Susan Birkwood

Degrees:B.A. Honours, M.A., Ph.D. (University of Western Ontario)
Phone:613-520-2600 x 2302
Office:1928 Dunton Tower

Research Interests

  • Canadian literature
  • Nineteenth-Century British Literature
  • Travel literature
  • First Nations literature
  • Historical fiction

Current Research

My current research links my work on the exploration and travel literature that first represented North America to a European audience to contemporary Canadian historical fiction. My work on travel and exploration literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has entailed considerations of genre, aesthetic conventions, gender, class, and ethnicity; however, it also pays particular attention to the theory of social development associated with the Scottish Enlightenment that posited a four-stage progression from savagery to civilisation based on modes of subsistence (from hunting and gathering through herding, agriculture, and commerce). This theory, one that informed texts in the areas of economics, history, early ethnography, and literature, among others, was the filter through which travellers observed North America, and its lexicon shaped not only literary representations of Aboriginal peoples and of the settler-invader society but government policy as well. We live with its legacy still.

Intrigued by the ways in which contemporary Canadian writers of historical fiction engage with the colonial past as they seek to bring particular regions, peoples, and moments in this land’s history to imaginative expression, I look at issues of genre as well as the implications of the relationship between past and present in texts that Herb Wyile has characterised as “speculative fictions.” I want to bring the recent work of commentators such as Wyile and Jerome de Groot to bear upon these contemporary texts but also to consider earlier discussions of the historical novel and its connections to the Bildungsroman in the works of critics such as Mikhail Bakhtin and Georg Lukács. I wish also to build upon the responses of students to the subject matter and to the features and preoccupations of these texts—including cartography, modes of story-telling (including oral traditions), unofficial history, and the desire to alter the inscription of Empire—and the shifts in method from the self-conscious postmodernism to a more traditional realist approach. If the historical novel is a “form of commentary,” “a way to build the imagined community of a nation,” and / or, “a journey towards . . . redemption . . . and revelation” (de Groot), what is the relationship between the fiction by writers such as George Bowering, Rudy Wiebe, Jane Urquhart, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Margaret Sweatman, Joseph Boyden, Lawrence Hill (to name only a few) and the larger Canadian contexts?

Honours and Awards

  • Professional Achievement Award 2017
  • Professional Achievement Award 2010
  • FASS Teaching Award 2009


Knight, Ann Cuthbert. A Year in Canada (1816). Ed. Susan Birkwood. London: Canadian Poetry Press, 2004.

Recent Publications

“Is It Still a Cinch? The Transformational Properties of Objects in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing.” Material Cultures in Canada. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2015. 107-27.

“From ‘naked country’ to ‘sheltering ice’: Rudy Wiebe’s revisionist treatment of John Franklin’s first arctic narrative.” Nordlit 23 (Spring 2008): 25-38.

“Anna Brownell Murphy Jameson.” The Literature of Travel and Exploration: An Encyclopaedia. Vol. 2. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2003. 637-39.

“True or False: Anna Jameson on the position of women in European and Anishinaubae society.” Nineteenth-Century Feminisms 2 (Spring 2000): 32-47.

Recent Presentations

May 2017. “A Youth Detained and the Past Arrested in Katherena Vermette’s The Break.” ACQL Annual Conference at Congress. Ryerson University. Toronto, ON.

May 2016. “The Legacies of Armed and Cultural Conflict in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing.” ACCUTE at Congress. University of Calgary. Calgary, AB.

August 2014. “The ‘Wretched Animals,’ the ‘Humble Beasts’: Timothy Findley’s The Wars and Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road” Canadian Literature of World War I. Ottawa, ON.

July 2011. “[N]ew ideas of the Indian character suggest themselves”: Anna Jameson as explorer and cultural observer in Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838). Travel in the Nineteenth Century: Narratives, Histories and Collections. University of Lincoln, Lincoln, U. K.

May 2011. “Is it still a cinch? The circulation of clothing and accessories across geographical and social boundaries in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing.” Canadian Literature Symposium: Material Cultures. University of Ottawa. Ottawa.

February 2008. “From ‘naked country’ to ‘sheltering ice’: Rudy Wiebe’s revisionist treatment of John Franklin’s first arctic narrative.” Arctic Discourses. University of Tromsø, Norway.