The Secret World of Canada’s Oldest Reading Club

by Julia Wright

At the King Street coffee shop in uptown Saint John, pop punk plays on satellite radio. A girl with a delicate platinum wedge of jewelry in her septum and thick masses of maraschino-cherry-toned hair works the cash. The buzzing, student-union vibe doesn’t exactly jive with the formality of the invitation I’m holding. It’s heavy, cream-coloured card stock, usually reserved for wedding invitations. A large symbol, calligraphic, coils into and over itself. It looks like a block capital from an illuminated medieval manuscript. “If you look at that symbol closely,” Bernard Cormier tells me, “you can see it’s the initials E-R-C.” He thinks it dates back to the early twentieth century.

Inside, the card reads, “THE ECLECTIC READING CLUB. INSTITUTED 1870,” in a bold Old English font.

Cormier’s been a fixture in Uptown Saint John for many years: he has what you might call a distinctive personal style. Tall and fiftyish, his precision in matters of dress is near-military, from the black mirrors of his Oxfords, to his coordinated bow-ties and pocket squares, to the arrow-straight part in his black hair.

Cormier and his wife, Elizabeth, have been members of the Eclectic since they were newlyweds their twenties. Cormier is something of a pioneer when it comes to local clubs: he founded the Magic Circle of Saint John, the charter of which states its dedication to the “mutual improvement of members in the variety arts, particularly magic” and to advancing magical ethics, especially the safeguarding of magicians’ secrets from those “not entitled to know them.” His coin, card, and rope tricks, as well as his performances of “mentalism effects,” which he does under the stage name of Bernard the Magician, are impressive.

Now that he has conjured an invitation for me, I note the address: the upscale suburb of Rothesay. An italicized heading reads “Subject of the Evening,” below which is written by hand: “Apocalypse Soon.”

“The titles are supposed to be a bit of a mystery until you get there,” he says, looking mildly delighted. Magicians must enjoy that kind of thing.

I continue to look the card over. “I can’t let you keep that, I’m afraid,” Cormier apologizes.

The Cormiers have collected many of these cards over the past thirty years. Although this one is recent, the little missive still carries a certain gravitas. I’m reminded of the Superman sketch Joe Shuster thrusts at Lois as he embarks the train to the big city in the ubiquitous Heritage Minute television commercial: “you never know — it might be worth something someday!” These cards have been delivered by old-fashioned mailman to Saint John’s literary types for 145 years. That’s roughly 1,015 meetings, depending on when you start counting.

I’d want to keep it, too.

***

Dr. Sandra Bell first told me about the Eclectic. We’ve been close friends for a few years, having met at another, non-Eclectic book club. She’s an actor, playwright, professor, and former Chair of English and the Humanities at UNB. She and her partner of 20+ years, blues musician and writer Grant Heckman, had me over for dinner. In the warm, spice-fragrant kitchen of their nineteenth century brick townhouse, over an excellent Bolognese and wine, they dished: the Eclectic isn’t like a regular book club.

For one, members don’t read and discuss a single title. It’s more of a salon. Members take turns selecting a program of readings on a subject for the evening, and fellow members read the passages aloud. It’s the oldest continuing club of its kind it in Canada, and probably the most formal. Meetings are black tie, and are convened at some of Saint John’s finest private homes. The roster over the years has included professors, authors, artists, mayors, members of the legislature, a premier. One has to be able to entertain thirty to fifty people for a sit-down evening in style. Sorry, condo-dwellers. And there’s no website. No social media presence at all, actually. It’s invitation-only.

“Is it like Eyes Wide Shut?’” I joke, referencing the sexy secret society in the Kubrick flick. “Is there chanting? Are there hoods?”

Not exactly. Bev Harrison, an avowed monarchist, onetime Speaker of the New Brunswick Legislature, and one of the club’s longest-standing members, explains admissions are — shall we say — selective. “You have to be voted in almost unanimously.” One former president said he sometimes gets emails from acquaintances asking how they might join. “I know they just aren’t quite the sort of people who would appreciate this sort of thing. I have to tell them it just doesn’t work like that,” he laughs. There are now about 45 club members who meet seven times annually — always on the final Thursday of the month.

I’ve heard some say Harrison can be a little crusty, but he warms at the chance to talk about the Club and its traditions. It’s a “throwback to the nineteenth century: one of those rare opportunities to put yourself in a past era, to enjoy an evening that’s not computerized.” In an 1882 letter, former member Frances E. Murray wrote the club had “done more than we imagined to promote thought, research, discussion on literary subjects, and […] helped to free us a little from everyday cares of our busy lives and raise us to a higher place of thought and belief.” A refuge from the pressures of modern life: that’s the description of the Eclectic I keep hearing. But what constitutes “modern life” has changed a lot since the Club’s Confederation-era inception, when literary societies and clubs were popular. Only a few groups from that period have survived.

That’s why I almost didn’t believe the oldest reading club in Canada was still operating in my small hometown of Saint John, New Brunswick, not exactly known for its thriving literary scene. Some say Saint John is stuck in a time warp: generally speaking, the new century also hasn’t been kind to the oldest incorporated city in Canada. The shipbuilding industry came crashing down in 2003 with the closure of the dry dock. After that, a slow decline began, which has continued to the present: continual layoffs, call centres colonizing the dead malls. Many Saint Johners are working hard to make good on its promise as the so-called “Renaissance City” — a phrase promoted on social media by our boyish mayor, who I suspect hasn’t been invited to join the Eclectic.

With its glowering fog and proliferation of smokestacks at all compass points, Saint John’s charm ranges from vaguely-melancholy to totally-brooding-and-Lovecraftian: the Port City, as it’s nicknamed, bears all the hallmarks of what’s by now a familiar Maritime story. But its distinguished late 19th-century masonry buildings, its stately public squares, and its soaring church spires and public monuments betray a more prosperous era — a beauty that endures, albeit scarred by poverty and heavy industry.
It was at Sandra’s suggestion that I wrote a note to Cormier, the head of City Hall’s cultural affairs office, asking if I could tag along to a meeting and do a story. He wrote back, politely, saying he’d need to do some checking. Months passed.

I had almost forgotten about it when Cormier wrote to me again. The next meeting of the club would be November 27 — the following Thursday. Could I still come? Um, YES. What would this Stonecutter book club do when they got together? I was dying to know. I made a big box around the day on my calendar: ECLECTIC READING, I wrote inside it in all-caps with a purple Sharpie. I surrounded it with a bunch of little question marks.

***

The Eclectic started at Trinity Church, which sits high on a hill above Saint John’s Germain Street. It’s a jewel of high Victorian Gothic architecture. Seagulls make lazy high arcs above its singular weather vane, a gigantic fish, used centuries ago by sailors to navigate into the deep, ice-free harbour. Like the Whaleman’s Chapel in Moby Dick, it’s infused with cold ocean air and a vaguely nautical aspect. Yellowed, century-old flags hang from its gallery, and the brilliance of ruby and sapphire-toned stained glass is muted by the grey harbour fog outside. For generations, this has been the church-of-choice for Saint John’s elite, including the politically ambitious Tilleys and billionaire industrialist Irvings.

On its western wall hangs a faded sepia portrait of the Rev. James J. Hill, who looks surprisingly young despite the inscrutable expression and side-whiskers typical of the period. The reading club he started evolved into the Eclectic. It’s hard to say what the young curate saw in his new parish that prompted him to embark on this literary venture. Having recently moved to Saint John from Newport, Nova Scotia, he may have craved a little lively conversation and companionship. Hill left Trinity after five years; the club kept going.

Over the years, the club has held evenings on phrenology and household herbs, poems about the joys of log-driving, travelogues from Hong Kong to the Miramichi, reams of Shakespeare, Kingsley Amis, Victor Hugo. Hence the name. The “eclectic” moniker also has roots in Saint John’s Eclectic Library, established in 1821. The library, “the most democratic [in Saint John] in its caste,” was absorbed by the larger Saint John Society Library in 1868. The loss was lamented by one contemporary columnist: “after a history of 57 years, its 6,413 volumes, many of them rare and valuable, were scattered by the hammer of the patriarch of the Saint John Auctioneers.” The library thus disbanded, Curate Hill’s reading group revived the “eclectic” name — and its mandate of “acquiring knowledge on every interesting subject.”

This history has been preserved at New Brunswick Museum archives in the North End of Saint John, where half a dozen books contain decades of the Club’s handwritten minutes. Between the embossed covers and crumbling, marbled flyleaves, the handwriting changes year to year, from immaculate cursive to barely legible hen-scratches to loopy hieroglyphics, a tactile and visual reminder of the generations of secretaries that have taken on the record-keeping. The entries sketch a quaint cameo of each meeting: who attended, who was sick with ‘flu, who forgot to pay dues. There are sleigh-rides and picnics, songs and theatrical performances. In the first entries, members agonized over the constitution and by-laws, crossing out and reworking central tenets. Maybe the secretary found this process a little tedious: a tiny doodle portrays a man with a round nose, mustache, and brimmed hat. I want to imagine it’s a caricature of the founder, Curate Hill.

I discover that Leonard Percy de Wolfe Tilley — judge, politician, and later New Brunswick’s twenty-first premier—was a long-term member of the Club. In January 1896, the Eclectic met at the home he shared with his wife, Laura. Tilley was then 26, not yet a politician but a freshly-minted lawyer, having been called to the bar and set up a practice in Saint John three years prior. His father, Samuel Leonard Tilley, a Father of Confederation, would die five months later. The programme for the night reflects the patriotism of the Tilley household: Canadian geology, Indian legends, and the War of 1812. “The visitors were provided with souvenirs of the Canadian evening,” the minutes note. “These were in the form of maple leaves designed by Miss Peters. All joined in singing My Own Canadian Home.”

I leaf through a thick manilla envelope stuffed with programmes dating back to the late nineteenth century. My favourite is the tiny, chocolate-coloured booklet from 1900–1901 with the club legend scrolled across the cover in metallic cursive. Definitely the weirdest-looking programme is a rectangle of birch-bark inscribed with crude block capitals and swishes of gold paint, a nineteenth-century Pinterest Fail.

I snap a photo of these treasures on my phone and text it to a friend.

“Damn,” she observes, “that beats a Facebook invite.”

***

The night before the meeting, a fashion-forward friend loans me a new black dress with sleeves that hide my tattoos, which cover most of my forearms, and which I suspect may not totally fly with this set. I pull back my unruly curls, don my best heels, and take extra care applying makeup.

As soon as I get in Sandra and Grant’s VW I pepper them with questions about our mystery destination. What’s it like? Is it fun? Is it dull? It’s wonderful, they tell me. I’ll enjoy it. In the rear-view mirror, I catch a better look at Grant. His distinguished silver hair is brushed back from his forehead. Tonight, he’s wearing immaculate bow-tie and overcoat. I can’t see Sandra’s ensemble, but she’d said she was wearing a black sequined gown.

“Do you think it will be weird if I take notes?” I ask.

They hesitate. We’re good friends. This is uncharacteristic.

“Maybe if you sit somewhere at the back,” Sandra offers.

Grant is notably silent.

“What do you think, Grant?”

“I think it might look a little odd. Might be best if you didn’t.”

The big, fine old houses of Rothesay are outlined with Christmas lights, and in the windows battery-powered candelabra illuminate the snow with an ersatz nineteenth-century glow. We’re heading along the dark and frozen Kennebecasis River to the home of Dr. Stephen and Judy Willis. They’re known for their international travels, and Dr. Willis for his 40 years of practice in the region and work on the National Council on Health Policy and Economics. I can’t really see the lineaments of the Willises’ under a foot of snow and ice: a gigantic gingerbread house, it seems. We walk a path in the snow past frosted shrubberies to the front door. When we enter the warm hallway, there’s a babble of low voices in another room.

“Ladies’ coats in the room to your left, gentlemen in the room to your right,” someone calls to us. Sandra takes delicate purple stilettos from a bag with “Out, damned spot!” printed in cursive on the side, her only concession to modernity, and slips them on her tiny feet. Other ladies are similarly changing their footwear. I am introduced. “How do you do?” “How do you do?” I’m presented to the Willises, and club president Colleen Maloney. I cast a last despairing look in the direction of my purse: in an evening dress, I have nowhere to surreptitiously stash a phone or notebook.

In the main room are more men in evening dress than I have ever seen in one place. There’s not a clip-on bow tie in the house: patterned waistcoats and watch chains, linen shirts with French cuffs. The women are all draped in shawls, perched effortlessly on heels. Silver trays of sherry make the rounds. Sandra introduces me to Beth Powning, the writer, who’s wearing a punk-chic jacket with regimental buttons, a subdued tie-dye effect on the leather. I listen as she and Sandra discuss the best critical editions of Shakespeare. Beth has just finished writing a book set in England in the 1630s. “I missed my Shakespeare classes,” she confesses. “I didn’t get it.”

I scan the room. Tonight, there are 35 at the Willis’ house. I am the only guest. The median age is about 60. Every object looks like it’s been acquired thoughtfully: expansive oil paintings of blossoms, drapes of rich and heavy material. The conversation is subdued, a constant thrumming. Bernard hands me a drink.

Someone in the next room rings a little bell. The meeting’s about to begin. As we descend narrow stairs, Bernie quizzes me rapidly: “Do you prefer ‘journalist’ or ‘reporter’? And you teach? What? Where? And you’re the editor of a — ?”

The reading room is decorated with a dozen or so portraits of fishing flies, a map of Antarctica, and photos of the angelic Willis children in elaborate frames. One wall is a bookshelf lined with old volumes of Hemingway, Cervantes, travel volumes. Chairs to accommodate several dozen have been placed in the main area. After the crowd settles, Maloney takes the floor, her slight, beatific smile reminiscent of Martha Stewart. She’s wearing a trim navy dress and lacy tights. Welcoming us and calling the meeting to order, she extends congratulations to the Pownings, who both recently received honorary degrees from the University of New Brunswick. Another couple are marking their 28th wedding anniversary, a milestone that prompts mannered applause. The Secretary, according to custom, reads the minutes from the previous meeting.

Apparently, it was pretty wild by Eclectic standards, with a demonstration of old-school shag dancing as well as readings. This kind of non-literary addition is a recent innovation, according to Bev Harrison: “in the past,” he says “it wasn’t considered appropriate to used recorded stuff .” But the members don’t generally seem to mind. I hear about the shag dancing again several times before the evening is out. I’m reminded of how Harrison described the club’s general atmosphere: the second unspoken rule, right below the dress code, is the “norms of behaviour — that one would applaud or laugh at the appropriate times, but not overdo the thing.”

At this point, there’s another bit of formality. Maloney turns to me. “We have a guest with us tonight.” Cormier takes the floor and introduces me very prettily, hitting all the points we covered on the stairs. I even remember to rise and stay standing as he does so. I’m thankful for my lifelong fascination with etiquette columns.

It’s time for the main event. Bearded, baritone-voiced Dean Turner has selected the programme. His topic: Apocalypse Soon. Turns out Turner, a director and actor, is also a major SF fan. Sandra has been asked to read a chapter from “The Day of the Triffids.” Triffids are, as Turner explains, “plants that provide an oil with major economic applications — but which are also eight feet tall, can move on their own, have a stinger that kills, and like all good hunters, eat their kill. So there are pluses and minuses with Triffids.” I’ve heard Sandra read at our book club before, even seen her onstage before hundreds of people. But this is different. With the evening dress, her dark hair streaming loose over her shoulders, and a rapt audience of finely-attired ladies and gents, it’s easy to imagine her as some Great Lady of the Stage circa 1870.

Turner introduces the next reading. He’s only just learned that P.D. James, that pioneering contributor to the genre, died this morning at 94. (“That kind of coincidence happens all the time at the Eclectic,” Cormier whispers to me, with a note of deep mysticism.)

After modernist sculptor Peter Powning reads from James, wine is served in the adjacent room and liquor upstairs.None of the ladies, I note, are “upstairs” kind of gals. According to Dr. Norman Skinner, the club at one time had an “uneasy alliance with alcohol.” In the club’s earliest days, he writes, “the host would nudge some of the members and whisper that a drink was available in some remote part of the house, with no ladies invited.” Happily, no one seems to be clinging to this tradition. The jokes become more frequent and introductions slightly less formal. In the rooms the women come and go, talking of upcoming performances at the Imperial, of their recent travels.

That little bell again. In the first period (as the sections of each meeting are called) I had chosen a seat in a sort of alcove where I couldn’t see much. Cormier told me it’s an unwritten rule to not sit beside your spouse or your usual friends at Eclectic; also, most people change seats between periods. I settle this time into the third row beside Sandra. A lady in the next seat is wearing a lovely, voluminous felted shawl representing gigantic poppies and camellias. We sip our sherries and whiskey-sodas and listen to more bleak SF. I’m afraid, by this point, the details of the readings are starting to blend together. Too busy staring at the shawl.

It’s now past 10 p.m. and the readings are nearly over. I think the evening, too, will soon end (I hear murmurs from some of the elder ladies about the dreams they’ll be having after having been exposed to such material) but Maloney announces refreshments will be served upstairs. The dining room is sparkling with candles amongst the silver trays of sandwiches, cakes, and tarts. There’s a gluten-free selection — a notable concession to twenty-first century appetites. Our feet sink cozily into a fine Turkish carpet. The setting in the dining room is unusual: at each end of the long table is a silver samovar and pin-wheeled china teacups and saucers. By some previous arrangement, two ladies take seats in front of each silver tea service. As the members form a queue, they begin pouring out hot cocoa, spooning soft peaks of whipped cream onto the top of each cup. The effect, with the frosty windows and the fresh, sparkling snow heaped outside, is Dickensian.

I am charmed. I am starving. The cocoa is first-rate. Dark, not too sweet, beneath a thick pillow of cream. I say so to Cormier.

“That’s the only reason I come!”

This is a noble motive. As several of the ladies begin to fade, as do day-lilies, and ask their husbands to take them home, I am hoping I’ll be invited back.

***

Superlative hot cocoa aside, an evening with the Eclectic isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. “Some people ask to become members, show up a couple of times, and then we never see them again,” Cormier shakes his head disapprovingly. “I can’t claim to fully understand that.” Perhaps the very idea of a black-tie book club would strike many New Brunswickers as an absurdity: over half the province is functionally illiterate, and the unemployment rate is among the highest in Canada. Yet somehow, though scores of similar societies across the country folded decades ago, the Eclectic continues to thrive.

I ask Cormier why he thinks the Club has endured for 145 years. “It’s the deep history of ‘firsts’ that we have here. After the American Revolution, the Loyalists came here to very little. They had to create their own sources of entertainment and opportunities to get together through theatre, music, the arts, literature.”

Yet the November 2014 meeting of the Eclectic had just three fewer attendees than in November 1914. Some members commute several hundred kilometres — many, like Bev Harrison, say they only miss Eclectic if they’re out of the country — and in the thirty years the Cormiers have been involved they can’t recall a single canceled meeting. A web presence is not only unnecessary, but best avoided, says Cormier, who is an avid Twitter user in his job at City Hall. “I think that would be sad. There would be a lot of resistance, and there’s no need for it, really. As long as we keep new blood coming in.”

That idea — “new blood” — is the ticket. Cormier recognizes the expectation that each member host a meeting as a potential problem: “people are downsizing. A lot of people don’t have that space.” In recent years, some members have surmounted that hurdle by renting out public venues like the Union Club, Shadow Lawn, and The Saint John Theatre Company.

If the Eclectic were about practicalities, it would have ceased to exist long ago. The type of literary evenings at which the Eclectic excels are a rarity. They’re the entertainment of a time even before books became ubiquitous — and long before screens began to replace them. Yet just as book-lovers delight in the marginalia, the underlinings, the notes tucked in pages of second-hand volumes, members of the Eclectic appreciate the Club as an aesthetic as well as a social experience. Reading aloud transforms a typically solitary pleasure into a public performance, a creative act. In this environment, texts are animated with personality, playing on the group’s common past. The club’s exclusivity aside, sharing stories — and books — in this way strikes at the core of human relationships. And so the club’s traditions have become a sort of talisman.

“Let’s think of a municipality as a jewelry box: you open it up, and perhaps you’ve got a whole mix of stuff, some of it fake, some of it real,” Bernard Cormier says. “But among all that, there’s some special token of the past, a historical relic from your great-grandmother, or great grandfather, let’s say, that has a special meaning.

“And the Eclectic Reading Club is something like that in Saint John: it’s part of our history, it’s our heritage. And it’s a treasure that, even if it’s just been for just a select few, needs to be preserved and examined once in a while.”

REFERENCES

Ross, Val. “Gathered together in literature’s name”. The Globe & Mail. January 14, 1995.

Murray, Heather. “Great Works and Good Works: The Toronto Women’s Literary Club, 1877–83”, 1995. Historical Studies in Education/Revue dihistoire de l’education 11:2 (Fall/automne 1999)

Saint John Business Directory: SJPL, City of Saint John, 1861,. New Brunswick Historical Society.

Eclectic Society Library Minute Book (1826–1835).

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