The Pool in the Desert


189 pages
ISBN 0-14-007457-0




Reviewed by Nora D.S. Robins

Nora D.S. Robins is co-ordinator of Internal Collections at the
University of Calgary Libraries.


Sara Jeannette Duncan was the first Canadian woman to achieve international success as a journalist, travel writer, and novelist. Author of 22 books, she is best remembered for The Imperialist (1904), which has long been considered a Canadian classic.

Duncan spent almost thirty years of married life in India, and the four novellas in this collection are set against the backdrop of British India — in particular, Calcutta and Simla. All the stories deal with women, are told from the feminine perspective, and are permeated with an atmosphere of cynical flirtation which was so popularly associated with Simla at that time.

This is quite an uneven collection. In the title story, which is about female friendship, the women are far more astute than their rather superficial husbands. The story is marred by a sticky sentimentality and pseudo-Jamesian prose style that does not do credit to Duncan’s reputation.

“The Hesitation of Miss Anderson” is better written but the plot is too contrived, melodramatic, and dated. Her portrait of Simla (then the summer administrative centre of India) is quite bitter and delineates a world of superficial scandals, a society devoted to the “cult of official dignity.”

The remaining two stories are excellent. “Impossible Ideal” is the story of a young woman with artistic inclinations who falls in love with a talented but bohemian painter. Set in Simla, its theme is the stultifying effect of a conforming society on the development of the artist.

The last story is the best. “A Mother in India” recounts the story of a mother reunited with the daughter whom she has seen only twice in 21 years. The mother discovers her own ambivalence toward her strait-laced, provincial daughter. It is a subtle and extremely intelligent story of a woman whose notions of maternity are not those of society’s.

Duncan draws vivid portraits of women who seek to defy the conventions of their time. Set in India, they are a synthesis of the author’s own experience. They are witty, intelligent and, for the most part, as fresh today as when they were written.


Duncan, Sara Jeannette, “The Pool in the Desert,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed December 3, 2021,