Lillian Burke is not a household name. If Edward M. Langille, author of The Lillian Burke Story, had his way, that would change. Artist, reconstruction therapist, musician, teacher—American-born Burke was all of these. Though Burke lived the bulk of her life in the United States, she also had a Canadian connection. This came through Elsie Grosvenor, Alexander Graham Bell’s eldest daughter. In 1913, Burke was hired as a tutor for Elsie’s children. It was in that capacity that Burke travelled to Beinn Bhreagh, the Bells’ Cape Breton estate, the following summer—the first of many such trips she would make.
In 1924, Burke helped to organize a hooked rug sale in Cape Breton. The event, which offered works crafted by local women, proved successful. Burke took some rugs back to the United States, where she found buyers for them. She began working with home decorators to get commissioned projects. Burke developed designs, then arranged for the Cape Breton women to complete the work. She found a ready and willing workforce in Chéticamp, Nova Scotia.
Hooking rugs by hand was not a lucrative business. Although it was rumoured that Burke paid the women a pittance and pocketed huge profits, Langille refutes this argument, based on his research. He believes that Burke was genuinely motivated by a desire to assist the women in earning a livelihood, while at the same time helping Mabel Bell’s daughters revitalize the Cape Breton Home Industries, a pet project of their mother’s.
In addition to detailing Burke’s impact on the rug hooking home industry in Cape Breton, Langille provides us with a full scope of Burke’s upbringing and her personal and professional life. While he paints Burke as a caring person whose roles as a teacher and occupational therapist were motivated by genuine concern, his depiction is even-handed. He notes that some of the rug hookers saw Burke as an intimidating task-master who exerted “rigorous quality control on the carpets she commissioned.” (p. 19)
Langille’s book is grounded on extensive research, but that doesn’t mean The Story of Lillian Burke makes for dry reading. While certain chapters might interest readers more than others, the book is written in an engaging style. Each chapter begins with a photo showing detail from one of the rugs Burke designed. Other images of the people, places, and items important to the story are included throughout. The most intriguing photos display, in various stages of its creation, the impressive Chéticamp Savonnerie, a 648-square-foot hand-hooked rug designed by Burke and fabricated by Chéticamp women.
In his introduction, Langille calls Burke “one of Atlantic Canada’s unsung heroines.” (p. 13) The Story of Lillian Burke bids fair to rectify Burke’s historical obscurity. Langille’s recounting of Burke’s life and times is interesting in its own right. Add to that the chapters about Burke’s influence on the rug hooking home industry in Cape Breton, and the glimpses into the lives of Alexander Graham Bell’s extended family, and Langille has stitched together an interesting story well worth reading.
About the author: Edward M. Langille is professor of French language and literature at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Canada. Educated initially at Université Ste-Anne, Church Point, Nova Scotia, Professor Langille is a well-respected editor, translator and literary historian, specializing in the works of Voltaire. His scholarship has been honoured by the French government, which awarded him the rank of Chevalier in the Ordre’ des Palmes académiques.
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