Acta Victoriana is the longest running university student publication in Canada. It should come as no surprise then that it has a long and interesting history at Victoria University. The journal was founded in 1877 and since that date has been run by the Literary Society, Jackson Society, Union Literary Society, Student’s Parliament, Women’s Literary society, Victoria College Union, and the Victoria University Students Administration Council. The founding editor was Thomas W. Campbell, who stated the intention of the publication in its first issue, “As it’s name indicates, it will be a record of the ‘doings at Victoria,’ and we hope to make it racy, entertaining, and amusing as well as instructive.” With Assistant editor A.P. Coleman (who later became a prominent Geologist at the Royal Ontario Museum) and business Manager Clifford Sifton (Future Minister of Interior), Acta Victoriana got underway publishing literary and scientific pieces written from a Methodist perspective. Also included were inside jokes and gossip along with typically one poem an issue, with a monthly subscription going at 50 cents a year. The price was reasonable in relation to their yearly tuition for class and board on campus, which was 150 dollars per year. Acta Victoriana was also unique in the sense that it was one of the few College institutions that included both men and women. This early gender diversity can be seen in 1894 when Mary Sutherland became Literary Editor. She was the first woman to hold the position.
When Victoria University joined the University of Toronto in 1892, Acta Victoriana began featuring more sport related articles and reviews to appeal to the entire University of Toronto community rather than just Victoria. Sports and Travel articles were also introduced, but the scientific and literary pieces remained. In addition, a locals section described the various events happening around Victoria College. The publication seemed to attract interest from outside the student body, despite the fact it was mainly made for the students of Victoria. Financial records from the early 1900′s suggest that it was sold to alumni and parents alike, and to people outside of Toronto, including places such as Port Perry.
The literary quality that Acta Victoriana published in the first couple of decades was immense. In 1898-1908 the policy of Acta Victoriana was to produce a special Christmas number featuring Canadian Literature. It consisted of critical articles on Canadian Literature and original contributions by outstanding Canadian authors. In the 1898 Christmas issue, there are signed poems and articles by Archibald Lampman, Duncan Campbell Scott, Charles G.D. Roberts, Wilfred Campbell, Goldwin Smith, and others.
In 1932 Northrop Frye (the future Principal and Chancellor of Victoria) became the Editor in Chief and made Acta into the undergraduate publication of the literary quality that we see today. He was the Editor of the “Monocle” section, which was the university’s social and cultural section. The writings abandoned their descriptive style and instead provided critical evaluations of plays, debates, and general events happening at Victoria University. An example of this new critical policy was Walt Stewart’s review of William Yeats’ Land of Heart’s Desire in the March 1950 issue. Describing the play as, “badly directed and staged…” and “…it is difficult to be lenient with the unnecessary spectacle of thirty minutes of stammering, whispering, and strained silences, as actors groped frantically for half-remembered lines.”, writers of Acta obviously did not shrink away from giving out criticisms to student productions.
Beyond drama review changes, by the 1950’s Acta Victoriana had developed into a publication primarily focused on fiction and poetry, with critiques of books, art, and music as well. It also had an alumni column and it soon became a publication that detailed what former Victoria students were accomplishing. By 1960 the publication had become solely a literary publication, around the time that Margaret Atwood submitted her poetry, a short story, and several book reviews in 1961.
However, over the course of the next decade and a half the journal would deteriorate in quality, so bad that in 1977 VUSAC considered dissolving it. The last straw for VUSAC was the “envelope” issue in 1977, when a number of bad poems were printed on scraps of coloured construction paper. The VUSAC president of the time threw these scraps on a desk in front of the editor to prove his point of how neglected Acta Victoriana had become. In 1978, however, with the help from the fact it was the centennial of the publication, VUSAC voted to maintain the publication indefinitely as an important tradition of Victoria College.
The school and its students have since viewed the publication as a part of Victoria’s history. It was proposed in 1985 by the Library of Victoria University to have it Microfilmed. It is said to have cost 5040 dollars for 32 000 pages. Sure enough every issue was microfilmed and can now be found in E.J. Pratt Library.
By Szilvia Huczka and Jon De Biasi
Victoria University Historical Society