Transvestite M(other) in the Canadian North: Isobel Gunn by Audrey Thomas


  • Dorota Filipczak University of Łódź



Audrey Thomas, Isobel Gunn, Canada


The article focuses on the eponymous protagonist of Isobel Gunn, a Canadian feminist historical novel by Audrey Thomas, published in 1999. Based on a real story, the novel fictionalizes the life of an Orcadian woman who made her transit from the Orkney Islands to the Canadian north in male disguise, and was only identified as a woman when she went into labour. The article juxtaposes the novel against its poetic antecedent The Ballad of Isabel Gunn, published by Stephen Scobie in 1983. In the article Gunn’s fate as a unique transvestite m(other) in the Canadian north is compared to the fate of famous transvestite saint Joan of Arc. Though removed from each another historically and geographically, both women are shown to have suffered similar consequences as a result of violating the biblical taboo on cross-dressing. Isobel’s sudden change of status from a young male colonizer to the defenseless colonized is seen in the context of managing the female resources by colonial authorities. At the same time, the fact that Isobel allows herself to be deprived of her son is analyzed in the light of insights on the maternal by Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray. The absence of the mother and the ensuing condition of her offspring’s orphanhood are shown as a consequence of reducing the position of the mother to that of an imperial servant, the fruit of whose body can be freely used and abused by the male imperial authority.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

Dorota Filipczak, University of Łódź

Dorota Filipczak teaches literatures in English and translation theory in the Institute of English Studies, University of Łódź. Her monograph on Malcolm Lowry was published in The Malcolm Lowry Review (Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario, 199899). Her publications include Unheroic Heroines: The Portrayal of Women in the Writings of Margaret Laurence (Łódź UP, 2007), “Is Literature Any Help in Liberating Eve and Mary?” in New Topics in Feminist Philosophy of Religion, ed. Pamela Sue Anderson (Springer, 2010), “Gender and Space in ‘The Albanian Virgin’” in Alice Munro: Understanding, Adapting and Teaching, ed. Mirosława Buchholtz (Springer, 2016), and Brian Moore’s Eponymous Heroines: Representations of Women and Authorial Boundaries (Peter Lang, 2018). She has published seven books of poetry, and is a member of the Association of Polish Writers.


Anderson, Pamela Sue. A Feminist Philosophy of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. Print.

Antonsson, Haki. St. Magnús of Orkney: A Scandinavian Martyr-Cult in Context. Leiden: Brill, 2007. Print.

Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women. Ed. Elizabeth L. Ewan, Sue Innes, Sian Reynolds and Rose Pipes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007. Print.

Boulous Walker, Michelle. Philosophy and the Maternal Body: Reading Silence. London: Routledge 2002. Print.

Broome Saunders, Clare. Women Writers and Nineteenth-Century Medievalism. Berlin: Springer, 2009. Print.

Cox, Bruce. Native People, Native Lands: Canadian Indians, Inuit and Metis. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s, 1987. Print.

Edmunds, Joan. The Mission of Joan of Arc. Forest Row: Temple Lodge, 2008. Print.

Gough, Barry. “Henry Alexander.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 5. Ed. George W. Brown and Francess G. Halpenny. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1983. 418–19. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Print.

Kuester, Martin. “The English-Canadian Novel from Modernism to Postmodernism.” History of Literature in Canada: English-Canadian and French-Canadian. Ed. Reingard M. Nischik. Rochester: Camden, 2008. 310–29. Print.

New, William H. A History of Canadian Literature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s, 2003. Print.

Scobie, Stephen. The Ballad of Isabel Gunn. Kingston: Quarry, 1987. Print.

Smith, Anne-Marie. Julia Kristeva: Speaking the Unspeakable. London: Pluto, 1998. Print.

Stoler, Laura Ann. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Berkeley: U of California P, 2002. Print.

Thomas, Audrey. Isobel Gunn. Toronto: Penguin, 2000. Print.

Warner, Marina. Joan of Arc. The Image of Female Heroism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.




How to Cite

Filipczak, D. (2018). Transvestite M(other) in the Canadian North: Isobel Gunn by Audrey Thomas. Text Matters, (8), 431-440.