(There may be spoilers so read the book first)
In 1995 my now husband and I were living in Vancouver, BC when I first came upon the book The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. It was left behind in a pile of stuff by previous renters of the apartment my sister was moving into. Being an Atwood fan, I had to pick it up and read it. It was the first book to inspire me to want to investigate a place based on a book I had read. The idea never left me and now, 27 years later, we are living temporarily in Toronto. Of course, a reread was in order and an attempt to see the city through the eyes of Tony, Charis, and Roz, the three main characters in the story.
The reread was just as good as the first time but I learned so much more.
The name of this book was derived from Grimm’s Fairytale, The Robber Bridegroom.
Atwood also wrote a short story follow up called I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth.
The genre classification is interesting, I have seen it under women’s fiction, magical realism, fantasy, and feminism to name just a few. Frankly, I don’t know what it should be classified as.
The Robber Bride is set in early 1990s Toronto with flashbacks to the past. It includes true historical details such as the recession that was taking place in Canada in the early 1990s and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Atwood also makes reference to Nelly McClung who was in part responsible for Canadian women receiving the right to vote and to have been instrumental in the beginning advancements for women’s independence in Canada. It seems so appropriate to use McClung’s name in a book that is very much about feminism. McClung was also an accomplished writer in her time. In researching McClung it seems that many of McClung’s ideals are also shared by the Margaret Atwood we see in public.
The story is told from the point of view of the three main characters. They have little in common except a woman named Zenia, the villain in the book, who has befriended and then taken advantage of each character. All of these characters met during their years studying at the University of Toronto in the 1960s. However, the full story takes place over several decades.
Tony is a professor of history at The University of Toronto, with a focus on war. In the present day, 1990, she is married to West. Her view is often presented as a metaphor with war; such as her being at war with people; or people being occupied territory. She is reclusive and prefers when events are in the past rather than her dealing with them in the present.
Charis used to be Karen but after a traumatic event, she became Charis. She has a daughter, Augusta, the child of Billy who is a draft dodger. Charis raised Augusta on her own on the Toronto Islands. Charis relates everything to the metaphysical and believes she can see a person’s aura and see things that have or will take place.
Roz is the president of a company and very wealthy. Her name has been changed by her parents and by her. She has had to negotiate between a Catholic and a Jewish upbringing throughout her life. Her husband Mitch and her have a son and twin daughters. Money is no object to Roz. She is suspicious and very protective of those who are important to her.
Zenia is the ‘friend’ who has come back from the dead. She is the person we are trying to understand throughout the novel, who is also the villain. Atwood has stated that Zenia is the character she most identified with.
When putting this blog together I found that many of the locations mentioned in the book are still around today. Others I don’t know if they ever existed. However, I have done my best to visit some of the spots in the book.
Toronto Based on Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride
There are two parts to this tour. The first is a walking tour of places Atwood may have used for locations in the story. The second is to head to Toronto Island and investigate Charis’ sanctuary. You can also spend some time walking along Queen St. E or at The King Edward hotel at 37 King St. E., as there are spots along there in the story. However, when I went looking for what they could be based on other than the hotel I didn’t find a lot.
Part One: This part of the tour will probably take you a couple of hours and there are many places on Queen St. W. if you want to stop for something to eat. Or you can even take a short detour into Kensington Market for a churro, especially if you have read Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill and my tour blog based on his book.
Continue walking east on Bremner and turn left onto Lower Simcoe St. Continue to walk north to Front St. and turn right. Walk along Front going east until you reach University Ave. (1 block). Cross to your left and walk north on University Ave. Note across University on Front is the famous Fairmont Royal York and Union Station, the transit hub for Via, GO, and the TTC.
Walk north on University to the Osgood Subway station at Queen St. West (~500 m). Tony exits the subway here and walks west along Queen on her way to Toxique (p.28).
Turn left onto Queen St. West (heading west) and you will be walking Tony’s route to the restaurant for the friends' lunch. Note I couldn’t find a comic store, or a restaurant called Toxique. The Bamboo Club did exist until 2002 but is no longer there. It was at the same address as Lush Cosmetics. The Queen Mother Café is still there. I haven’t eaten at it since the late 1990s but it was very good back then.
After lunch Tony continues west on Queen until she reaches Spadina. Here she turns right heading north to go home.
Tony walks north on Spadina mentioning many sights ‘walking past China town, Jewish delicatessens, Portuguese and West Indian shops of Kensington Market’ (p. 39).
Having followed Tony’s route, turn right on Baldwin St and walk to Huron St. and turn left onto Huron St. for a brief diversion into Roz’s childhood. She grew up in a boarding house her mother ran on Huron St. 123 Huron St was a boarding home until the 1960s and could perhaps be the house Atwood modeled Roz’s childhood home after.
Possibly Roz’s mother's boarding house and the street Roz knew as a child.
Continue north past the boarding house and turn left onto Cecil St. heading back to Spadina. At Cecil and Spadina is Grossman’s Tavern that Tony mentions passing on her walk home.
Turn right (north) on Spadina and on your left across the street you will see the Scott Street Mission that Tony walks past.
At Harbord St., about 1 km north, turn right and walk east. It will change into Hoskin Ave. At 6 Hoskin Ave. is Trinity College which could be one of many buildings on the University of Toronto Campus that McClung Hall is based on.
After looking at Trinity College turn back on Hoskin and at the west side of the Trinity College Church turn right and head north on the little street there. Winding your way left and right onto Devonshire Place.
Walk north on Devonshire to Bloor St. and turn right.
Cross over Bloor and turn left onto Bedford St. If you walk along Bedford you will see many turreted houses. Any one of which could be the house that inspired Tony’s turreted home.
This is the end of this part of the tour.
Part two: take the ferry from Jack Layton’s Ferry Terminal to Ward’s Island (this is the link to the ferry schedule and costs). Wander around the island looking at the houses that Charis might have lived in. From many of these houses you can see the Toronto skyline as Charis describes it. You can also watch the ferry pull away and imagine Billy and Zenia leaving Charis behind. The island definitely gives the perspective of Charis’ personality in the book. It has the feel of an artistic, close knit, eccentric community. Pay attention to the modes of transportation, it is not at all like main land Toronto.
Make sure you spend some time exploring the beaches as well, though that has nothing to do with the story. There are also other things to do on the islands and here is a link of places to visit or walk around.
Hope you enjoy this tour and I look forward to your comments.