University of Manitoba - University Governance - Betty Jane Wylie, D.Litt., May 28, 2003
Betty Jane Wylie, D.Litt., May 28, 2003
Betty Jane Wylie
B.A. (Hons.), M.A. (Man.)

Betty Jane Wylie (nee McKenty) was born in Winnipeg and educated at the University of Manitoba, where she graduated with a B.A. (Honours) in French and English in 1951. During the next year she completed a Master's degree in English, specializing in modern poetry and in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. Shortly after graduation she married William Tennant Wylie, with whom she raised four children in Winnipeg.

In the 1960's she was actively involved in the then-new Manitoba Theatre Centre, working in adaptations of classic drama and in works for children. In 1968, the family moved to Ontario, where William Wylie served as business manager for the Stratford Festival Theatre.

When William died in 1973, Ms. Wylie found herself having to cope with her bereavement and with the practical necessities of making a living. Already an experienced writer, she turned to free-lance work and wrote Beginnings: A Book for Widows, which has since gone through many editions and even more translations. Beginnings marked the first big success in a long and productive career as a writer.

Since then Wylie has published thirty-five books in a wide range of fields, some of which have been intended to provide help and guidance to others - sometimes financial, sometimes professional, on occasion culinary, and at other times pastoral. Her many books have been deeply appreciated by generations of readers, who attest to their wisdom and their power.

More recently, Ms. Wylie has turned to writing for radio and television. She has developed in drama her most sustained body of writing. The content of some of the more than twenty plays has been derived from her awareness of women in precarious circumstances. For example, in1979, she lived for three weeks in a rooming house in Toronto, posing as a pensioner. Out of that experience she produced a series of five articles, "The Old Lady Caper." The main character of the series faces the anxieties of living in penury, the brutality of a sexual assault, and the humiliation of being ridiculed when she reports the attack. The play is, in the words of critic Joyce Doolittle, "an ingenious and moving one-woman show."

Running through all of the texts, and through much of her broadcasting, is a compassion for the dispossessed and the vulnerable in our culture - the infirm, the poor, the very young, the very old, the disturbed, the lonely. Ms. Wylie has found many of her stories in women's diaries, her own among them. In turning to stories of intimate lives, painful though they are, Ms. Wylie perennially respects and celebrates those lives.

Betty Jane Wylie has been a generous mentor to new writers. She has served as a writer-in-residence at a university and in four libraries, including most recently North York Public Library. She has held the demanding and important position as head of. The Writers' Union of Canada, and has contributed to Canadian life as an imaginative and humane journalist.

Ms. Wylie has been always a figure who has attended to the well-being of our lives. Her work is a rich and effective act of service, asking from us our best selves. One of her nominees has said she may just be the least- acknowledged among Canada's premier writers. Her list of publications is close to 'staggering'; indeed.

In receiving this award Ms. Wylie now comes full circle, back to the province of her origins, to the city of her birth, and to the university of her early intellectual development. She has continued to nurture those connections, including her Icelandic heritage, and she has generously contributed her papers to the Elizabeth Dafoe archives at the University of Manitoba, where they are available for research.

Her one-woman play, "A Place on Earth," could be the finest one-person play any Canadian has written. Its economically-written, witty (of course), finally very moving and testifies to a human being of unusually wide sympathies and awarenesses. There cannot be a person with serious connections to the arts who merits a higher 'place on earth.'