by Michael Gates©
After his first meeting with Constance MacLean in 1902, Robert Service tried to capture her attention by writing her a poem. In this way began a long and tortured romance between Robert Service and Miss MacLean, of Vancouver.
Now hold it just a minute – romance? The mild mannered poet of the north? Wasn’t he just a harmless clerk, working at the Bank of Commerce for peanuts?
His biographers never mentioned anything about a romance with a pretty young Vancouverite he lovingly called Connie. James McKay in his book entitled “Vagabond of Verse” alluded to a mysterious “Cathy M.” as a the source of his affections.
Only a more recent biography, Enid Mallory’s “Under the Spell of the Yukon”, correctly pinpoints the source of Service’s love interest and identifies her as the C.M. to whom some of his early books are dedicated.
As a young man, Service led the footloose life of a hobo, wandering throughout the American west. He had settled down to life as a farm labourer and store clerk when he first met Constance MacLean at a dance in Duncan B.C., where she was visiting her uncle.
Service was immediately smitten, so it was natural that he would express his infatuation in verse. Service’s writing to Miss MacLean never reached the excellence that his verses about the north did. In fact, the letters he wrote to her sound like some of the love letters many of us probably wrote in the throes of young love.
From the beginning, the letters express the roller coaster emotions of someone head over heels for a young lady. She obviously wasn’t impressed with the life he was leading, so he vowed: “I mean to follow the life you have indicated”.
MacLean was looking for a man of education and means to support her, and Robert wasn’t up to it. He attempted to please her – enrolled in Vancouver College, an affiliate of McGill University, and set about to improve himself – and failed.
During this period, Service grovelled in apology for having written in a fit of jealousy because she was said to be corresponding with two other men. “I have repented in sack cloth and ashes for that letter”, he confessed. He said that thinking of her made him blue, and he broke down and cried “like a woman”.
After his failed attempt at study, Service was spared starvation – and poverty – when he was accepted in a position in the Canadian Bank of Commerce, from which he was transferred to Kamloops and subsequently Whitehorse in 1904. It is suggested that he accepted the position in Whitehorse to get far away from Constance to forget her.
We know that for a period of time while Service was in Whitehorse, MacLean was employed as a governess in Atlin B.C., but there is nothing to suggest that they saw each other during this time.
We don’t know what happened between Service and MacLean over the next few years as no letters from that period have survived, but in 1908, after working for the bank for three years in Whitehorse, he was sent outside on mandatory paid leave for three months, a standard practice for bank employees serving in the Yukon.
While in Vancouver, their relationship was rekindled, and when he was required to return to work, they had become engaged. This time he was being sent to Dawson City. His first book of verse had been published and was successful by this time, so it must have a dream come true for Service to be posted to the scene of the drama and excitement of the Klondike gold rush.
Service’s letters to Miss MacLean from this period gushed with passion. Now, instead of “Miss Constance”, or “dearest Constance”, he greeted her with “my own beloved”, and “my heart’s dearest treasure”. Instead of signing his letters Robert W. Service, he now used “Your adoring Bob.”
Cruising up the coast of Alaska to his new posting, he admitted: “What a fool I was ever to agree to go back to the north.” Further, he lamented “…it can’t be true that I’m not to see you tomorrow and feel your kisses…I will devote my life to you, only I want love from you, great all absorbing devotion, that’s all I ask.”
These are steamy words from the mild mannered, self-effacing bank clerk. When he wrote his autobiography in later years, not one word revealed his passionate correspondence with Miss Constance.
The Klondike proved to be the more passionate and alluring mistress for Service. He was to be posted in Dawson City for 18 months, after which he would return to the arms of his sweetheart in Vancouver. But the Klondike stole him away.
Service left his job with the bank on 15 November, 1909, but instead of returning to his Connie, he moved into his own little cabin on Eighth Avenue overlooking the declining gold rush community, and there he wrote some of his greatest work. The rest, as they say, is history.
We don’t know what happened between the two lovers after he was sent to Dawson City. There are no letters to fill the gap, nor are any of MacLean’s letters to Service known to survive. Maybe she became impatient; perhaps Robert lost interest.
For a while, Service may have been engaged to another woman in Dawson, a government stenographer, but that seems to have come to nothing. In 1912, Constance MacLean married Leroy Grant, a surveyor and railroad engineer based in Prince Rupert.
The Yukon’s bard left the Klondike for good in 1912, and travelled widely around the globe. In Paris he met Germaine Bourgoin, a woman 15 years his junior, and in June, 1913, they were married. The union lasted for the remaining 45 years of Service’s life. From all accounts, those years were filled with contentment for Yukon’s renowned author.
Service never saw Constance MacLean again. Ironically, he crossed paths with her husband during World War I, but it is not known if Service knew who he was.
Service kept in touch with other members of her family, so it is likely that over the years, he heard stories of his former love. I can only imagine what feelings flashed through him at such times. Was it regret? Was she his one and only true love? Did he think longingly about her?
Or did Service dismiss her as a failed love affair and move on to a stellar career as a poet and novelist, never to look back?
Service’s legacy survives in his many volumes of verse and his other writings. His little cabin in Dawson City has become a national shrine where every summer, visitors are entertained with readings of his rhymes. And the love letters? They are securely stored in the archives at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario.
(Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.)