Alice Munro, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in Ontario, but she lived in both North and West Vancouver, and wrote three of her most important books while living on Rockland Avenue in Victoria. She and Jim founded Munro’s Books in 1963. The following is an excerpt from Sensational Victoria.
In 1966, Sheila Munro was 13 and living with her family in a sweet little rented house at 105 Cook Street when she saw an ad for a mansion in Rockland. The asking price was $33,000.
“I guess my father and I had these dreams of grandeur,” she says. “The thing was these mansions weren’t really popular at that time. People wanted 1960s suburbia.”
Jim Munro managed to raise $20,000 and his offer was accepted by the owners of the Tudor Revival.
It was love at first sight for Jim and his daughters, but wife Alice Munro, then pregnant with Andrea, was not so enamoured.
“She adjusted to it, but it wasn’t her kind of thing. She made me promise that I would do all the vacuuming,” says Sheila. “I spent hours vacuuming every Saturday morning. It’s a big house.”
Short-story writer Alice Munro is one of Canada’s most famous authors, but her connection to Victoria is less well known. She moved to the city in 1963 with then-husband Jim Munro and their two oldest daughters, Sheila and Jenny, and set up her table and typewriter in the upstairs “workroom.”
“She has never had an office, ever,” says Sheila. “Still doesn’t have one.”
Alice wrote Dance of the Happy Shades—a 1968 Governor General’s Award winner—in the workroom. She followed that with Lives of Girls and Women. In 1973, Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You came, a year after her divorce and move back to Ontario.
Sheila remembers some amazing parties and literary figures in the house. Once Margaret Atwood dropped by. “I remember that we sat on the floor cross-legged and she did my horoscope,” she says. “She had long curly hair and dressed in a hippyish way.”
Other friends of her mother’s came by when they were in town. Audrey Thomas, Dorothy Livesay and P.K. Page all visited the house.
Although no records exist, the heritage house, built in 1894, is thought to have been designed by Francis Rattenbury. The land was split off from the Rocklands estate, owned by Henry and Clara Dumbleton. The Dumbletons then gave the house, which they named Newholme, to their son Alan Southey Dumbleton, a barrister and his wife Mabel.
Malcolm Bruce Jackson and his wife Lilian bought the house in 1908. In 1924, Jackson, a lawyer was charged with investigating the Janet Smith murder case. In one of the many bizarre turns in the case, Jackson was eventually charged with complicity in the kidnapping of Chinese servant Wong Foon Sing. Jackson died in 1947 and Lilian remained in the house until her death in 1950.
By the time the 1960s came around, the house had been turned into a duplex and was in rough shape, but Jim could see the potential. The gardens had once been beautiful. Inside, the house has five fireplaces under 3.7-metre (12-foot) ceilings, and a nanny’s quarters, which became bedrooms for the girls.
Jim married textile artist Carole Sabiston in 1977. They still live in the house and the garden is beautiful.