Hugh Brennan Scott Symons, writer (born 13 July 1933 in Toronto, ON; died 23 February 2009 in Toronto, ON). A pioneer of LGBT literature in Canada, Symons is best- known for his novels Place d’Armes (1967)and Civic Square (1969), as well as his book on Canadian furniture, Heritage: A Romantic Look at Early Canadian Furniture (1971).
Early Life and Education
Hugh Brennan Scott Symons was the fifth of seven children of Major Harry and Dorothy Symons, a prominent family in the Rosedale neighbourhood of Toronto. After attending Rosedale Elementary School, his parents sent him to Trinity College School (TCS), a private boys’ school in Port Hope, Ontario. At TCS Symons excelled academically but had a hard time fitting in. He trained as a gymnast, a sport that suited him due to its intense and solitary nature. One night, practising alone, he fell off the high bar and broke his back, leaving him immobilized in a body cast for many months. As a result of this injury — and a growing contempt for the stifling atmosphere at TCS — Symons chose to finish his high school career back in Toronto at University of Toronto Schools.
After high school, Symons entered Trinity College at the University of Toronto as a naval cadet and earned a bachelor’s degree in modern history in 1955. From there, he enrolled in King’s College, Cambridge, England, on a junior fellowship. His family strongly urged him to pursue law or economics, but he insisted on English, studying under the famed literary critic F.R. Leavis. While at Cambridge, Symons became engaged to Judith Morrow, who he had known since childhood, also from a prominent Toronto family. He graduated from Cambridge in 1957 and returned to Toronto to take a job on the editorial page of the Telegram. He and Morrow were married 1 March 1958.
After two months of marriage, the couple moved to Québec City, where Symons took a job with the Chronicle-Telegraph, an English-language newspaper, and hobnobbed so successfully in Québécois intellectual circles that he became the first non-francophone and non-Catholic ever to be invited to join the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society. The young couple then moved to Paris in 1959 to take courses in French literature and grammar at the Sorbonne. One year later, now with a newborn son, they moved to Montréal, where Symons had accepted a job on the staff of La Presse. He was awarded a National Newspaper Award for a series of 25 articles that predicted the emergence of the Quiet Revolution. Indeed, Symons later claimed to have coined the term.
In 1961, the couple moved back to Toronto, where Symons joined the Royal Ontario Museum as an assistant curator of its Canadiana Collection. Three years later he was appointed as assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Toronto.
Increasingly restless in his marriage and career, Symons returned to Montréal in 1965, this time without his wife and child. He rented a small room in a hotel on the edge of Place d’Armes, and in a manic 21 days wrote the first draft of a novel that would eventually be published as Place d’Armes. Place d’Armes tells the story of Hugh Anderson, a young man with an almost identical biography to Symons’, who has abandoned his family in order to write a novel about Place d’Armes: “A novel that glowed with love, with his own love of his community, his nation, his people.”
Place d’Armes is told through diary entries, a third-person narrative and a first-person narrative — all printed in different typefaces. Although much of the novel is comprised of a disjointed rant against Anglo-Canadian culture, Place d’Armes is best-known for explicit passages that describe Hugh’s encounters with French Canadian male prostitutes, which contain frank depictions of homosexual eroticism that had never before been expressed in Canadian literature.
Place d’Armes was published in 1967 to tepid reviews. The most notably negative review came from Robert Fulford in the Toronto Star, who judged Hugh Anderson to be “the most repellent single figure in the recent history of Canadian writing.” By this time, Symons had abandoned his wife and child for a 17-year-old lover, John McConnell, the son of an established Rosedale family. They lived for a time in lumber camps in British Columbia and in Mexico. The parents of McConnell believed Symons to have abducted their son and sent the RCMP on their trail, but called off the chase after McConnell contacted his family and threatened to commit suicide if Symons were jailed.
Symons eventually returned to Toronto to accept the Beta Sigma Phi First Canadian Novel Award for Place d’Armes.
Symons’ next novel, Civic Square,was published in 1969. Nearly 900 pages long, it is a collection of polemical and cantankerous letters addressed to a “Dear Reader.” The novel was only available in a limited edition, packaged in blue boxes and decorated with the author’s drawings on each page of birds, flowers and phalluses. It was reissued as a conventional paperback by Dundurn Press in 2007.
In 1971, Symons published Heritage: A Romantic Look at Early Canadian Furniture, a coffee-table book on Canadian furniture, which Symons described as“a personal odyssey into the heart of early Canadian belief.” In his introduction to the book, Symons writes: “If we know what our furniture is, then we know who we are.”
Later Career and Life
In 1973, Symons left Canada for Essaouira, Morocco, which he would make his primary residence for most of the rest of his life. In 1986, he published his third and final novel, Helmet of Flesh, which takes place in Morocco and follows York Mackenzie, another Symons-like protagonist, on a journey away from stifling Canadian values into a realm of life-affirming homosexual eroticism. Like Place d’Armes, Helmet of Flesh is told partly in journal entries. It centres mostly on York Mackenzie and his relationship to Kebir, a young Moroccan man.
Symons briefly returned to Canada in 1986 for the publication of Helmet of Flesh,and again in 1998 for the release of God’s Fool,a documentary film about him by filmmaker Nik Sheehan. With little money and declining health, Symonsreturned permanently to Toronto in 2000.
Scott Symons received a National Newspaper Award for a series of articles published in La Presse between 1960 and 1961. His first novel, Place d’Armes,was awarded the Beta Sigma Phi First Canadian Novel Award.