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‘No Promises.’ A Passage from ‘Farley and Claire: A Love Story’

A new book illuminates the passionate union of Farley Mowat and Claire Wheeler. An excerpt.

Michael Harris 21 Nov 2023The Tyee

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. His investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

[Editor’s note: When Canadian writer icon Farley Mowat met Claire Wheeler, he was 12 years her senior and already married. Their instant love endured for 54 years until Mowat’s death. The new book 'Farley and Claire: A Love Story' by Michael Harris traces their momentous partnership, drawing on love letters never before published, as Harris discusses in a Tyee interview today.

The excerpt shared here offers a glimpse into the nerve-fraying period just before their relationship became public.]

As much as she mythologized their love, Claire voiced a practical concern that neither one of them could ignore. One of the classic arguments used by some wives to hang on to unhappy husbands is the negative effect a divorce would have on the children. Claire believed that for Farley to stay in Palgrave for the sake of his sons would be a tragic mistake:

“I feel that you, even more than I, cannot stay in your present situation forever. This viewpoint is doubtless selfish and biased. But my love for you is selfish. How can it be otherwise? Perhaps I could stay here, the bright young Miss Wheeler; until it will be the experienced, hard-bitten Miss Wheeler. There is not too much loss in this to anyone.

“But you my darling deserve and must have, at the very least, love. You’ll never know how much I want to give it to you either. Sometimes I feel that the obstacles in our path are not as immense as we choose to imagine. Surely the biggest setback is, for me at any rate, the deliberate pain I might cause someone else. True, it would not be as big a pain as that which would befall me were I denied you entirely.”

And she gave another reason why it would be unwise to sacrifice so much for the boys: “Because of course they do not appreciate it. More selfish reasoning, but with logic.”

After stealing another steamy evening with Farley, Claire spent the next day cleaning her car, “placating” her mother by attending church with her, and sewing with Granny. That took care of her “semi-obligations” to her family, but Farley remained her obsessive preoccupation.

“Soon I will be in my bath, and the last little trace of you will be gone. Didn’t wash deliberately last night and so it was that you stayed the entire night with me. Come to think of it, you must have been with me in church too! That’s a disarming thought. In truth you are with me all the time. Do you remember, Farley, when you said to me ‘no plans... no promises’ and I nodded sleepily and said ‘yes darling, no plans... no promises.’ A curious thought is it not? One which I shall remember and forget at the same time.”

By the end of November 1960, despite Claire’s best efforts to give him supportive advice, Farley was bending under the enormous pressure of his divided existence. He was working on a children’s book, Owls in the Family, and hoped to have half of it completed by Thursday, when he had to leave for Montreal for author duties. He was trying out chapters on Sandy, and as he told Claire, his son was a harsh taskmaster. “My audience is impatient. If I don’t have a new chapter for Sandy each evening, he bitches something fierce.”

In addition to an often-brutal writing schedule, there were the domestic duties, which had recently multiplied. Frances was now losing the ability to function. Farley told Claire that his wife had taken to bed after downing most of a bottle of scotch, the house was a pigsty, and he had to pick up Sandy from school, and then “get supper for the brats” — always a term of endearment in Farley-Speak.

In a black and white photograph, Farley and Claire Mowat pose on a sailboat.
Mowat and Wheeler sailing on their sailboat Happy Adventure while they lived in Burgeo, Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo courtesy of Claire and Farley Mowat.

Farley saw Claire again as November slid into December — another stolen evening in Toronto that offered fleeting ecstasy, followed by epic loneliness, which left him walking the city’s empty streets and lying awake in bed staring at the ceiling. Rather than soothing him, their tryst reminded him of their miserable situation. Shakespeare had it right in Farley’s case; increase of appetite for Claire grew by what it fed on.

“Goddamn it all. I’m developing a positive hatred of the hours after midnight. There are times when I would rather not see you at all, than have to envisage the agony of those too-early partings. When, in heaven’s name, will there be a time for tenderness and the quiet touch? I am becoming honestly frightened for our love, in the face of these inevitable strains. Love will not suffer, but we will! All we have time for is each other’s bodies, and without the rest of it, even the touch of bodies can grow stale in habit. And, oh my darling, though it may not sound much like it, I am aware that these strains are as great on you (and maybe greater) than on me. But then you are a brave spirit, and you keep quiet about such things. Without you, I, on the contrary, grow cowardly and fearful.”

A black and white photo shows an older Claire and Farley Mowat sitting on a low structure by the beachside.
Raspberry picking at Brick Point in Cape Breton, August 2002. Photo courtesy of Claire and Farley Mowat.

Claire might have been better at hiding it, but she too keenly felt the emptiness of their long days apart and uncertain future. She soldiered through boring days at the office, played the dutiful daughter at home, went to the cottage in summer and did some weekend skiing in the winter. But her heart wasn’t in it. Her heart was with Farley.

“Just how is it that I continue to love you this way? Pining like a demented school-girl? Or more curious — how do you continue to love this demented school girl? Only the gods must know. My waking and sleeping thoughts are filled with you. There is no escape. Even the diversion of reading are books written by you. Damn it — why couldn’t you have been a lawyer? Or a plumber? I love you so much and your beard is tickling me now. Very soon now...”

They had a glorious weekend together. She realized now that the Monday morning dark cloud that moved in after times of great joy was the price of their temporary joy. She pondered the emptiness of her life without Farley: “Perhaps I dwell on this a little too much Farley, but you cannot know what you have done, and are doing, for me. A malady of mine, known as ‘creeping hopelessness,’ is now clearing up very nicely thank you, accompanied by a bout of good spirits. Despite our forbidding future, I find I am able to put my faith in miracle cures...”

That faith would be put to the test in December, when Farley sent Claire a six-page letter with shocking news. Frances had known about their love affair within a week of their return from St-Pierre and had remained silent about it for months. They had played the game of secret love. Now it was time for the game of public consequences.

Adapted with permission of the publisher from the book 'Farley and Claire: A Love Story,' written by Michael Harris and published by Greystone Books in October 2023. Available wherever books are sold.  [Tyee]

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