MARY ALICE DOWNIE AND
BARBARA ROBERTSON WITH
ELIZABETH JANE ERRINGTON
Portraits of Canada by
Women Writers, 1639–1914
The hills all round, as seen from our celebrated platform, are of the most lovely autumn colours, and, covered as they are with red and orange trees, they really look like flames in the distance, or like gigantic flower-gardens; for our trees are quite as brilliant as your best flowers, and if you can imagine your conservatory magnified a million times, and spread over miles and miles of hill and dale, you will begin to understand how we do things in this Canada of ours
THE MARCHIONESS OF DUFFERIN AND AVA,
My Canadian Journal 1872–78
Jane Errington contributed far more than she can have anticipated when initially agreeing to write an introduction. Sarah Robertson proved herself her mother’s daughter with her amusing and judicious editorial comments. Merna Summers joined enthusiastically in the hunt for elusive sources. Lynette Nunn supplied unexpected details about the post-Canadian career of her great-great-grandmother, Mrs. Beavan in Australia. Lorne C. Paul provided lively memories about the adult life of his aunt, Maryanne Caswell. Anne Hart led us to the touching memories of Lydia Campbell. Marsha Skrypuch, Frances Swyripa, and Jars Balan were guides to the Ukrainian pioneers.
Thanks to Franklin Foster, Trudy Powlowski from the Saskatoon Public Library, Nadine Charabin, Saskatchewan Archives Board, and Roberta Staples of Lady Margaret Hall Library, Oxford. The Stauffer Library at Queen’s University was, as ever, the mother ship for our searches. The staff of W.D. Jordan Special Collections and Music Library patiently descended many times into the gold mine of the stacks. Paul Banfield, Queen’s University Archivist was as helpful as ever.
Thanks also to Kelly Bennett, Carol Martin, Diana Birchall and P.G. Rooney, J.S. Pritchard, and M-A Thompson for a brilliant suggestion. We are grateful to Jane Gibson and Barry Penhale of Natural Heritage
Books for seizing the publishing moment, and to Michael Peterman for his advice and gracious words.
John Downie lived uncomplainingly for months among mounds of books and papers, while sharing both his study and his computer skills. Merriment along the trail was added by five young Abernethys and Eklunds.
Our Assorted Ancestors
BY MARY ALICE DOWNIE
Many of the writings of the women who came to Canada during the last four centuries have been published. There are the letters of Marie de l’Incarnation, the intrepid Ursuline who sailed from Dieppe for the New World in 1639, and the journal of Baroness von Riedesel, wife of the general of the Hessian mercenaries during the American Revolution. Letitia Hargrave’s account of life in the remote fur-trading post of York Factory in northern Manitoba is available, as are Juliana Horatia Ewing’s descriptions of the garrison town of Fredericton just after Confederation, and Lady Aberdeen’s expressions of dismay of the violence of hockey in late nineteenth-century Ottawa. (She was later to change her mind and become a fan.)
The books of the expatriate branch of the redoubtable Strickland sisters, Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie, and Winter Studies and Summer Rambles of the Victorian scholar Anna Jameson are valued staples of Canadian literature. Unfortunately, it is specialists rather than the general reader who are familiar with these other illuminating materials. Although feminist scholars are devotedly tilling the field, with some exceptions, they tend to write about the early writers, using brief excerpts to support a thesis.
Some — too many — years ago, Barbara Robertson and I decided to make a collection, providing substantial examples of writing by 29 women,
known and unknown, professional and amateur, who visited or lived in Canada between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, allowing them
to portray their lives in the woods, in the Maritimes, Quebec, in “muddy York,” on the desolate or flower-strewn prairies, in British Columbia, and the Far North. We hope to send people to the library or bookstore — or, increasingly, online — to share their reactions to a frequently difficult, sometimes terrifying, but ultimately satisfying New World. We have Mrs. Jameson, eminent scholar and friend of Browning, exhilarated by her trip with the voyageurs to Lake Superior: “the wildest and most extraordinary tour you can imagine.” Susan Allison, living in a cabin near Kelowna, without potable water, rattlers dangling among the pots and pans, home schooling her 14 children, writes: “I lived a perfectly ideal life at that time.”
What relevance do these letters home, journals, memoirs, and biographies have for the modern reader? Certain themes, significant and minor, recur and resonate still: the welcome breakup of ice, the sweet pleasures of trips to the sugar-camp, the risks of mushrooms, the finding of fiddleheads. We continue to suffer annually from the blight of black flies and “no see ’ems,” to dread that ominous buzz described by “Janey Canuck” in her sprightly riff on mosquitoes. Winter was more dangerous then, but even with central heating we must endure the cold on venturing outside in January. Indeed, with the unpleasant prospect of a future of ever-increasing hurricanes, droughts, floods, and forest fires, we can profit by reading early settlers’ accounts. They were better able to cope with extreme conditions than we are. Six days of the Ice Storm in Kingston, shared with indignant cats, convinced us of that.
Margaret Dickie Michener’s aching loneliness at sudden widowhood and Letitia Hargrave’s heartbreak at losing a child speak to all generations. Today’s working mothers, juggling children and careers, will enjoy the vignette recorded elsewhere of Nellie McClung’s son Horace, leading home his young brother, “much spattered with mud, and one stocking at half mast, hurrying him along the lane and in through the secret entrance in the back fence, saying: ‘Quick, now! It’s a good thing I got you before the Telegram
got a picture of you — Nellie McClung’s neglected child!’ — this with bitter scorn.” And any twenty-first-century writer will feel a pang of recognition reading Catharine Parr Traill’s final letter, written
two days before her death at 97, on the return of a manuscript about a history of Canadian birds: “I had many misgivings as to the merits of the composition, &c — In fact I never see any good ...