“The ravine had been a point of dispute for more years than the town, which encircled it, could remember. For, from time to time, appalling things occurred in its shaded depths, weaving dark strands of apprehension through the fabric of civic pride which had so far pre-served it intact.
There are those who would like to have seen it stripped of every tree and shrub capable of casting a shadow. Those who had more than sufficient reason for loathing a tangled, cancer-ous growth, in places never pierced by the sun.
Another faction felt that partial denudation would be sufficient.
But the majority of the townspeople, whether motivated by love of nature or inertia, wanted it left exactly as it was.”
—From The Ravine (1962) by Phyllis Brett Young
“If the CN Tower is Toronto’s largest phallic object,” Amy Lavender Harris wrote in Imagining Toronto (2010), “then the ravines are clearly its female corollary.” This defining feature of the city’s landscape is also a defining feature of its literature about women—a touchstone for exploring the experiences of, and dangers to, mid-century women. Phyllis Brett Young, a Toronto author who experienced a meteoric rise in the 1960s before falling into obscurity by 1980 (followed by a resurgence in 2007), was no different.
Young’s six novels all focused on the interior experiences of women like herself, and when she described the dispute over ravines in her introduction to The Ravine, it spoke to the way society faces darkness and change. It also spoke to a real source of this common regional metaphor—the murder of a local woman just one year younger than herself.
Just before midnight on November 4, 1935, Ruth Taylor rode an eastbound streetcar after a long evening at work. When the driver announced the end of the line, Ruth grabbed her umbrella and stepped into the drizzling rain, preparing to walk the final few blocks home. She was never seen alive again.
Her body was discovered the next day in a ravine in the city’s east end. She had been badly beaten and sexually assaulted. Remnants of her rabbit-hair sweater littered the leaf-covered ground. Her presumed time of death was midnight, which meant she was murdered mere minutes after exiting the streetcar. Police moved quickly; it took less than a day for them to arrest gas-station attendant Harry O’Donnell.
Reporters detailed every angle of the murder, trial, and execution of O’Donnell. Pages filled with graphic detail scared a populace unaccustomed to sensational true-crime narratives, and the city became obsessed. Hundreds of Torontonians flooded into the funeral home to pay their respects; thousands mourned when Ruth was buried. Her murder challenged an entire city’s assumption of safety. A friend of Ruth’s told the Toronto Daily Star that the murder victim had recently laughed off concerns about walking alone: “you don’t need to be afraid, no one will get you.”
Three days after Taylor was murdered, the Star reported on “the number of mothers who stood on the [ravine]bank with babies in their arms or in carriages, and youngsters clinging to their skirts.” By November 20, the paper’s lead story was headlined: “Fill Murder Ravine, 700 Women Plead.” The women were demanding that the ravine be cleared, floodlit, and put under police surveillance. By mid-December, the city considered the costs of doing so.
The legacy of fear that followed went well beyond motherly worry. Attackers used Taylor’s name to subdue their victims. Since O’Donnell had a couple beers the night of the crime, a pastor used the murder to push for temperance. When a child was murdered twelve years later, in 1947, details of Ruth’s case were reviewed alongside reporting of the new murder as a playbook for how the case might play out. Even fifty years later, women of Taylor’s generation still vividly remembered her murder, as Katrina Srigley wrote in Breadwinning Daughters, her 2010 book about Toronto women who entered the workforce during the Depression.
The fear born that night—the “dark strands of apprehension” as Young would later describe it—wove their way into Toronto literature, and, most notably, became one of the ways writers like Young explored post-war womanhood. Taylor was part of the first generation of women in the male workforce, she faced grievous harm at the hands of a man, and her murder birthed motherly panic in the generations that followed. Even half a century later, details of her murder found their way into Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (1988), the ravine panic being described as a “scarecrow story, put up by mothers” until a girl is murdered in a ravine, invoking Taylor-esque images of an angora sweater and dead leaves.
Phyllis Brett Young’s The Ravine is, essentially, the mother telling the scarecrow story. Young was the daughter of famed philosophy scholar George Sidney Brett, and grew up in a financially modest but intellectually rich household with access to the wealth and artists whose names now grace the streets and institutions of Toronto. Like Taylor, Phyllis got a job. Her work, however, was short-lived because her unsavoury male colleagues would call her home, and Brett demanded she quit. As other breadwinning daughters struggled with the fear Taylor’s murder had instilled in her generation, Phyllis began to write.
Her fierce sense of feminine duty put further professional pursuits on hold, however, as she married her childhood sweetheart, Douglas Young, and had a daughter, Valerie. The family moved to Bennington Heights, an up-and-coming neighbourhood bordering another of the city’s ravines—the very neighbourhood that Atwood (who was a year younger than Valerie) grew up in, and which is often cited as the inspiration for Cat’s Eye. As a mother, Phyllis now had to face the scarecrow story: her daughter had to cross the ravine to get to grade one.
Valerie later explained to me how that journey over the ravine was a source of concern that her mother eventually revisited in The Ravine, a pulpy thriller first published under the pseudonym Kendal Young. The woman commuting from work one late, rainy November night became the child going home from school one rainy November evening. Like Taylor, she was dead within moments of her last goodbye.
The novel details the sense of responsibility Julie, a young and attractive art teacher not unlike Phyllis, feels when her pupil is murdered, and she sees the murderer in her headlights. The town, however, dismisses her eyewitness testimony as artistic, womanly imagination the minute she describes the culprit as a man who looked like Mephistopheles. The details of the crime are secondary to how Julie navigates the frenzy of the town’s morbid fascination with murder, and the lengths she must go to be heard and trusted.
The way Julie looks, the clothes she wears, and the words she chooses all create snap judgements about her expertise and character. She stews over how to “play down the effect of her blonde hair” to make men take her seriously. She worries about whether she is “capable of presenting herself and her idea with the necessary conviction” so that the police captain will see her as “an expert in [her]own field.” Every move she makes must be methodical to avoid the sexist assumptions of those around her. This murder mystery becomes less about a murder, and more about the lengths a woman must go to be heard and trusted.
The battle between womanhood and societal sexism permeates Young’s work. Every one of her heroines is painfully aware of how her body, her image, is received. They must anticipate the unknown, and present themselves in the way that their communities find acceptable and proper. They are never allowed to exist on their own terms.
In The Ravine, Julie contends with a community that thinks her testimony is fanciful and unreliable, and becomes actively involved in the hunt for a killer. In Young’s final novel, A Question of Judgment (1969), Ashley recoils from involvement when the rural town she teaches in becomes obsessed with the mystery of how and why an unknown young woman drowned.
Where Julie plots ways to make law enforcement listen, Ashley plots ways to cover up a constant onslaught of clues she stumbles upon. Both feel a heightened sense of personal responsibility, but while Julie feels the need to help catch the murderer, Ashley feels the need to hide the truth. She hides evidence to protect the victim’s privacy, to protect her pupils who stumble upon the murder scene, and, to some degree, to protect herself from the responsibility and spotlight of involvement.
Ashley’s insistence on prioritizing the victim and pupils over justice seems short-sighted, but is actually a sure remnant of the rigid, Depression-era morality thrust upon women in Phyllis’ time. The victim-blaming of today is a mere fraction of the judgmental morass that surrounded victims then. As Joan Sangster writes in “Incarcerating ‘Bad Girls’” (Journal of the History of Sexuality, Oct 1996), in 1935 (the same year Taylor was murdered), Ontario women were being sent to reformatories for partaking in vices that led to an “idle and dissolute life”; “vice” here meaning anything another person considered unseemly, like laziness, taste in boyfriends, and even failing to learn “moral resistance” as victims of incest. “All that was needed was a sworn statement about the woman’s incorrigibility; no formal charge was needed, and hearings were in private.”
This was the era of forced responsibility, where women had to act with unceasing virtue and were expected to expertly manage the wickedness of those around them. If they failed, they were to blame. There’s “no harm in trying” a truck driver tells Psyche, the titular protagonist in Young’s 1959 debut novel, when she spurns his advances. “No, there’s never harm in trying,” she agrees, even as she repeatedly tells herself, “as long as one knows when to stop.”
In Young’s work, all too often the men don’t stop. The Ravine and A Question of Judgment focus on explicit, public crimes. Women are murdered, and the populace eats it up with equal parts fascination and fear. Here, Young’s heroines aren’t really subject to danger outside of their roles as women hiding or revealing evidence, unlike the rest of her books, Psyche, The Torontonians, Undine, and even Young’s childhood memoir Anything Could Happen! (1961).
Young had finally focused on writing in Geneva, Switzerland, during the fifties, when her husband took a job with the United Nations and Valerie was in school. Phyllis was finally free to flesh out a story about an element of her father’s philosophical study—nature versus nurture. Psyche was published soon after the family returned to Canada, and it details the journey of a young child kidnapped from her wealthy parents, who lives among the lower classes of society as she tries to figure out her place in the world.
When a foolhardy ransom plan falls apart, the kidnapped child is abandoned, discovered by hoboes, and ultimately left with a poor couple in mining country, Bruce and Mag. Though she adjusts to life with them, Psyche is always at odds with the community around her. At fifteen, just as she’s about to escape the dingy slag landscape, boys hunt her in the woods and attack her, ripping her clothes, and stopping only when Bruce shows up.
Karen, meanwhile, the heroine of Young’s most popular novel, The Torontonians (1960), had to rely on herself. The novel focused on Karen’s feelings of uselessness as a fifties homemaker with grown children and technology that did the work for her, three years before Betty Freidan would immortalize the dynamic as “the feminine mystique.”
As she struggles to find meaning in her life, Karen remembers the moment when she was seventeen, and she agreed to let a boy walk her home from a party. He knows exactly how to play to her innocence. He talks about his dead sister, and he subtly insinuates that Karen might be a momma’s girl to entice her into his rooming house. He is the portrait of chivalry until they are inside and “all traces of boyishness had vanished. The direct blue eyes were bold and calculating. His mouth was tight in a half-smile that was a very unpleasant combination of anticipation and contempt.” “You’re not going to be difficult, are you, baby?” he asks. “I don’t like girls who are difficult.” Karen only gets free when she realizes can use her position above him on the stairs to her advantage. She threatens to harm them both rather than submit.
In Undine, her heroine does strike her attacker. The 1964 novel is a gothic romance about Miranda, a woman who reunites with her lost love and marries him, only to find herself haunted by his possessive late wife (and her doppelganger) Undine. Miranda is an actress who constantly retreats into her characters and blurs the line between reality and fiction. For years acting allowed her to forget her own reality, but when she faces the end of her career, her memories of assault rush back: “Not since I was fifteen had I struck anyone in anger, and on that occasion it had also been a man, although for somewhat different reasons. I had felt defiled then. Continue to feel defiled now.”
One could excuse the theme of male danger as some literary flourish or genre interest, if not for Anything Could Happen!, Young’s good-natured account of summers in cottage country when she was in her teens. Even Young’s exploration of innocence has a dark side. Before the twentieth page, Phyllis and her friends lurk around a hotel and overhear the age-old admonishment between a young couple: “‘Come on, baby, don’t be like that.’” Young continues, “Baby, we discovered, usually lost the argument, even though we were often left with the feeling that it had not, somehow, been quite as clear-cut as that.” Soon after, a creepy local man dubbed “Barnacle Bill” angles for an embrace from the girls, and ultimately kisses her friend—which Phyllis sees as grounds for immediate, and swift, revenge.
These acts are framed as mundane inevitabilities of Phyllis’ young life in the 1920s—the interplay of no and yes, groping hands, and lewd comments. Hitchhiking, however, would show the children true danger. They see hitchhiking as a summer sport, and young Phyllis keeps a log of the cars they hitch in. The “Nasty Man” who refuses to give them a ride doesn’t inspire them to stop hitching, but the “most affable” young men do. They exude that discomforting degree of “courtesy” that belies sinister intent. She is vague about what happened, but clear about the implication. “The understanding,” she wrote, “coming late, that it was sheer folly to trust people so casually met, to expect them to meet me always on my own terms, was painfully difficult to accept.”
Clearly, Young never really did accept this, and was painfully aware of the contradictions between image and intent. In her work, courtesy and prestige often mask menace. The ubiquity of male menace in her fiction and non-fiction raises questions of what else the author experienced or witnessed herself. Each book touches on either the memory of menace, or a current menace waiting to strike and make a fleeting danger into a true, bloody crime.
In interviews, Young always expressed her desire to raise the profile of Canada, and she succeeded, with work popular in both the US and Europe. However, she also revealed the darker side of Canadian life, the sinister comedy of manners thrust on the shoulders of Canadian women of the era. Assault against women is a constant shadow waiting to envelope them; it informs how her heroines exist, act, and react.
It’s a shadow not unlike the ravine Young described in her introduction to The Ravine. Women’s agency and bodily autonomy has been a “point of dispute for more years than [we]can remember.” Women suffer “appalling things” in the shadows, and the aftermath of these violent acts weaves “dark strands of apprehension through the fabric of civic pride.” As a result, some want comprehensive change to remove the “cancerous growth” entirely, some want compromise, and many, motivated by “inertia,” want things left “exactly as it was.”
—From CNQ 109: The Crime Issue (Spring/Summer 2021)
Monika Bartyzel is a writer, editor, and researcher whose work has appeared in outlets like The Week and The Atlantic. After years writing the column Girls on Film, her study turned toward the forgotten women of Toronto CanLit. She is currently piecing together the life and work of author Phyllis Brett Young and her contemporaries.
We post only a small fraction of our content online. To get access to the best in criticism, reviews, and fiction, subscribe!