[URBAN NOTE] Torontoist on the life and career of journalist Kathleen Blake Coleman
This weekend, Torontoist reposted “Kit’s Kingdom”, Jamie Bradburn’s 2013 article describing the life of pioneering Edwardian journalist Kathleen Blake Coleman.
Regular readers of the “Woman’s Kingdom” page in the Saturday edition of the Mail noticed something new in the October 26, 1889, paper. Amid the usual excerpts from other publications, a new column appeared. Little did they know that the author of “Kit’s Gossip” would become a weekend staple for the next two decades, providing Toronto’s first strong female journalistic voice.
Portions of that debut column resemble a social media feed, especially the “Chit-Chat” section. Kit complains about women who think opera should be sung in English, block her view with their bonnets in churches and theatres, and speak stridently when unwelcome guests visit. She also transcribes a conversation overheard on the streetcar. Her feisty tone quickly won readers, and was soon employed for weightier matters than the fashion and toiletry tips she offered that day.
According to the fictional biography she employed during the early years of her column, Kit was the descendant of a deposed Irish king (she wasn’t) who shared her home with her trusted friend Theodocia (who existed only as a literary device). The reality for Kit’s creator, Kathleen Blake Coleman, was far more complicated. Sorting out Coleman’s background has challenged biographers. An intensely private person, she urged her readers to burn their diaries and letters to avoid post-mortem scrutiny. She left few papers apart from correspondence with Sir Wilfrid Laurier, some family letters, stories inspired by her childhood, and an unpublished novel. She fictionalized much of her background, claiming to be a relative of a prominent Galway family, and shaved eight years off her age upon arriving in Canada.
She was born Catherine Ferguson at Castleblakeney, Ireland, in 1856. Her major influence was her uncle Thomas Burke, a liberal priest who encouraged her tolerance of others. She changed her first name to Kathleen shortly before an arranged marriage to a man 40 years her senior. When he died, his family disinherited the young widow. Immigrating to Toronto in 1884, Kathleen soon married Edward J. Watkins. Beyond being a poor breadwinner, Watkins was an alcoholic philanderer who may have had another wife in England. After a period in Winnipeg, the couple split, leaving Kathleen a single mother with two children. Watkins left his mark in the doomed marriages, affairs, and alcoholics that appeared in his ex-wife’s fiction.