considered in almost a separate category – feminine – her work judged by the attitude of the literary elite (men) of the time. The result is that Dorothy Dumbrille has been overlooked by academia – this talented author deserves better.
Dorothy’s most productive literary career spanned little more than twenty years, her promise cut short by ill health, and she gave up most writing by the 1960’s. In 1956, she was appointed Board Member of the St. Lawrence Parks Commission and was a member of the committee that planned and initiated Upper Canada Village. Dorothy Dumbrille was a writer with a Kemptville High School education, she did not attend university, she did not study literature – she created literature.
Her last published work, in 1980, “Memories of My Father – Reminiscences of the Life of the Rev. Rupert John Dumbrille”, is perhaps the book that will resonate most deeply with the people of North Grenville. By 1980, Dorothy was nearing the end of her life, as she shared childhood memories of the Dumbrille family years at Oxford Street West. She wrote in a warm and gracious manner that offers a glimpse into the village of Kemptville and its people a century ago.