1887, 240 p.
If I am to trace my Resident Judge, John Walpole Willis across the full length of his career, rather than just focussing on Port Phillip, then I am destined to turn northward and head towards Upper Canada. My ignorance of Canadian history knows no bounds- where on earth to start? Perhaps Canadian literature might give me a gentle entree to a whole area that is largely unfamiliar to me.
I was attracted to the title of this book: “An Algonquin Maiden: A Romance of the Early Days of Upper Canada”. I borrowed it on interlibrary loan from the CARM centre (my very own Cemetery of Dead Books), but had I been a little more diligent I could have found it in a million manifestations as an e-book on the Internet.
As soon as I started reading it, I realized that it was set exactly in the time and politics of Judge Willis’ time in Upper Canada: dancing through the pages came references to Wm. Lyon Mackenzie, Sir Peregrine Maitland, Captain Matthews and the Family Compact- people and concepts that I know will become very important to me should my quest for Willis take me along this path. Although the book is firmly written within the romance genre replete with many heaving breasts and impassioned glances, the authors close one of the chapters with an odd little note:
Those who have followed, it may be with interest, this veracious piece of history, and are curious to learn the fate of the honorable member for Middlesex, will find the story graphically told in Mr Dent’s “Canadian Rebellion” Vol I, chap 6
and they then proceed to add a lengthy paragraph from Dent’s history (which, actually, I have dipped into).
So who are these authors? Graham Mercer Adam was a Scottish-born writer, publisher and author. He was involved mainly in the publication of periodical literature, but also wrote a number of historical works including The Canadian North-West: Its Histories and Troubles (which is advertised at the back of my 1973 facsimile edition of the book), An Outline History of Canadian Literature, and An Abridged History of Canada. His collaboration in writing this book with A. Ethelwyn Wetherald, a Quaker poet, seems to have been a one-off. The Dictionary of Literary Biography notes the critical reception of Wetherald’s contemporaries to the “embarrassing qualities” of An Algonquin Maiden, and perhaps this is why she specifically requested that the book not be mentioned in John W. Garvin’s introduction to her collection Lyrics and Sonnets published in 1931. Adam, however, noted that the jointly-authored book was issued not only in Montreal but also in New York and London. If its ubiquity on the internet is any guide, then it’s the main legacy of both their work.
It’s a rather florid romance set in York, with two beautiful young women pursued by two handsome young men. One of the couples is thwarted by the Tory father’s opposition to young radical Allan Dunlop’s politics; the other couple is blocked by pride and the young man’s attraction to Wanda, an Indian “maiden”.
I was interested by the depiction of the “Algonquin Maiden” which portrayed her as far more innocent and alluring than Australian literature depicts aboriginal women. In this regard, the book reminded me of Katharine Susannah Pritchard’s Coonardoo, which is off the top of my head the most striking and controversial depiction of love (as distinct from lust) between a white man and indigenous woman in Australian literature. Certainly An Algonquin Maiden reflected the distaste and repugnance for the “squaw” shown by white family and friends when the young man declares his love for her, but I’m hard pressed to think of an Australian book, other than Pritchard’s that even acknowledges an Aboriginal woman as anything other than “a bit on the side”. Can you?
There’s really quite a bit about landscape and the emotional response to it, an emergence sense of “Canadian-ness” and the social and political intricacies of Upper Canadian settlement. I kept expecting Judge John Walpole Willis to fling himself through the door at any minute- and there, one and a half pages before the end of the book- THERE HE IS!! (Well, sort of…). In a letter to his love, the aspiring young politician wins the girl in the end and writes to her:
I have no news to give you of social matters in York, save of Lady Mary Willis’s Fancy Ball, which is to come off at the close of the year…
and then a fleeting mention of the happy marriage ceremony:
The wedding breakfast, it was also a matter of current talk, was to be at the homestead of a distinguished member of the local judiciary…
So, our Judge is lurking here in this book, just out of sight. Just move out a little further, onto centre stage, will you Your Honor?