Scully on Johnston, 'A Great Restlessness: The Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen'

Faith Johnston
Eileen Scully

Faith Johnston. A Great Restlessness: The Life and Politics of Dorise Nielsen. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006. xi + 312 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-88755-690-6.

Reviewed by Eileen Scully (Social Sciences Division, Bennington College) Published on H-HOAC (July, 2007)

All the Beastly Business of Grand Causes Gone Terribly Awry

Though covering most of the twentieth century and spanning much of the globe, this biography of "the first communist ever elected to Parliament in Canada" (p. 3) has an oddly narrow and claustrophobic feel to it. The book begins and ends with the author Faith Johnston asking and answering her own questions, putting to rest her own doubts about Dorise Nielsen's credentials as a feminist, wife, mother, activist, Communist Party member, and exemplary Canadian. The book has a conversational tone and is sparing in its citations, both of which make it accessible to readers beyond the academy. Here too, though, one has the sense of a world circumvented rather than circumnavigated, as Johnston seems to fend off ongoing debates among scholars of communism and anticommunism, managing to keep at bay the sort of rigorous intellectual inquiry that apparently gave Nielsen herself such difficulties inside of party circles. Those many and myriad voices signaled by the impressive interview list in the bibliography are barely heard over Johnston's own musings and pronouncements. Her authorial discretion on whom to quote, where, when, and how fully, at times achieves a degree of censorship not even managed by the wartime Defense of Canada Regulations that Nielsen so eloquently deplored. It is a biographical journey that takes readers over tens of thousands of miles and almost one hundred years of world-shaking, world-destroying events, without actually ever budging from the stubborn insistence that Dorise Nielsen, alias Comrade Judy, deserves posthumous honors precisely she was so sincerely wrong about so very much.

The main narrative is organized into four large sections, each coinciding with a major phase in Nielsen's life. "Saskatchewan" (pp.13-79) covers Nielsen's birth in 1902 and upbringing in north London, her emigration in the late 1920s to Canada as a teacher under the auspices of a Church of England group, her marriage to a World War I veteran and homesteader, her immersion in Depression-era prairie radicalism, and her election in 1940 to the House of Commons as a representative of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, on the United Progressive (Unity) ticket. During these years, the Nielsens had four children: Christine, Sally, John, and Peter Jr., whose tragic death at eight months in 1930 seems to have acted as a prime mover in his parents' turn to radical solutions that might spare other children and other parents. The second major section of the narrative, "Ottawa" (pp. 83-189), shows Nielsen "Fighting for the West," "Escaping the Net," "Supporting the War," "Parenting," "Working for a New World," and experiencing "Victory and Defeat." "Toronto" (pp. 193-237) takes Nielsen from her defeat in the 1945 general election, to her postwar life as a known, and by then self-identified, Communist living in Toronto, where she worked as a legislative program secretary for the party (by then renamed the Labour Progressive Party), and moved on to serve on a party magazine in various capacities, including publicist, business manager, women's page editor, and contributor. The section shows Nielsen fearful of "the knock on the door" (p. 194), which came in the aftermath of Igor Gouzenko's revelations of high-level Soviet espionage, but only in the form of a request that she appear as a confidential defense witness on behalf of MP Fred Rose, the first Communist Party member elected to the House of Commons as such, i.e., as a declared and known Communist. Further episodes include Nielsen's break with comrade and paramour Bob Paul; her 1948 trip to Budapest and 1949 visit to Moscow; her emergence as an articulate and inspirational feminist and peace advocate in Canadian public life; her 1953 humiliating electoral defeat, and her break with the party over ideological and career-related issues.

The final section, "Beijing" (pp. 241-306), takes readers through Nielsen's move via London to China in 1957 under the alias Judy Godefroy, in the company of Dutch mining engineer Constant Godefroy, whose credentials eased the path to official visas and relatively comfortable living quarters. These chapters detail her work there as a teacher, translator, and editor. Further insights about Nielsen's relationships with the men in her life are occasioned by her ups and downs with "Con," a relationship that ended as badly as had earlier unions, but lingered much longer when her efforts to have him deported came to naught. Additional observations about Nielsen's parenting are occasioned in this section by several return visits to Canada, and separate sojourns in China by her two adult daughters, one staying there almost four years before being deported, evidently at her mother's instigation. Through clipped quotes and stilted paraphrase, readers also get some sense of Nielsen's unrelenting dogmatic endorsement of Maoism, as the Chinese revolution twisted and turned in wide ruinous swaths. At the close, we witness Nielsen's long and painful illness, her brief flirtation with suicide, her refusal to impose "all the beastly business" (p. 302) of her old age and demise upon her children, and her very solitary death in late 1980, while her eldest daughter was en route to Beijing, having boarded the first available plane after receiving an urgent cable from Chinese officials. The epilogue describes Nielsen's cremation ceremonies, and then takes readers back to what Faith Johnston has made of these complex events.

Johnston came to the research with rather straightforward questions, seeking to ascertain whether Dorise Nielsen had "brought left-wing politics with her from England," or had instead been "provided her political education" by experiences in Saskatchewan (pp. 5-6). Second, in the 1930s, was Nielsen "a communist fellow-traveller or a bona fide member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), as she said she was?" If she did shift allegiance from the CCF to the Communists, when had this occurred, and why? The author explains that "these questions had nothing to do with [her] original feminist historical intentions," and instead left her feeling as if "inhabiting a novel by Le Carré" (p. 6). It evidently became even more complicated than a John Le Carré espionage novel once early research illuminated Nielsen's highly problematic relationships not only with her children, but with the full array of men and women she had encountered over the span of her seventy-eight years.

Johnston's understanding of these questions and answers has undergone evident shifts over the last two decades, even if not quite paradigm-size shifts, beginning with the author's earliest graduate school courses, pursued while she was teaching history and economics at an Ottawa school for girls. Coming across Nielsen's name during a trip to the archives, she was fortunate to encounter "a feminist historian familiar with Nielsen's story" (p. 5), who then introduced her to Nielsen's daughters. Conversations and shared documents led to Johnston's unpublished 1986 paper, "Dorise Nielsen: The Making of a Communist," and then her 1989 Carleton University M.A. thesis in women's studies, entitled: "Dorise Nielsen, The Life and Ideas of a Canadian Woman in Politics."[1] The genealogy of this long-term research project merits mention in a review of the culminating work because it helps illuminate the dilemmas Johnston likely grappled with.

To begin with, "Ideas" as a distinct element in the mix seems to have disappeared over the years, and "(Canadian) Politics" has been repositioned from something Nielsen was "in," to a global catchall for her actions, speeches, remarks during parliamentary debates, and select quotations from her correspondence to family, friends, and associates over the decades. What explains this strategic rearrangement? By all reports, Nielsen was a charismatic speaker, quick on the retort during debates and stump speeches. There is little question that her work in Parliament was an important part of the near tidal wave of radical populism coming out of western Canada in the 1930s that compelled the central government to undertake much-needed comprehensive social programs and state agricultural subsidies. So too, Nielsen clearly came into her own in the early postwar years, speaking both powerfully and incisively about structural and cultural impediments against women's advancement on all fronts. Yet even this "sympathetic biography" (book cover) tends largely to confirm the observation made in an October 27, 1941 government surveillance report on Nielsen: "She is short on logic, deductions and facts, but long on emotional appeal, and enjoys a marked success in her role as crusader on behalf of the 'poor down-trodden workingman'" (p. 124).

Throughout her life, both friend and foe concluded much the same thing. Despite Johnston's best efforts, one is not left with the impression of Nielsen as a brilliant thinker or political strategist. Nielsen seems, instead, to have been a shrewd relational learner, whose intelligence and intuition worked best, and worked together, when erotically charged. Unwilling or unable to let the matter rest there, however, Johnston throughout the book serves less as an explicator of her subject than as a protector--guarding Dorise against doubters and detractors. If Johnston is not working to persuade us that the young Doris Webber was Stoke Newington's own Simone de Beauvoir (p. 18), then she is damning patriarchal pretensions, past and present, that valorize originality and systematic theorizing above all else. The epigram at the book's opening, taken (without contextual citation) from Ruth Benedict, thus comes to sound less an inspiration and more a gauntlet: An adventure through the life of one woman who has been profoundly stirred by a great restlessness and you will comprehend more than from a library of theorizing.

The"C-word" word presented Johnston with yet a second dilemma, and one that has not yet been fully resolved, apparently: A Great Restlessness is this year's winner of the Robert S. Kenny Prize in Marxist & Labour/Left Studies, yet the publisher's website curiously elides this notable achievement as the "Robert S. Kenny Book Prize in Labour Studies."[2] Johnston makes a strong case that, radicalized by their own and others' experiences in Depression-era Saskatchewan, Dorise and her first husband, Peter Nielsen, became actively involved in the radical populist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. Dorise quickly proved more politically astute, more passionately energized, and far more compelling to crowds than Peter, and so was apparently recruited into the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) sometime in the mid-1930s.

Complying with directions from Moscow, the CPC pursued a "united front" strategy, forging links with groups left of center and pursuing elected offices at the local, provincial, and federal levels. Johnston is at her most persuasive here, taking readers through the campaign, letting Nielsen do much of the speaking herself, and it seems certain that Nielsen won the parliamentary seat in Ottawa for the CPC rather than the CPC winning it for her. Once in Ottawa, Nielsen toed the party line as laid down by Moscow. Johnston explains that Nielsen became the public voice of the CPC when it was forced underground, and she vociferously lobbied against Canada's entry into the war in Europe until Nazi Germany turned upon its ally in a massive invasion. Then, on cue, Nielsen was all out for the war.

Johnston explains that the name Dorise Nielsen/Nielson appears in Comintern files for the first time in an early 1941 observation report from an agent living underground in Winnipeg, who inferred from "indirect indications" that "there seems to be absolutely no question that the CP forces are directly, although quietly cooperating with Mrs. Nielsen" (p. 99). Readers might as well learn here, since they won't find mention of it in Johnston's book, that there is still more material on hold in Moscow awaiting the right confluence of politics and profit.[3] Some explanation should also have been included in the book, moreover, that Comintern files on the Communist Party of Canada do not include Dorise Nielsen's individual Comintern personnel file, which remains in Moscow, the viewing rights to it and other similar individual files limited to direct relatives--appropriately so, given the enormous potential for mischief and misuse.[4]

The pattern of omission continues in Johnston's treatment of personal writings by Nielsen that would further inconvenience the author's agenda. For instance, in a generally positive review of A Great Restlessness, Canadian feminist biographer Charlotte Grey laments that Johnston "gives us few opportunities to hear Dorise's own voice or gain real insights into her. Although personal letters and diaries have survived, the author prefers to paraphrase rather than quote directly."[5] Among Nielsen's papers at Canada's National Archives are "notebooks and journals [that taken together] reveal Nielsen's interest in the development of Communist China and in trends in political philosophy. Subjects in the notebooks vary from the Korean War to the 'Gang of Four' to revisionism within Communist thought. The journals are a combination of notes and impressions recorded by Nielsen in her travels through Yenan, in 1964, and through Kunming and Yunnan, in 1977."[6] At one point, Johnston effectively dismisses these notebooks as "scribbles," and suggests that the really important observations from them went into the letters home (p. 251). Elsewhere, however, these very same notebooks are used as evidence of Nielsen's observational acuity and assiduous studiousness (p. 212).

Nielsen's own notebooks and journals from her years in China are, in short, effectively suppressed, and she is not permitted to speak her own thoughts in sequential sentences, without Johnston's protective parsing and rearranging. For the late 1970s, for example, we have Nielsen watching tourists come and go from the Friendship Hotel (You Yi), disgusted that Coca-Cola could be bought there for one American dollar, and then we are told that: "Dorise was not altogether happy with the new developments. She knew that China needed to catch up on education and technology--everything modern had been sabotaged by the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution. What she didn't like was the emphasis on profit. It was rumoured that soon China would be producing her own Coca Cola and other useless things. And very few of the new foreign experts living at the You Yi had come to bolster the cause of socialism. They were out for adventure or for money" (p. 297). Having displaced with rather vacuous paraphrase Nielsen's own direct notes and reflections on China during the 1960s and 1970s, Johnston also fills the void with hard truths about a grand "cause that went terribly awry" (p. 309). Although conceding that Nielsen "was wrong" (p. 250) about Mao and Maoism, Johnston seems intent upon keeping readers from gauging the magnitude and detail of those errors.

Even so, were a reviewer to fault Johnston for being soft on Comrade Judy, the author could readily point to at least ten places in the text and citations when she declaims her subject's foolishness and deceit. Were another reviewer to complain that Johnston cuts Dorise Nielsen no quarter, there are another ten places Johnston could point to where she is combination defense attorney and therapist. This vacillation turns out to lead somewhere after all: The failure of Communism in China was the fault of one man, ditto the Soviet Union, and Dorise Nielsen looks foolish and wrongheaded only because she was ultimately a better Communist than either Mao or Stalin.

Early on, Johnston invokes fellow biographer George Woodcock's declaration that "death and defeat are no excuse for forgetting" (p. 9). Observing that one of her interviewees, a long-ago neighbor of Nielsen's when she first settled in Canada, was working with his brother to build a miniature church to memorialize their mother, Johnston reflects: "I realized that in some ways Charlie and his brother and I were bent on the same quest" (p. 9).

As Johnston herself notes in another context, however, "Memory is strange and selective" (p. 14). The truth of this insight explains the division of labor that has emerged over the centuries between eulogists and biographers. Eulogies are the semi-public summations intimates offer within their subject's lingering listening, and they mark individual paths taken between strictures not to speak ill of the dead and imperatives not to profane the moment with lies and willful omissions. They are graveside reconciliations with complex and competing truths, infinitely varied in the particulars but collectively sounding a distinctive mix of grief, graciousness, gratitude, grievance, and goodbye. A Great Restlessness is a eulogy, albeit more extensively researched and more "I-centered" than most such tributes.

The work is dedicated to Sally Nielsen and in memory of Christine Nielsen. Johnston interviewed those two women several times, and conducted face-to-face and telephone interviews with other family members across several generations, including the widow and children of Nielsen's son John. In addition, the author was given access to private papers beyond those donated by the family to the Canadian Archives. Yet, in the final account, Nielsen's children seem to get quite the mugging; their personal struggles and efforts to build lives as functional, intact adults are trotted out as insinuations that they are not to be relied upon as the ultimate, collective authority on their mother's mothering. Nothing, in Johnston's telling of the story, must be permitted to detract from the image of the "single mum," the sassy socialist, who could have done it all so much better in the equitable and supportive state she championed. In such a world, we are to assume, Dorise's options would have been better from the start, her parenting more responsible, and her accomplishments less ambiguous.

As it is, Johnston does not even permit daughter Christine to speak without constant parsing and interruption at that small gathering before the Babaoshan memorial hall, the ashes of her (Christine's) mother awaiting release into a nearby canal to find their way, in time, to the sea. We are taken through Christine's efforts to compose appropriate comments (p. 308), and then the daughter rises, and begins: "Much has been said of my mother's contribution to China. I would like to add this to the record. This country and the Chinese people gave a great deal to my mother too" (p. 309). That's enough from Christine, Johnston decides, and so interrupts again--her assistance italicized as follows: China gave her a home, she said, it gave her work, and friends and "the excitement and challenge of being part of a great country realizing the potential of its people." Before the last echo of the word "people" sounds, it's back to Johnston: "What Christine said was true, as well, but not the whole truth" (p. 309).

From there it's on to a lecture about the Gang of Four and the author's view of Dorise as "a dedicated supporter of a cause that had gone seriously awry" (p. 309). Lest we begin to doubt Nielsen's merits as a feminist achiever and exemplary Canadian, however, Dorise is quickly contrasted with Mao's wife Jiang Qing, who is heard to confess: "I was Mao's dog…. If he told me to bite, I bit" (p. 309). Unlike Madame Mao, Dorise went along without dissent because she "had been frustrated by lack of information and possibly by her own preoccupations" (p. 309). The second seems to be the more likely, given the numerous opportunities for alternate news sources indicated by Nielsen's two long visits back to Canada (summer 1974; fall 1977), and her access to English-language press from abroad (the Guardian, for example). But before her readers can pursue the thought, Johnston takes us abruptly back to Christine's meditation as the ashes are scattered, where as usual we don't actually hear the daughter's own voice, but instead only Johnston again, now explaining that "Her mother, Christine decided, had been a woman in process. She had willingly set out on unexplored paths. She had arrived several times at destinations she never anticipated, but she had managed to make a life and to make a contribution to the lives of a very diverse group of people" (p. 309). Several among that "very diverse group of people" are then called upon to praise Nielsen, while the children are subtly demoted to mere constituents in their mother's globalized electoral district.

Whether by virtue of genuine ambivalence or by dint of strategic deployment, Johnston has all the bases covered, all bets hedged, in many ways signaling the "new history" for twenty-first century consumers, i.e., take your pick, mix and match. The result is a handy new heroine of the left, at a time when the historical supply is apparently running low, to judge at least from the four Manitoba Book Publisher prizes she collected recently, including best nonfiction book of the year.[7] Press clips, publicity blurbs, and reviewer endorsements of the book seem simultaneously to remember, rehabilitate, and deify Dorise Nielsen. She was a "strong-willed woman," a "pioneering feminist and socialist," we are told, a woman "who tried to be both a good mother and a good revolutionary, and who refused to give up on either." She was a "Joan of Arc figure in Canadian political life," and "a woman driven by socialist ideals, indignation and maternal guilt." Déjà vu all over again, as Dorise Nielsen is apparently the right woman for yet another "big job" (p. 310).


[1]. Johnston's 1986 paper is listed in the Finding Aid (No. 1320) for Christine Patricia Nielsen fonds, MG 32, G11, container 6, file 30.

[2]. The home page for this book prize is at <>. The publisher's announcement is at <>, both accessed April 30, 2007.

[3]. Canadian National Archives, Communist International fonds, 1921-1943, 49 microfilm reels. Former archival reference no: MG10-K3, covering K-269 to K-317. Acquired in Moscow, documenting the activities of the Communist Party of Canada and other organizations.

[4]. Lichnoe delo Nilsen Doris (Neilsen Doris, alias Neilsen, Dorise W.), Komintern, F.495, op. 222, d. 1256. Comintern-Online

[5]. Charlotte Gray, "A Fascinating Yet Forgotten Feminist," April, 2007,

[6]. Library and Archives Canada, Dorise Winnifred Nielsen fonds, political notebooks and travel journals, 1964-1977, former archival reference no. MG27-IIIC30, Volume 2; Volume 3.

[7]. James Adams, "Johnston's Bio Win Four Times," (Toronto) Globe and Mail (April 30, 2007), R.4.

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