Driving down Queen’s Park Crescent was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. Three days before move-in and I had never seen Victoria College before, let alone my new residence, Annesley Hall. My mom was driving, and I could tell she was already exhausted by my incessant recap of the college’s history and the Annesley trivia I had pored over during the summer. Nearing the end of the street, I caught my first glimpse of my new home, the beautiful, red brick building with its own themed fence and mysterious towers and chimneys. I’ll admit I gasped at the sight of it; I couldn’t believe I was going to call this place home.
Choosing Annesley was one of the easiest decisions of my university application process. It is the first residence built for women in Canada, situated across from the ROM and close to the Royal Conservatory (both places I frequented when I was younger), and it even—sort of—shares my name. Well, my name is a mispronunciation of the Annesley region in England, but you get the idea. It was like it was meant to be—what more could a Canadian, museum-loving feminist named Ainsley want from a residence?
Exploring Annesley Hall for the first time was an experience within itself. Between the majestic grand staircase, the green and wooden fireplace in the library, the lovely pastel portraits, and the “AH” emblazoned chairs, I’m constantly reminded of the many years this residence has seen. Black-and-white prints on the walls from the 1910s to the 1950s give a glimpse of the women who lived there before us, wearing long woollen skirts and elaborate hats, abiding by strict curfews (…or not) and taking gym classes in the basement.
Living here makes me long for times I have never known. I find myself “missing” the good old days where women living here would study their books, drink a lot of cocoa with their friends, and go skating with boys all the time. When doing my laundry in the basement I sigh, imagining the tearooms and a gymnasium I will never see there between loads of whites and colours. I’m disappointed we can’t use the fireplaces and sit around a crackling fire together, or hold an annual fancy Christmas party in the foyer. I never knew these times, never sat in these tearooms or used the fireplace, but I ache for them anyway. A lot has changed over 112 years. We have nice carpets now, kitchenettes, more rooms, and no curfew. We can have boys over whenever we want, we can have keys to both our rooms and the building (more on that later), and we can vote. This is all quite important, if you ask me, yet it is still hard to appreciate the here and now.
This is not to say that everything has changed since Annesley was opened. Starting university this year, it has become much more apparent to me how much an education means, to the point where it can even incite violence. For some, it means so much that they wish to kill people—specifically feminists—who want to educate themselves at a world-class university. Some like to record women showering in residence bathrooms. Some like to discount Women and Gender Studies as a legitimate discipline. Things like this are disheartening and outrageous. I felt tremendously vulnerable, scared, and apprehensive while learning of all the obstacles we still face as a society in achieving equality. Annesley Hall and women’s education have been around for more than 100 years, and still women are being threatened on this very campus for learning, achieving, and becoming fully engaged citizens.
I look through Vic student and Annesley resident Kathleen Cowan’s published diary, written over 1907–1911, and think about what she couldn’t do when she went to Victoria College. She would not have been allowed to vote, she would not have been considered a “person,” and she was not allowed to leave Annesley on her own accord—she wasn’t even allowed a key to the building. It becomes easy to take advantage of all the strides our society has made in gender equality and instead see the past as a black-and-white veneer of fun and loveliness. We forget the people that fought tooth and nail for women’s suffrage, the people that pushed for universities to accept and educate women in all fields, and the groups that fought for protection from sexual violence of both genders. A lot of these women went to Victoria College, and a lot of them lived here. I cast my vote for the first time in a federal election—in which the two top candidates for the riding were female—15 minutes away from my dorm, and I couldn’t help but feel proud to live in the same place as many women who fought for my right to vote.
Usually when I think of nostalgia, I think of times I have known personally that I miss: driving through the mountains with my family, passing notes to my friends in Grade 9, swimming in Denmark under beautiful sunsets. But I find it’s also easy to become nostalgic for the feeling we get or assume from old photographs and period films. Watching or reading Pride and Prejudice makes me wonder how my English got so bad, enjoying music from the ’50s reminds me of the worst modern pop I’ve heard, and black-and-white photographs with girls in elaborate long dresses make me wonder why the hell I wear pants. It’s fun to long for things we’ve never known, since it’s sometimes easier than appreciating what we do have and why. In Jane Austen’s time women had to be completely dependent on men; a lot of music from the ‘50s wasn’t that original for its time either; girls wore dresses because they were hardly even allowed to wear pants.
Living at Annesley makes it easy to fall into this nostalgia trap. Remembering the past and respecting it is essential. You don’t have to tell me twice—I’m the weird one who tears up at traditional ceremonies and our national anthem. But longing for the past is quite different. Reading Kathleen’s diary, I expected to find myself immersed in an emotional and social narrative completely different from my own, to travel to a completely different Toronto, but was surprised at how familiar it was. Of course there were differences that sparked a twinge of envy, like the cocoa and skating rinks, but for the most part, Kathleen’s story is much like anyone else’s. She skipped lectures, read her Homer and Virgil, and bought small presents for her friends at Eaton’s. In her first year, she was called a “freshie,” debated the pros and cons of sororities, and imagined what lay inside the mysterious upper attics of Old Vic’s columns and spires.
Since 1903, a lot has changed in our society, in our university, and in our residence, but altogether the past is not a completely unfamiliar place. In every era there are struggles, luxuries, and controversies. And though we must always progress as a society and as a university, we must also remember our past in a thoughtful way absent of wistful nostalgia that detracts from legitimate criticism and education. I think Annesley stands to remind us of our past, but also to encourage us to look forward to our futures and appreciate the present. Living at Annesley does not cause me to speak in fine, embellished English or allow me to pull off hats and petticoats, but it does support me as I explore a new place, earn my degree, and start to form my life. And I hope that for many decades to come, Annesley will continue to stand here to fulfill that purpose.