Margaret Atwood's Toronto

Tour Toronto through the eyes of Margaret Atwood's novels. Discover Yorkville, University of Toronto, Queen's Park, Spadina, King and Queen Streets and more.

Above: University of Toronto, where Atwood studied English Literature

Margaret Atwood is perhaps Canada's most famous living author, but she is also Toronto's own. Atwood's avid readers have long identified her many acclaimed novels with Toronto, whether they are dwellers of the city or not. In fact, people who aren't Torontonians often feel they know the city precisely because Atwood has been weaving bits and pieces of the Canadian metropolis into her work ever since she began writing fiction.


Take Yorkville, for example. This small Victorian-era Toronto neighborhood straddling Bloor Street West between Avenue Road and Yonge Street was once an independent village but is now part of Toronto. Despite its growth, it still retains a distinctive small-town air. In Cat's Eye (1989), Margaret Atwood's haunting contemplation of time, friendship, and feminism, the young Elaine visits her teacher and lover Josef in his apartment here on Hazelton Lane.

The novel is set in the early 1970s, when Yorkville was a hippie hangout. At that time, the creative community took a sleepy, aging neighborhood full of scruffy nineteenth-century houses, stables, and warehouses, and converted it into a bustling collection of coffee houses, art galleries, and colorful shops. Margaret Atwood, who was part of the burgeoning Canadian literary movement, gave poetry readings at the Bohemian Embassy cafe, a popular hangout of the times that also hosted singers Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Neil Young.

Once it was fashionable to say how dull Toronto was, remembers Cat's Eye's Elaine, who's lived in British Columbia for some years, but now, she's told, her old city is "New York without the garbage and muggings."

Indeed, the area has changed dramatically since the flower-child era. Today Yorkville is a hive of designer boutiques and pricey restaurants and bars. The coffee houses are gone, but twenty-odd art galleries still survive, including a number of dealers in Aboriginal and Inuit art, such as Feheley Fine Arts, Kinsman Robinson Galleries, and Maslak McLeod Gallery. This is still a good area for a quick overview of the Canadian fine arts and contemporary crafts scenes.

On the western border of Yorkville, the handsome Park Hyatt Hotel (built 1929-36) graces the corner of Avenue Road and Bloor Street West. The rooftop bar with patio on the eighteenth floor offers a great panorama of the city and a lovely breeze when the weather is right. In Cat's Eye, Elaine and Josef share a drink here. "We sit on the outside patio," says Elaine, "drinking Manhattans and looking over the stone balustrade.... This is one of the tallest buildings around. Below us Toronto festers in the evening heat, the trees spreading like worn moss, the lake zinc in the distance."

In an earlier novel, The Edible Woman (1969), Margaret Atwood humourously considers the role of women in marriage and society in the late sixties. The brooding, food-sensitive Marian and orderly Peter meet at the hotel rooftop bar, "one of Peter's favorite places for a quiet drink," to negotiate their strained engagement. "Being up that high gives you a sense of the vertical which is rare in the city," comments Marian, who watches the city lights from the patio.

For many years, this cozy retreat from the noise and crowds of Bloor Street has served as a watering hole for Canadian authors, including Mordecai Richler, Graeme Gibson, June Callwood, Peter Gzowski, as well as Margaret Atwood. Framed cartoons of writers hang on one wall, and in a glass case nearby are copies of Canadian books such as Mordecai Richler's novel Joshua Then and Now, Adrienne Clarkson's novel A Love More Condoling, and James Chatto's nonfiction work The Man Who Ate Toronto.

Above: Royal Ontario Museum

Across the street from the Park Hyatt is the Royal Ontario Museum (or simply the ROM). The museum is featured in three Margaret Atwood novels. In Life Before Man (1979), which also considers modern marriage but from different points of view, the young, timid dinosaur-loving Lesje and older, formidable Elizabeth work here. In The Edible Woman, Marian clandestinely meets Duncan here, where they are scolded by a museum guard because "kissing in the Mummy Room is not permitted." In Cat's Eye, the young Elaine, in conflict with her father over her vocation, takes classes in art and archaeology at the ROM, "the only sanctioned pathway that leads anywhere close to art."

The ROM's collection includes more than six million objects. Here under one roof visitors may find dinosaur skeletons, a Ming tomb, a totem pole, early Canadian portraits, European art treasures, Art-Deco furniture, Greek and Roman pottery and, of course, Egyptian mummies. The museum's Asian collection is world-renowned. The Jamaican Bat Cave, where thousands of surprisingly lifelike bats swoop and squeak overhead, is particularly popular with children. The ROM opened to the public in 1914.

Queen's Park

South of the museum on Avenue Road is the oval-shaped Queen's Park. In Lady Oracle (1976), Joan Foster, a young woman of many lives, as well as a staged "accidental death" or two, is proposed to by Arthur on a bench here as they eat take-out hamburgers and drink milkshakes. ("Arthur, marriage is serious. There are a few things I think you should know about me, in advance," offers Joan in understatement.) In Life Before Man, Elizabeth's husband, the good-hearted Nate, routinely jogs around the park edge. "He runs clockwise, against the traffic, the cars meeting and passing him owl-eyed, dark and sleek. Behind him are the Parliament Buildings, squat pinkish heart of a squat province." In Margaret Atwood's novel, The Robber Bride's (1993), aura-reading Charis first worked here as a file clerk at the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources, which borders the park, before she tires of the bureaucracy and takes a sales position at Radiance, a New-Age crystal shop.

This shady park was named after Queen Victoria in 1860 and is decorated with a statue of Her Highness, as well as monuments to Edward VII who, as the Prince of Wales, visited Canada that same year and laid the cornerstone for the original Parliament; John A. MacDonald, Canada's first prime minister; William Lyon Mackenzie, first mayor of Toronto and later insurgent leader and member of the Legislature; and John Graves Simcoe, city founder.

The name Queen's Park is often used as shorthand for the Ontario government, because the Provincial Legislature Building squats on the southern reaches of the grounds. This fat, brownish-pink sandstone structure, built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style and opened in 1893, replaced the demolished University Hospital for the Insane, leading some to suggest that the site's usage has changed little since earlier days. The Legislature was designed by Richard A. Waite and was built with bricks made by inmates of the Central Prison. The lawn in front of the Legislature attracts frequent public gatherings and demonstrations. Guides offer tours of the building, which features an elegant marble staircase on the west wing, the Lieutenant Governor's posh apartments, and fine wood carving and recently uncovered paintings on the ceiling of the Legislative Chamber. Those interested in politics may even sit in on a session of Parliament.

University of Toronto

Surrounding Queen's Park is the downtown campus of the University of Toronto, Margaret Atwood's alma mater, where many of her characters also coincidentally studied: Arthur, of Lady Oracle, studied Kant but yearned to switch to political science. In Cat's Eye, Elaine, on scholarship, pursued a degree in art and archaeology, so as to reassure her parents she is not a flighty art student. In The Robber Bride, life-time friends Charis, Roz, and Tony first met as University of Toronto students. Later, the petite Tony teaches history here, specializing in wars and battles through the ages.

The university was founded in 1850 but its roots go back to King's College, chartered in 1827. Today several colleges are amalgamated under the heading of U of T, among them Victoria, Knox, Trinity, and University College. Famous alumni include literary critic and theorist Northrop Frye, who also taught here (he was Atwood's mentor) and was the first to hold the title University Professor; fiction writer Rohinton Mistry; wildlife artist Robert Bateman; actor Donald Sutherland; film director Norman Jewison; and humorist and essayist Stephen Leacock. Culture critic Marshall McLuhan was long associated with the university, directing its Center for Culture and Technology from the early sixties until shortly before his death in 1980.

Although the university's primary role is to serve its population of over fifty-five thousand students, the general public may also enjoy its eclectic cultural offerings. Travelers may catch a play, a concert, public lecture or even a reading by their favorite author at the popular reading series. The free Friday film nights during the school term are "free to students, people who look like students, those who wish they were students, and everyone else," according to the university's website. The university also operates two art galleries with collections of Canadian art, both historic and contemporary.

Situated within leafy quadrangles, the campus is a crazy patchwork quilt of architectural styles, from graceful Romanesque, Gothic, and Norman revivals to the rough, angularity of the New Brutalism. The oldest buildings on campus date to the 1850s. Architectural highlights include grotesque stone gargoyles and comely female faces carved into pillars of stone, cathedral-like hammerbeam roofs, and stained-glass windows decorating the reading rooms, chapels, and great halls. During the summer, the Visitors Center offers guided tours.

Spadina through the eyes of Margaret Atwood

Spadina Avenue, which runs along the western edge of the university campus, is famous for its sprawling Chinatown and local Fashion District. In Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, Arthur takes Joan to celebrate the acceptance of her novel "Lady Oracle" at the Young Lok Gardens, a Chinese restaurant on Spadina (cheap and without a liquor license, observes the disappointed Joan). In Cat's Eye, Elaine, now a successful Vancouver painter, comes here to buy a black dress for her retrospective.

Chinatown, which also spills off onto Dundas Street, is the oldest of five Chinatowns existing in Toronto today. It is home to many restaurants, herbal stores, bargain shops, and bakeries, including the popular Kim Moon, where one may sample treats such as shark fin dumplings and gooey egg tarts.

In the Fashion District at the southern end of Spadina shoppers will find offices and factories of many Canadian clothing designers, along with some wholesalers and discount stores offering deep discounts on high-end fashions.

King and Queen

South of the busy Dundas-Spadina intersection of Chinatown lies Queen Street West, home to trendy cafes, bars, boutiques, and great used bookshops. In Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, Elaine's retrospective is held here in an imaginary art gallery called Sub-Versions, reminiscent of the real ones that line this street--"not totally sterilized ... touches of cutting edge: a heating pipe shows, one wall is black." As The Robber Bride unfolds, Tony, Roz, and Charis are lunching at the cafe Le Toxique on Queen Street West when they spot the vixen Zenia--nearly five years after they had attended her funeral. Although Le Toxique--"not too expensive, and with a buzz; though it's a little arch, a little grubby"--is a figment of Atwood's imagination, in the novel she makes mention of two real longstanding institutions on the strip: the Bamboo Club ("with its hot graphics") and the Queen Mother Cafe.

The neighborhood dates to the early 1800s, and was originally a wealthy residential area. The elite moved out in the late 1800s when the railway moved in. At that point, the street became commercial, and brick shops with apartments and warehouses overhead sprang up along the way. Above the plate-glass windows featuring today's hottest home and clothing fashions lie vestiges of a Victorian past--gingerbread trim, multicolored brick, and carved stone lintels.

Further along Queen Street, at the corner of Bay, is one of the most famous dining rooms in the city, the Arcadian Court, situated high above the street on the eighth floor of the Bay store (formerly Simpsons). In The Blind Assassin (2000) by Margaret Atwood, set in the 1930s and 1940s, narrator Iris lunches here with her conniving sister-in-law, Winifred. When it opened in 1929, the Arcadian Court was the high-style place in town to do lunch, and today guests still dine here to the elegant accompaniment of a pianist. This Art-Deco gem features vaulted forty-eight-foot-high ceilings, potted palms, marble floors, skylights, crystal chandeliers, and Roman columns, all hidden away in a bland, modern department store.

South of Queen lies King Street West, the site of Elaine's ex-husband Jon's loft in Cat's Eye. This street is home to two of the city's big name theaters, the Princess of Wales and the historic Royal Alexandra and is part of the Entertainment District. Nearby, at the corner of King and Simcoe, is Roy Thompson Hall, where music lovers may catch performances by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and local and international musical stars. Fittingly, Canada's Walk of Fame is also located along this strip. Look for Margaret Atwood's star, awarded in 2001, in front of the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Travelers with a passion for the past will want to check out the Antique Centre at 276 King Street West. 

Front Street

A bit further south lies Front Street, which Atwood has used as a setting in three of her novels. In Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (1996), a mystery set in the late 1800s, accused murderer Grace Marks finds work as a servant in an alderman's house situated here. Front Street is perhaps best known for its landmark train depot, Union Station, a 1927 Beaux-Arts School beauty.

The train station is situated directly across the street from the Royal York Hotel, which opened on June 11, 1929, just four months before the stock market crash. In its glory years the Royal York boasted its own twelve-bed hospital, library, playroom, concert hall, ballroom, golf course, and even a radio station. Visitors may examine blown-up photographs of these features on the mezzanine. In Lady Oracle, Joan checks into the Royal York the night she leaves her parents' home.

The luxurious lobby, with its painted coffered ceiling, crystal chandeliers, and plush sofas, is a sight to behold. A four-faced two-story clock dominates the west end of the space. Nearby is the opulent Imperial Room where, in Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, Richard proposes to Iris.

Although the dignified old hotel is now engulfed by office towers, its castle-like shape, gleaming limestone walls, and copper roof still attract the eye.

Toronto Island

Above: Toronto Island Ferry

A boat or ferry is the perfect place to take photographs of Toronto's skyline. Another good spot is Toronto Island, which is really a group of small islands that began life as a series of sandbars attached to the mainland. The bars were broken up in a storm in 1858, severing the islets' ties to the harbor front. The Island, which is now a public park, is accessible by ferry boat via the Bay Street docks. Besides walking and bike trails, the area offers beaches, marinas, an amusement park, picnic areas, a lighthouse, and rental shops for bikes, canoes, paddleboats, tandems, and quadricycles. Visitors may also wander around and admire quirky cottages and riotous gardens, or stop in a cafe and enjoy a snack.

Toronto Island is home to Charis in The Robber Bride. "Her house is the end one in the row, and then comes the grass and then the trees, maple and willow, and through a gap in the trees the harbour, with the sun just beginning to touch the water, from which, today, a vapoury mist is rising."

The Island is car free, and road signs can be interesting. For example: "Maximum speed--10"; and "Go slow--snakes at play." A local restaurant has a "bike park" instead of a car park for guests.

When it's time to return to the mainland, travelers may walk west after they disembark from the ferry--perhaps the same ferry from which Charis, Roz, and Tony throw Zenia's ashes into Lake Ontario, in The Robber Bride. Or the ferry that Joan, in Lady Oracle, takes and fakes her drowning. The ferry ends at Queen's Quay, Harbourfront, the site of the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) in October, as well as the year-round international Readings series. If you're lucky, you may even catch Margaret Atwood reading from her latest work.

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