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The Northrop Frye You Never Knew

Book explores renowned prof's personal life

While working on a Gilbert and Sullivan production at Hart House Theatre in the early 1930s, a shy, brilliant undergrad named Northrop Frye (BA 1933 VIC) became enamoured of fellow Victoria College student Helen Kemp (BA 1933 VIC). The two would marry in August 1937. Frye, who went on to become one of the most influential literary critics of the 20th century, published such books as Fearful Symmetry and Anatomy of Criticism and worked for 52 years as a professor at U of T. But the reserved, erudite writer was not known for expounding on his personal life. This side is explored in A Glorious and Terrible Life with You: Selected Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp 1932-1939 (University of Toronto Press), edited by Margaret Burgess. The collected letters are an abridged version of Robert D. Denham’s two-volume edition published in 1996 and cover the pair’s last two years at Victoria College, their marriage and Frye’s time at the University of Oxford.

The young, itinerant couple rarely occupied the same city, and Frye revealed his insecurities in a letter from May 1935. He pined for Kemp while she was on vacation in Europe: “Do you love Helen as she deserves? Can you do so, you snuffy snivelling pot-bellied hay-haired old friar? And thus I stand more or less paralysed, wanting badly to commit myself to something, communism, Catholicism, pedantry in any line, and realizing that I can’t; that the only thing I can commit myself to is my religion and my wife, one being in the clouds and the other in Europe. So I rush around squealing, like a pig in a fire, or sit around with large ideas and not doing anything about them, like a eunuch with an erection.”

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