Clara Dennis is not a familiar name in Nova Scotia's literary landscape, and very few people today remember the fleeting public interest her work generated in the 1930s. Hers was a small claim to fame, but a contribution which is nevertheless significant in its own way.
Clara was born in Truro, NS in 1881; her family moved to Halifax shortly afterwards. Her father was William Dennis, proprietor of the Halifax Herald Company, publisher of the city's two leading early 20th-century newspapers (the Herald and the Mail), a self-made man, a philanthropist and, in 1912, appointed to the Senate of Canada. Her mother was Agnes (Miller) Dennis, a community leader in her own right, prominent in progressive women's circles and much interested in improving conditions for the disadvantaged, especially women and children. Politics, religion, education, travel, charity work and 'the news' were routine topics of conversation in the family home on Coburg Road. It must have been a formidable household.
After completing her early education in Halifax, Clara attended both Mount Allison University (Sackville, NB) and Dalhousie University. Next she studied stenography and typing at the Halifax Business College, preparatory to working as her father's assistant in the Halifax Herald office regarded as very appropriate employment for young women at that time. Senator Dennis's early death in 1920, however, finished that aspect of her career.
Casting about for something else to do, Clara's curiosity about Nova Scotia was awakened; it "really began when I was on the other side of the ocean, the day I chanced on a map of Nova Scotia. What a warm glow came over me at the sight of the familiar odd-shaped little Province by the sea, my own, my native land...." This was the necessary spark, and her enthusiasm was immediate:
Then and there was born the resolution to seek and find Nova Scotia. I would travel over her highways and byways. I would know her cities, her towns, her villages. I would visit the remote and but little frequented islands of her coast. I would talk with the men, women and children I would meet. In their lives would be unfolded the soul of Nova Scotia....
Clara Dennis, Down in Nova Scotia, p. 1
She did indeed tour her native province, recording her observations in a barely-legible scrawl and taking photographs along the way. Her pleasure trips led subsequently to three major books, all in the travel-literature genre and published by Ryerson Press, Toronto: Down in Nova Scotia: My Own, My Native Land (1934), More about Nova Scotia: My Own, My Native Land (1937) and Cape Breton Over (1942).
Clara also produced newspaper and magazine articles over the years, chiefly on travel-related topics a good example was 'Into the North of Cape Breton by Motor,' published in the Canadian Motorist, May 1929. As well, she contributed the Nova Scotia chapter to The Spirit of Canada, a souvenir booklet produced to welcome King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on the occasion of their 1939 Canadian Tour.
Clara's work as a writer is very much a product of its time and place, but she had an observant eye, a keen sense of popular history, and a conversational writing style with a cadence and charm all its own. Hardly significant today, her books nevertheless captured a Nova Scotia that exists no more. Working in the inter-war years and travelling the province at the time of the Great Depression, Clara met many people, saw many things, and was relentlessly optimistic in her observations. Critical analysis was not part of her agenda, and V.B. Rhodenizer was sensible in praising her merely for the "delightful accounts of motor travel" which she produced.1
Clara's greatest legacy may be the photographic record that she compiled of her life and world several thousand images, capturing in black-and-white the people and places she encountered over the years. Although she provided captions for almost all her photographs, she rarely dated them; most appear, however, to have been taken between 1930 and 1940, and many were subsequently published in her books.
The images feature a wide range of topics, freeze-framing a way of life now long-forgotten men, women and children; Nova Scotians at work; antiques; scenery; and examples of the province's built heritage, including homes, churches, lighthouses, barns and unusual structures such as the cabbage houses on Tancook Island.
Many of Clara's photographs ended up in her father's albums, now held by the Nova Scotia Museum where they are valued for the photographic record they provide for Nova Scotia's Mi'kmaq in the early 20th century; examples of these images are also online, in the Museum's 'Mi'kmaq Portraits Collection'.
For the most part, Clara followed her mother's strong example of philanthropy and community volunteerism. She did not actively seek out steady or salaried employment, and her writing career was a hobby rather than a vocation. But she was nevertheless careful to create a life of her own, and that life was important to her.
Her contributions to promoting and improving Nova Scotia were formally acknowledged in December 1938, when she received an honorary Doctor of Literature from Mount Allison University. In 1939 Clara was named a life member in the Nova Scotia Branch, Canadian Women's Press Club, and she also served as president of the Halifax Branch, Canadian Authors' Association. Clara Dennis died in Halifax on 16 February 1958, largely forgotten.
1 V.B. Rhodenizer, At the Sign of the Hand and Pen: Nova-Scotian Authors (ca.1948), p. 32.