1949 Truthfully Yours by Angéline Hango


Lesson 3

They may think you’re funny for the wrong reasons

 

***Graphic 006 (book cover)

 

“When drunk, papa often struck maman . . . And he would swear and push furniture around, and want to fight everybody,” Angéline Hango tells us in the opening pages of her Leacock Medal winner, Truthfully Yours.

          In this book, a memoir, Hango describes the childhood embarrassments, hurts, and instability flowing from her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s struggle to cope in small-town Quebec.

          I wasn’t shocked to learn that the author first submitted the book under a pseudonym and that she didn’t consider it to be particularly funny when she wrote it in 1948. She penned it as catharsis, and the award for humour that came a year later surprised her. Hango was forty-four at that time. For this project, I contacted her son Roy in Vermont, and he told me that his mother appreciated the Leacock honour, but did not regard herself as a humorist or a professional writer of any kind. Though she lived to the age of ninety,[1] Hango never wrote anything for publication after the Leacock Medal.[2] In fact, two decades passed before she would even look at her medal-winning book again, reread it, and, for the first time, laugh.[3]

          The “Truthfully” in the book’s title refers to Hango’s pledge to break from her lifelong habit of “fibbing” about her family, a practice she refines in school, social settings, and eventually the workplace.

          Although a capable chef and salesman when sober, her father keeps his income on a soft footing and destabilizes the family with his drinking. Hango and her younger sister go off to a convent school for protection from the disturbances at home. Maman works tirelessly and thanklessly as a seamstress to finance their education and board.

          At the nunnery school, the two girls learn English, music, and more, but feel out of place among the better-dressed, upper-class students. They lie in order to fit in. Later, the book tells of unwanted advances from older men and more “fibs.”

          “So, where was the humour?” you ask.

          Some commentators suggest that 1940s readers found their amusement in material that is “a touch politically incorrect by today’s standards,”[4] this being the 1940s stereotype of alcoholic, illiterate, and superstitious backwoods French Canadians, and, more generally, the seemingly comic presentation of an abusive circumstance.

          For this distortion, the publisher, Oxford University Press, bears some responsibility. It sprinkled cheery cartoons throughout the book and branded the story as a “riotous” and “revealing” picture of “life in rural French Canada,” with characters of unsurpassed ignorance in “the business world.” As for the bumpy parts of Hango’s early life, the original book jacket makes only light and vague mention of the author’s “odd” and embarrassing relatives.

 

***Graphic 007 (author)

 

          Oxford took other liberties, saying, without any stipulation, that Truthfully Yours described “many, many love affairs involving every man she [Hango] met from the doorman at the department store to each and every one of her sister’s beaux”[5] when those “love affairs” are, in the actual text, clearly awkward encounters or imagined events presented by Hango to show her susceptibility to infatuation.

          Hango may have unintentionally contributed to this portrayal of French Canadian life by intertwining the edgier elements of her story with reminiscences on her ancestry, her religion, and traditions such as Christmas Eve réveillon. She also slips into caricature when talking of life as an unmarried “old maid” at the age of twenty-one and in describing her very Québécoise mother.

          “Whenever we made her try to pronounce words in English, she would twist her face all up, as if a person had to wear a different face to speak a different tongue,” the author says. “The sounds that came out did not resemble any language.”

          Okay. That and some other parts might be funny.

          Hango tells us that her convent cohorts “had a vague notion that anybody that lived in the States was fabulously rich or immensely interesting.” With this presumption, she cites “the States” as her home to ensure that her schoolyard tormentors are “simply awed into silence.” Pondering the art of fibbing, Hango says when a man catches you in a lie, he “would just take it for granted that he misunderstood . . . or that he remembered incorrectly” but “not a female, she will pin you down.”

          If the task of the humorist is to tell the truth with affection, Hango makes a creditable addition to the list of Leacock medallists because of her sense of irony, forgiving take on her family, and decision to speak truthfully. I liked Truthfully Yours, but I’m amused most because the book was mistakenly celebrated as a comic take on French Canadian life when first published and now it can be regarded as politically incorrect by those who wrongly assume that intention.[6]

          It illustrates the limitations of literary criticism,[7] and that makes me laugh.

         
Writing Exercise

In five hundred words, explain why children must always tell the truth and adults must lie.

         




[1] Roy A. Hango, email to DBD April 17, 2013.
[2] She was, however, working on a manuscript about travel in Morocco at the time of her death from a stroke in 1995.
[3] Sheila McCook, “Optimism Helps Writers,” Ottawa Citizen, Jan. 21, 1970, p.45
[4] AbeBooks, book description written by bookseller (Finefinds Collection Management, Kaslo, BC, Canada), http://www.abebooks.com (accessed October 15, 2012).
 
[5] Angéline Hango, Truthfully Yours (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1948)--from the book jacket.
[6] Angéline Hango was born on February 2, 1905, and baptized Marie Rose Angéline Roy in Quebec. She first distributed the manuscript for Truthfully Yours under the pseudonym Angéline Bleuets and won the $500 Oxford–Crowell Award with this name. She had married John Raymond Hango in 1932 in Arvida. After his death, she remarried, assuming the surname Hango–Burke. She died on November 9, 1995, in Montreal.
[7] For a thoughtful and interesting examination of the book in isolation of those perceptions, read Bina Freiwald, “The Interpellated Subject Lies Back: Angéline Hango’s Truthfully Yours,” Essays on Canadian Writing 58 (1996): 36–59. In an email to DBD, October 10, 2012, Bina Freiwald stated, “my essay . . . was part of my research on Canadian women’s autobiographical writing, with the emphasis on the text.”