A romance, you ask? The mild-mannered poet of the North? Wasn’t he just a harmless clerk at the Bank of Commerce before he found fame as the champion of verse?
His biographers never mention his ardour for a pretty young Vancouverite he lovingly called Connie. James A. MacKay in his book Vagabond of Verse (1995) alluded to a mysterious “Cathy M” as the object of Service’s affections.
Only a more recent biography, Enid Mallory’s Under the Spell of the Yukon, correctly pinpoints the object of his 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 in Duncan, BC, when he first met Constance MacLean at a dance. She was visiting her uncle.
Service was immediately smitten, so it was natural that he would express his infatuation in verse. His writing to Miss MacLean never reached the excellence of his verse about the North. In fact the letters he wrote are not unlike those many of us wrote in the throes of young love.
From the beginning, the poet’s letters expressed the roller-coaster emotions of a man head over heels for a young lady. She obviously wasn’t impressed with the direction Service was taking (as a 30-year-old store clerk with no career prospects) 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 but Robert wasn’t up to it. He attempted to please her by leaving his labouring job on the farm, enrolling in Vancouver College, an affiliate of McGill University, and setting about to improve himself, but failing.
During the romance, Service once 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 acknowledged that thinking of her made him blue, causing him to break down and cry “like a woman.”
After his failed attempt at study, Service was spared starvation – and poverty – when he was offered a position at the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Kamloops. He was subsequently sent to Whitehorse in 1904. It is suggested that he took this faraway post to get some distance from Constance and try to forget her.
We know that for a period of time while Service was in Whitehorse, MacLean was employed as a governess in Atlin, BC, 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 survived. But in 1908 after 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.
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, so it must have been 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 on his way 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. However, 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 had planned to return to the arms of his sweetheart in Vancouver. But the Klondike stole him away. Service left his job with the bank on November 15, 1909, and instead of returning to Connie, moved into his own little cabin on Eighth Avenue overlooking the declining gold-rush community.
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 or perhaps Service lost interest.
For a while, he 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 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 the First World War, but it is not known if Service knew who he was. He 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 long for her embrace? Or did Service dismiss his relationship with 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 other writings. His little cabin in Dawson City has become a national shrine, where every summer visitors are entertained with readings of his works. And the love letters? They are securely stored in the archives at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
This column is reprinted from the book History Hunting in the Yukon, which is available in fine stores throughout the Yukon. Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.