Michael Peterman: The troubled but productive literary life of Timothy Findley


It took me over a year to find the time to devote myself to a careful reading of Sherrill Grace’s biography on Timothy Findley (2020). The experience promised to be rich and instructive. And it was!

At over 500 pages, “Tiff: A Life of Timothy Findley” is a gigantic undertaking. Interestingly, Grace, who had a successful teaching career at UBC, never met Tiff Findley, who died in June 2002.

Be that as it may, she approaches the project with determination and brings to it her tenacity as a researcher and her qualities as a reader of texts. The result is a kind of double witness – first, to Findley’s impressive legacy of plays and fiction, and second, to Grace’s own college career. It unearths as complete a record as I think possible of Findley’s life and provides a rich body of insight into the eventful career of one of Canada’s most complex and original writers.

For my part, I knew Findley in the late 1970s and therefore had advantages that Sherrill Grace did not enjoy. Still, a biography of Findley was not something I wanted to undertake. I had the pleasure of inviting Tiff and her kind partner Bill Whitehead to Trent on numerous occasions throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The Stone Orchard farm, their home in Cannington, was less than an hour from the Trent campus in Peterborough. When Tiff released a new book, he was always ready to read to our students at Lady Eaton College and discuss his writings with them.

He often came to our house. In 1984, he stayed for a week thanks to a generous grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. Then, in 1987, he delivered an eye-opening lecture called “My Final Hour” to the Philosophical Society at Trent University. I got to know him quite well during his visits, but I have to say that I only knew him professionally.

I quickly realized he was an extremely private person; moreover, I had heard that he could sometimes be deeply disturbed by his inner demons. Knowing not to force it, I trusted Bill Whitehead’s friendly advice and appreciated Tiff’s kindness as a friend. I should also mention that he received an honorary degree from Trent in 1982 and was, in 1997, the subject of a conference on his writing. Borrowing the title of one of his plays, we called the event “Can You See Me Yet?”

Grace takes us deep into Findley’s upbringing in a pre-war Rosedale family modestly rich in social status and devoted to maintaining their position. His parents had a difficult relationship which bothered young Findley a lot. In particular, he had a strained relationship with his athletic father Allan, who rejected him at first because of his girlish tendencies and later after Tiff came out as gay. His brief stay at St. Andrew’s College (1942-1943) was at best an unfortunate middle phase in the family dynamic, partly due to the war and his father’s surprising enlistment.

Growing up, Tiff yearned for dance and acting, seeking acting opportunities then available in theater-poor Toronto. Due to continuing uncertainties regarding the Findley family’s finances, he chose not to attend college. Although he often lamented his lack of formal education, he began to read widely, trying to teach himself about literature, history, and culture. He also had several short gigs on stage, including roles in the first season of the Stratford Festival in 1953.

It was while pursuing an acting career in England, encouraged by Alex Guinness and his family, that he decided his future lay in writing. As much as he enjoyed being on stage, he seemed doomed to unsatisfying small roles. Feeling a deep need to succeed in the arts, he began writing short stories in London, England, where his theater mentors included Guinness, actress Ruth Gordon, and writer Thornton Wilder, all of whom he greatly admired. The subject of these early stories concerned his upbringing in Toronto and the complexities of life he had lived there.

As Sherrill Grace argues, “The story of Timothy Findley, the writer, cannot be told without featuring ‘WFW’ – as Findley often called Bill Whitehead – because he made so much possible.” WFW helped Tiff’s literary career take off by carefully monitoring her depressions and behavioral excesses, and by making plenty of room in Tiff’s time for productive writing. While regularly encouraging her as a writer, Bill kept Tiff’s tendency to drink heavily in check, built strong bonds with Tiff’s family, and helped her and Dr. Edward Turner cope. to his psychological demons.

They met in 1962 in Toronto while Bill was helping to organize the first season of repertoire at the Central Library Theatre. Shortly after, they move in together. In 1964 they purchased the Stone Orchard farmhouse which provided Tiff with much emotional comfort and blessed rural privacy. With Bill as their driver and sensitive factotum, they were able to maintain their ties with Toronto, New York and various CBC projects.

Findley had begun writing for publication in the 1950s, but his career came to fruition under Bill’s watch in the 1960s. ” (1967) and “The plague of butterflies” (1969). Neither found a large audience, but the first book’s traumatic subject matter garnered considerable attention. In it, a sensitive boy murders his troubled family. During this time, Tiff and Bill wrote a number of successful scripts for CBC Television, including “The White Oaks of Jalna” (1972) and “The National Dream” (1976).

It was with “The Wars” (1977) that Tiff became an important Canadian novelist. His timing was perfect. The 1970s marked a dramatic rise in cultural nationalism in the country. It was, in Findley’s words, “the golden age of Canadian writing” and he shared that glow with close literary friends, including Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Marian Engel and Phyllis Webb. “The Wars” proved a massive hit, but Tiff, as usual, remained deeply concerned. In his diary he wrote: “To date I have written nothing better than ‘The Wars’—but I have no reason to trust any Canadian critic to believe that I can write at all— and even less well.

Amid this cultural enthusiasm, Findley pursued bigger and darker projects. He became a darling of Canadian literature and, with his acting skills, he was a wonderful interpreter when reading. He followed “The Wars” with a complex and nameless saga called “Famous Last Words” (1981) which earned him scathing reviews in England. Later came “Not Wanted on The Voyage” (1984), “The Telling of Lies” (1986), “Headhunter” (1993), “The Piano Man’s Daughter” (1995) and “Pilgrim” (1999), as well than several collections of stories and memoirs. Several of his books deserve to be remembered and I will come back to them in a future column.

What Grace shows so convincingly in “TIFF” is his lifelong battle with himself. Publicly in charge, he was never far from inner turmoil and depression. He was not schizophrenic or insane but he was “volatile, intense, hypersensitive, possibly obsessive-compulsive”. His outbursts could be frightening and early on he contemplated suicide. But, slowly escaping the family tensions he felt so intensely for most of his life, and learning better to guard his own inner darkness, he became, at his peak, one of Canada’s great writers. Bill Whitehead certainly helped him realize his inner talent, but this vision, dark and frightening in its tenor, was substantial. If you have a copy of “The Wars”, look it up, and you’ll find it there.

“TIFF: A Life of Timothy Findley” is available from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

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