Category Archives: Upper Canadian history

‘Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada 1780-1870’ by Francoise Noel

2003, 384 p.

Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada 1780-1870’ by Francoise Noel, 2003

In this case, the book’s title tells you exactly what the book is about- family life, sociability and Upper and Lower Canada.  Because my research interest is Upper Canada, and for such a limited period of time (i.e. 1827-9), I’ve tended to restrict my reading as much as I can to that small canvas. I haven’t really explored Lower Canada (i.e the French-speaking part) at all.  This book, which draws on diaries and letters as its source material, straddles both the Upper/Lower Canada divide. Its focus is  on family and social life, which are  not constrained by political borders  and so I am venturing into new geographical regions in this book!

The diaries she uses are mainly general records of daily activities, including visits received and made, family and community events, daily work and weather.  They are the sort of diaries that often pass off the details under the terse phrase “the usual”.  There’s not a lot of introspection in them, and they focus more on the social than the individual.

For the individual focus, she turns to family correspondence, which became increasingly important in the 19th century as part of the rise of the middle class, heightened in the case of Canada by the waves of migration and distance.  Letters were the key to maintaining family links, exercising patronage and sharing family culture and information.  Again, they were not necessarily personal confidences, as they were often handed around the family.  Although she did not consciously limit the study to any one social group, the nature of the sources resulted in a bias towards writers with more education and the ability to write.  She also draws upon portraits of the period, but this too leans towards those with the wealth to either encourage drawing and sketching within the family, or to commission portraits commercially.

The book is organized in three parts.  Part I, ‘The Couple’ takes a chronological life-stage approach, starting with courtship and engagement, moving to marriage, housekeeping and married life.  Part II ‘Parents and Children’ traces childbirth and infancy, childhood, and parent/child relationships as children approached adulthood and started the cycle again.  In this regard, the book reminded me of Amanda Vickery’s  Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England.   Noel  highlights those aspects which reflect specifically Canadian conditions: the ready availability of land for all children which influenced English hereditary patterns more tailored towards preserving a limited estate for the eldest son;  the shortage of women; the frequent absence of husbands; and distinctions between English advice literature on childrearing appearing in the newspapers and the ‘Republican Motherhood’ ideal being promulgated in the nearby American states.

Part III departs from the focus on the immediate family and moves into ‘Kinship and the Community’.  One of the most striking impressions she noted was the wide extent of social networks over great geographical areas.  As she says:

The social networks that supported individuals and families were composed of [these] overlapping categories of friends, neighbours and kin, and to focus exclusively on any one would make us lose sight of the complexity and extent of these networks. (p. 132)

The degree of socializing is startling- constant coming and going, visiting, staying over for weeks and months. New Year was particularly important- more so than Christmas- and social activity focused on the Jan-Feb winter season.  It is strange to my Antipodean sensibility to think that you would deliberately choose to socialize during the coldest, most snow-bound  time of the year, and that snow made transport easier through sledding across a smooth surface rather than more difficult along unmade roads.  Otherwise, though, social life amongst the elite seems fairly similar to that in Australian colonies – subscription balls, governors balls, picnics, fairs, horse racing, sermons.  But the extended family was central to this sociability, and in this, I suspect, Australia and Canada differed, at least in the early years of Australian free settlement. Siblings might travel out to the Australian  colonies in pairs, or one by one to join their family already here, but networks of cousins, aunts and uncles developed gradually. The injection of single-male travel to Australia through the pastoral industry and later the gold rush deferred the highly complex integrated family pattern found in Canada for some decades.There are extended families In Australia of course, but in comparing 1840s Canada and 1840s Australia, family connections and sociability seem much stronger in the former.

The author is largely content to let the writers speak in their own words, and there is not a great deal of theorizing in this book. I was interested in this book to see how Noel would deal with her informants.  She introduces the main ‘characters’ early in the introductory chapters, especially in establishing their identity as discrete families with their own family trajectory, interspersed generously with portraits then and there (rather than saving up for an insert later in the book).  It surprised me a little that in the closing chapters she seemed to backfill on the Papineau family in particular, who to my reading, seemed very well established earlier in the book.   For other, smaller family groupings, I found myself wondering “Hold on? Have I met this person before?”  A very good index, which not only listed the family, but also life-stage details (e.g. marriage, children) and page numbers, helped to re-establish the family in my mind when I’d forgotten them.  She  also has sources that are particularly useful for one particular theme (e.g. childbirth) but who provide little information in relation to her other themes.  These informants tended to star in one or two sections, but then disappeared from sight entirely.  I found myself wondering what happened to them.

The portrayal of life-story and wider sociability that she stitches together here is so rich that I found myself forgetting that , by her own admission, many of the diaries especially that she dealt with are rather humdrum documents.  Here she has the advantage of being able to range over several sources, picking the eyes from them.  In this regard I envy her-  when you are focussing on an individual you have to content yourself with the documents you actually have (terse, scrappy and incomplete though they may be), rather than the full and densely informative ones you crave.


‘The Canada Company and the Huron Tract 1826-1853’ by Robert C. Lee

Robert C. Lee The Canada Company and the Huron Tract 1826-1853: Personalities, Profits and Politics, Toronto, Dundurn, 2004, 304 p.

Thomas Carlyle is supposed to have said “Show me the man you honour, and I will know what kind of  man you are.” In this spirit, I read this book not out of any over-riding interest in the Canada Company per se, but because its first director, John Galt, was a close friend of Judge Willis’ in Canada.  It would seem that both men considered the other an honorable man.  They socialized in York together and they supported each other, so I was interested to see what sort of man John Galt was.

Lee’s description of John Galt is as follows:

A man of many talents, he was a well-travelled, big-picture visionary who was at once restless, energetic, scholarly, absent-minded, combative, disorganized, opiniated and well-connected in high places… (p.45)

John Galt  was born in Scotland in 1779, the son of a ship’s captain and an eccentric mother.  Even though he was extremely tall, he suffered from ill-health throughout his life and was educated at home.  His literary bent was established in childhood, and he become well known for his book A Statistical Account of Upper Canada (1807) which he cobbled together without setting foot in the place, largely from the observations of his cousin who worked as a captain on the Great Lakes.  He commenced studying law, but after a breakdown in his health, he travelled to Greece and Malta,  hung out with Byron, and organized the shipping of the Elgin Marbles.

He  published a number of literary works including novels, plays and fictionalized autobiographies.  He supplemented his literary career with work as a parliamentary lobbyist, first for the backers of canal building in Scotland, then for Loyalists along the Niagara frontier seeking redress for their losses in the 1812 War .  He became lobbyist and later operations manager for the Canada Company, which had a plan to purchase lands in Upper Canada that had been set aside for government and church purposes,  survey and package them up for sale to British emigrants.  When the Anglican Church in Upper Canada resisted losing their land, the Canada Company was offered instead a huge, unsurveyed expanse of First Nation land called the Huron Tract. In the final settlement in 1826, the company purchased 1.3 million acres of crown reserves throughout Upper Canada, the Huron Tract, and a million other scattered acres for the uniform price of 3s.6d per acre.

It is sobering to remember that, despite its blustering proclamations of policy, the Colonial Office was often making things up as it went along, especially in the early 19th century.  In the early 1820s the empire stretched across the globe and was still growing, but Britain itself was squeezed by the post-Napoleonic  War slump.  There simply wasn’t the money to pour into infrastructure for the immigration that Britain was encouraging as a solution to domestic unemployment.  There were demands for compensation and rewards for soldiers who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars, loyalist settlers who had fought in the War of 1812 in America, or schemes for resource development and convict labour in New South Wales and Van Diemens Land.  And that’s where private enterprise came in.

In what seemed like a win-win situation, charters were given to private companies of London-based stockholders to purchase huge tracts of land at a fixed price, with the expectation that the company would take over responsibility for infrastructure and settlement schemes.  There may well be others, but I’m aware of the Canada Company, the Australian Agricultural Company formed in 1824 and the Van Diemens Land Company in May the same year.  The two Australian companies were formed with a view to establishing a pastoral industry to provide wool for Britain’s industrial sector  using convict labour, while the Canada Company was established to encourage agricultural settlement by British settlers to counter the American influence from the south.

It was a huge outsourcing of colonialism, and within twenty years the Colonial Office was backtracking, realizing that perhaps they could have asked more for the land given so liberally.  My only real awareness of these companies was that there was a sense of disquiet over the sheer size of the holdings appropriated and privatized in this way, and the linking of the Van Diemen’s Land company with the Cape Grim massacre.   I  was surprised to learn that these three companies were so long-lived.  The Canada Company was dissolved in 1954 with its final licence cancelled in 1961; the  Australian Agricultural Company (now known as AACo  )is  the largest cattle producer  in Australia holding 7 million hectares of land across Queensland and the Northern Territory, and the Van Diemen’s Land Company still exists.

And as for John Galt and John Walpole Willis?  Well, they were kindred spirits in personality, and their fortunes rose and fluctuated in Upper Canada along a similar trajectory.  They both clashed with members of the elite in York, and fell out with the Governor.  When Willis was removed, he put his family affairs into Galt’s hands, but Galt was removed by the board of the company back in London some six months later.

The emphasis in this book was on the Canada Company, and Galt played a role only in the opening chapters.  If I want to find out more about him, I’m going to have to look elsewhere, and I’m tempted to dip into some of his writing instead (especially his autobiography).  But quite apart from John Galt himself, the book provided an insight into the tension between a board of directors back in London, and “localitis” -i.e. the tendency of their operations managers sent out to Canada to become too embroiled in local politics, too generous in public works, and too squeamish to enforce the company’s interests at all costs.  It’s a sobering thought in these days of multinationals and state-based foreign enterprises.

‘The Civil War of 1812’ by Alan Taylor

640 p. 2010

It’s taken me a while to post this review.  I’d borrowed the book while in Melbourne, hoping to finish it before heading over to Canada, where I would hear the author speaking at the Canadian Historical Association conference.  I wasn’t able to finish it in time and, lured by the cheapness of books overseas,   ended up buying my own copy.  It was too heavy to cart around, so after completing it, I sent it home surface mail.  It hasn’t ‘surfaced’ so far, though.

Living on the other side of the globe, I hadn’t realized the challenge to both Canadian and American histories in the title.  But I had taken this book with me into our communal kitchen, where two American fellow-travellers were making breakfast.  “The Civil War of 1812?” he read from the spine of the book, “But the Civil War was in the 1860s”.  Americans tend to ignore the War of 1812 completely (even though they commemorate it every time they sing the Star Spangled Banner), while Canadians tend to see it in terms of a British/American conflict rather than a civil war amongst erstwhile compatriots.

But I think that Alan Taylor , an American historian, has chosen the title of this book very deliberately.  The full title  is “The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels and Indian Allies” , a title so long that it almost obviates the necessity of reading the book.  It is a title that sums up his argument very neatly: that the War of 1812 arose from fundamental disagreements about the world view of kindred people- beween Federalists and Republicans in America; between different definitions of “loyalty” in the states that were to become Canada; amongst Irish immigrants, and between the Aboriginal tribes who aligned themselves on either the Republican or British sides.  It was just as much a civil war as the conflagration some 50 years later.

In many ways, this book is a sequel to his earlier book The Divided Ground, and it shares many of the features of that book.  Chapters are headed with single words e.g. ‘Blood’, ‘Crossings’, ‘Scalps’.  As with his earlier book, his focus is on people, flawed as we all are by incomplete and uncertain views of the future, and acting for the best as they saw it, on the  knowledge they had at the time.  There are more players in this drama than in his earlier book, however, and when I heard him speak at the conference, he mentioned his fear that there were perhaps rather too many.  He was right to be concerned: he skates that thin line  but manages not to cross it.  He is helped in this, as he was in his earlier book, by a well-constructed index.

The book is constructed chronologically, but it is not at all a string of battles, written in that laudatory and sychophantic style that many military histories adopt.  Like John Keegan before him, he focusses on the felt physical experience of battle, embodied in pain, blood, smells and fear.  He also highlights the contingency and uncertainty of a civil war, in particular, where ‘loyalty’ can be so easily framed as ‘partisan’ activity with such brutal vindictiveness afterwards.

His focus in almost entirely on the war on the northern border, with only fleeting attention given to the battle of New Orleans and the burning of the White House- the aspects of the 1812 war that, to the extent that Americans remember it at all, are central to the American narrative.  He points out that the American victory at New Orleans was not a turning point at all, but that the the negotiations for ending the war had been set in train prior to this.

Next year will be the bicentenary of the war, and I’m sure that this book has been published with an eye to this market.  It should do well, especially with the paperback version due out later in the year.  It is immensely readable, even for a southern-hemisphere reader with limited knowledge. It mounts a challenge to the American hubris that discounts the war of 1812 as just a skirmish and the accompanying narrative that presents the Revolution as an all-powerful and irresistible phenomenon from the start.  In Taylor’s hands, the contingency and unpredictability is returned to the past- something that we do well to recognize.

You can hear a podcast interview between the author and Lewis Lapham here.

Rating: 9/10

Reason read: Because there was a roundtable with the author at the Canadian Historical Association conference, and because it predates my work on Upper Canada in the 1820s.

‘The Divided Ground’ by Alan Taylor

2006,  395 p. & 128 p notes

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but one way or another I managed to get through 12 years of schooling and three years of undergraduate university education without doing any American history.  We were supposed to do it in Form II but somehow Henry VIII seemed to stretch on forever, and we only got to those funny men in hats and Thanksgiving before the year ended. By Form V obviously the attraction of Henry had won out because I selected 19th Century British over American history.  At university in the mid-1970s we were all protesting US imperialists and the Vietnam War, so I wasn’t going to do any of that culturally imperialist history (why, no, I’d do British history instead…no cultural imperialism there!!)  I’ve  kept a record of my reading over the last ten years or so, and I’ve only read eight books about American history in that time, from popular history to rather more erudite works.  Among them there’s been more of a focus on colonial and early 19th century America with a smattering of “people’s histories”.  Hence, I continue to feel on pretty shaky ground as far as my knowledge of American history goes.

So to Divided Ground. I came to read this book through a suggestion from Andrew Smith’s blog, who cautioned that in order to understand Upper Canada, I needed to look to America as well.  Point taken.

The title mirrors Richard White’s The Middle Ground which dealt with the Algonquian people of Great Lakes and Ohio Valley in the century before the American revolution. But this book speaks instead of divided ground: divided between the land to the north still controlled by the British empire and the land south of the American states.  There was an east/west boundary as well, separating the settled states on the eastern seaboard from the Indian territory further inland.  These were the borders of land hungry settlers, patriots and politicians. Then there was a borderland as well, at least in Indian consciousness, where the Indian tribes would live as an autonomous people, between the British and Americans.  But this borderland would not survive the determination of speculators and politicians, and it was overlaid by a third type of boundary: the boundary of private property as landholdings were carved out and subdivided, turnpikes created, taverns built and forests cleared.

Taylor tethers this story in two men, Joseph Brant and Samuel Kirkland, who met at a boarding school run by Rev Eleazar Wheelock in Connecticut in 1761. Brant’s sister Molly was the Indian mistress of Sir William Johnson, the most famous and powerful colonist on the American frontier.  His patronage extended to her brother Joseph of the Mohawk tribe. Samuel Kirkland, on the other hand, was the son of an impoverished white Minister, taken on as a charity student who, as a missionary later on, became highly influential with the Oneida.  These two men appear throughout the narrative as they rise to prominence in  different Indian tribes that take different pathways.  Brant moves his tribe into Upper Canada and diffidently sides with the British while the tribe that associates with Kirkland sides with the Americans.  But neither man, nor their tribe, could ultimately withstand the appropriation and double-dealing that ran through the dealings of settlers and Indians and the broader agendas of politicians and policy makers.  There is a great deal of detail in this book- some reviews have suggested rather too much detail- but I found that having these two men as anchors helped keep a clear narrative thread throughout the book.  It’s a technique that I like, and I’m wondering if I could do something similar in my own writing.

It is often pointed out that in the settlement of Australia, treaties were not even offered to the Aborigines, beyond Batman’s rapidly over-turned attempt in Port Phillip.  I do not in any way deny the brute power and arrogance that the wholesale appropriation of Australian land displays, but having read this book I’m not sure that these treaties denote a very much higher moral ground.  Untrammelled power is at least transparent in its intentions.  The dripping hypocrisy of declarations to Indian “brothers” mouthed in honeyed language and proffering false generosity is ruthless, too.

Now that you mention it…

I was reading a fairly old book of collected essays on Upper Canada the other night.  It was the 1975 edition of Historical Essays on Upper Canada edited by J. K. Johnson.  There has been a second collection of essays  released in 1989, again edited by J. K. Johnson but  joined by Bruce Wilson this time.

It interested me that in the introduction to the 1975 book, Johnson noted that one of the themes of the essays was a preoccupation with economic affairs.  He wrote:

It is probably no accident that the preoccupation of historians of Upper Canada has often been with economic affairs- with the study of growth, of the metropolitan dominance of Toronto, of agriculture, of business firms, of lumbering or public works. It is true that Upper Canadian society showed a propensity to produce or adopt contentious public figures who have attracted the attention of historians, but the great majority of Upper Canadians were from the very beginning engaged in the more mundane business of developing the resources which the province had to offer- engaged in other words in the business of making a living, and wherever possible, in making a profit, a fact of Upper Canadian life which has been rightly stressed in historical writing.  If historians of Upper Canada can be said to have created an overall view of any kind it is of a society generally concerned with its own (mainly economic) betterment but in some dispute about the best ways of achieving that goal  (p. ix)

Now actually that he mentions it, I had noticed that much of the history I’ve read of Upper Canada has a strong economic history focus.   I don’t really think that Australian history has the same emphasis.  There’s Shann’s old Economic History of Australia written in 1948, and the Butlins whom I’ve written about here who also write economic histories.  Blainey’s work, especially The Tyranny of Distance makes an argument with strong economic strands, but it doesn’t have the tables and figures that mark so much of the Upper Canadian material I have read (which is, to be fair, often chapters and articles).  Nonetheless  I’d be hard pressed to think of a recent general book about Australian history that has a really strong economic focus.

Johnson’s justification for the emphasis on economic history among Ontarian historians would hold just as true for Port Phillip which was likewise established by people wanting to make money.  But again, I don’t think that this is the case. A.G.L. Shaw’s  A History of the Port Phillip District is a narrative history that includes a strong economic analysis, but it is just one strand among several.  Likewise the three volume Priestley/Broome/Dingle series published for Victoria’s 150th anniversary- the economic story is there, running steadily underneath, but not the main focus.

I can really only think of one academic on staff whom I would characterize as an “economic historian” and only one of my fellow postgraduates has written an overtly economic thesis.  Several of my colleagues are writing environmental histories, but they are of a different hue.

I’m aware that historical specialisations wax and wane, and that some institutions attract particular schools of historians.  But I’m wondering if there’s some cultural influence at play here too- a variation of the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ perhaps?

‘A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: The Journals, Letters and Art of Anna Langton’

Barbara Williams (ed.) A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: The Journals, Letters and Art of Anne Langton, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2008

Was Anne Langton a proto-blogger? At first glance you’d have to say no: mid 30s (huh!), spinster, she traveled with her parents and aunt to live with her brother on a property in Upper Canada in the mid 1830s.  She began writing a journal to send to the brother who remained in England as the rest of the family sailed away.  She knew that she couldn’t keep up her writing on a long term basis, so she divided the year into quarters, then wrote a daily diary for the first month of each quarter; then the next year the second month of each quarter; the next year the third etc.   In this way, she eventually covered the whole year although it ended up taking her four years.

But she certainly had the blogger’s sensibility of consciously framing everyday events as a potential blog-post:

Did you ever a write a journal with the intention of sending it to anyone?  I think it would be difficult to do with simplicity.  One is tempted to act sometimes with the page in view that has to be written, and a day’s proceedings would be often diverted from their ordinary course by the recollection that they were to be recorded.  It is different in stirring scenes where events are leading you; but in the employments of everyday life, especially when information has to be collected, inferences drawn, and an average estimate to be formed from the narration, journalizing does become difficult.  (Oct 1838)

Anne Langton was born in 1804 into an aristocratic, mercantile family and spent her early years at the family home, Blythe Hall, parts of which dated back to the 12th century.  Between the age of eleven to sixteen she traveled with her family, including her maiden Aunt Alice, on an elongated Grand Tour.  The desire to escape the shame attached to the decline in their family fortunes led to their extended absence, but eventually the family business in Liverpool foundered and they had to sell Blythe Hall.  Anne’s future took a definite turn for the worse: no coming out, and greatly reduced marriage prospects.  Her brother John, unable to make money by tutoring students, emigrated to Upper Canada and in 1837 his parents, Aunt Alice and Anne joined him, leaving behind another brother William, his wife and three small daughters.  John prepared a house for them, close by his own more humble cottage, although it was not completely finished by the time they arrived and it took over a year to paper the walls so that the logs were no longer visible.

The family was just the type of emigrant that Upper Canada wanted: English,  economically self-sufficient, and genteel.  They brought with them their furniture and possessions, and joined an elite circle of friends and settlers.  They engaged in regattas, ploughing matches, church activities and ‘bees’ to help their friends erect buildings but social distinctions were always maintained.  For example, the gentry would dine and dance in the house, while the rest would hold their own celebration in the barn.  The ladies of the house undertook charitable activities, and acted as healers and midwives among the sick and needy of the parish.

The life of the 30-plus spinster living with her family was a very constrained one.  She desperately wanted to see Niagara Falls but her mother would not allow her to; she was berated for walking alone in the woods, and her mother was very nervous about her boating on the river, their main form of communication during the winter months.  She was a talented artist, but mainly painted landscapes or just occasionally portraits of family and friends- never as a form of income.  She established a small school, and started the circulating library.

She has a quick, discerning eye and a Lizzy Bennett-like humour.  She does not seem to have any close female friends or, indeed, love interests, and the journal is silent about her brother’s marriage.  This must surely have caused her some qualms: she had reconciled herself to- even welcomed- the idea of them growing old together, acting as housekeeper in their shared home.

The diary entries are interspersed with letters written not only by her, but also her mother and occasionally the men of the family.  She finally achieved her goal of covering the whole year.  The entries become sparser after a few years, which is perhaps to be expected, but I found myself missing her as she moved off into middle age and relative silence.  The book has a generous, well-written introduction and its conclusion allows you to say your farewells to her.  The introduction in particular is interspersed with Anne’s sketches and portraits.  This is not the first published version of her journals: there were two preceding versions, and Williams has recovered some of the text that had been omitted from the previous publications.

What happened then?  Her mother and aunt died of a form of malaria, and after her mother’s death she returned to England, undecided whether to work as a governess in a friend’s school or not.  As it was, her brother John and his wife Lydia back in Upper Canada asked her to return to help with the children, which she gladly did.  The family moved to Peterboro where John pursued a political career.  She spent her life as a maiden aunt; she traveled with her many nieces and nephews accompanying them on trips, and died at the ripe old age of 88.

‘Roughing it in the Bush’ by Susannah Moodie

When I first started thinking about expanding my thesis to include Upper Canada and British Guiana, I thought that I’d read a bit of Canadian literature to ease myself into it.  I asked around a bit and several people suggested Susanna Moodie and her sister Catharine Parr Traill.  To be honest, I hadn’t heard of either of them.

It’s strange jumping into another country’s history with as little background as I have.  I find myself wondering about parallel books in Australian history and literature- do they exist? have I read them? did I like them?  I expect that Roughing it in the Bush would be categorized as biography/autobiography/emigrant literature.  Emigrant literature was very important to Upper Canada which was consciously trying to attract as many British migrants as possible to bolster the British identity of the colony, which was challenged by the French/Canadians of Lower Canada to the right and the Americans from the south.  Was there such a thing in Australia, I wonder?  I can think of edited books of diaries and letters, but these are not necessarily crafted as literature (hmmm.)  Flipping through Project Gutenberg Australia, there are all those travel books like A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia (never read it) or My Experiences in Australia: Being Recollections of a Visit to the Australian Colonies in 1856-7 (never read this one either) or this sounds good Cooee: Tales of Australian Life by Australian Ladies (and no, I haven’t read that either).   But I’m not really sure whether these qualify as emigrant literature- written specifically for people back home who are considering emigrating, as distinct from merely visiting, to Australia.

For this is what Roughing it in the Bush declares itself to be, right from the outset.  And a rather gloomy prognostication it is, too

In most instances, emigration is a matter of necessity, not of choice; and this is more especially true of the emigration of persons of respectable connections, or of any station or position in the world. Few educated persons, accustomed to the refinements and luxuries of European society, ever willingly relinquish those advantages, and place themselves beyond the protective influence of the wise and revered institutions of their native land, without the pressure of some urgent cause.

Emigration may, indeed, generally be regarded as an act of severe duty, performed at the expense of personal enjoyment, and accompanied by the sacrifice of those local attachments which stamp the scenes amid which our childhood grew, in imperishable characters, upon the heart. Nor is it until adversity has pressed sorely upon the proud and wounded spirit of the well-educated sons and daughters of old but impoverished families, that they gird up the loins of the mind, and arm themselves with fortitude to meet and dare the heart-breaking conflict.

The ordinary motives for the emigration of such persons may be summed up in a few brief words;–the emigrant’s hope of bettering his condition, and of escaping from the vulgar sarcasms too often hurled at the less-wealthy by the purse-proud, common-place people of the world. But there is a higher motive still, which has its origin in that love of independence which springs up spontaneously in the breasts of the highsouled children of a glorious land. They cannot labour in a menial capacity in the country where they were born and educated to command. They can trace no difference between themselves and the more fortunate individuals of a race whose blood warms their veins, and whose name they bear. The want of wealth alone places an impassable barrier between them and the more favoured offspring of the same parent stock; and they go forth to make for themselves a new name and to find another country, to forget the past and to live in the future, to exult in the prospect of their children being free and the land of their adoption great.

Susanna Moodie emigrated to Upper Canada with her husband John in 1832.  In the depression that followed the Napoleonic Wars, and as part of joint Colonial Office/local government encouragement of British immigration,  half-pay military officers were lured to Upper Canada on the promise of land grants.  This she saw as particularly unconscionable

A large majority of the higher class were officers of the army and navy, with their families–a class perfectly unfitted by their previous habits and education for contending with the stern realities of emigrant life. The hand that has long held the sword, and been accustomed to receive implicit obedience from those under its control, is seldom adapted to wield the spade and guide the plough, or try its strength against the stubborn trees of the forest. Nor will such persons submit cheerfully to the saucy familiarity of servants, who, republicans in spirit, think themselves as good as their employers. Too many of these brave and honourable men were easy dupes to the designing land-speculators. Not having counted the cost, but only looked upon the bright side of the picture held up to their admiring gaze, they fell easily into the snares of their artful seducers.

Certainly she and John were inexperienced, but it surprised me that at first they came into contact with several people who had emigrated to New South Wales for a couple of years, returned to England, then come across to Upper Canada.  I am aware of serial migration as a more recent phenomenon (I’m thinking here of Jim Hammerton’s work) but I hadn’t been particularly conscious of it for the 1820s and 1830s.   They were heavily reliant on their servants and in a small cabin they were forced into closer intimacy than they may have wanted.  I’d heard that Upper Canada had been denigrated as a place where gentlemen had to share their table with their servants, and that was certainly the case here.  Just as in Australia, there were complaints that servants were scarce, ‘uppity’ and too ready to seize their own opportunities in a new land.

The early part of the book involved travelling up the river to their destination- there’s that river-consciousness again– and their horror of the cholera that raged in the settlements they passed.  Cholera?!  I obviously labour under a misapprehension about Canadian weather- there’s heat and bushfires here, as well as snow.  I hadn’t been conscious of this same concern about health in early Australia.

Their first block of land certainly didn’t seem to be in what I think of as ‘bush’: they were deluged by their neighbours, mostly Yankees, who were boorish, acquisitive and relentless borrowers.  It was with some relief that they shifted further into the bush, even though there they had to battle with bushfires (a quite exciting chapter!) and isolation.  Her difficulties were compounded by her husband’s absence when political dislocations during the 1837 Rebellion caused half-pay officers to be enlisted for military duty, leaving her to cope with the farm alone with her servants.  There is a degree of familiarity and ease with the surrounding Indians which contrasts strongly with the wariness and repugnance of Australian settlers to the Aborigines whose lands they had appropriated.

Chapters in the book are topped and tailed with poetry- rather awful stuff- and halfway through the book her husband jumps in with his perspective.  The final chapter was odd, too- it was written by her husband, by now a public servant in Belleville,  full of facts and figures about Canadian progress and some interesting (for me) political analysis.  But frankly, I enjoyed her chapters much more.  Her descriptions of landscape are deft, and she conveyed well the heat and the cold, the loneliness and the sense of community at logging bees and their social interaction with their ‘equals’ (as distinct from those Yankees).

I can’t really think of an Australian parallel book to this.  I haven’t read Louisa Ann Meredith’s books My Home in Tasmania, during a residence of nine years or Over the Straits: A Visit to Victoria, which sound similar to this, but these were written in diary form as a stylistic choice.  The book that it reminded me most of, albeit in a different time and read many, many, many decades ago, is Mrs Aeneas Gunn’s We of the Never Never. Both Moodie and Gunn wrote in the first person, with dialogue, description and an emphasis on relationships.

Australian readers- can you think of other early, autobiographical novelistic books that might be similar?

E-reader update

This is the first book that I have read on my E-reader, and this is exactly the sort of text that I bought it for- an old book now in the public domain, which would nestle in the ‘special collections’ library of anywhere I could borrow it from here in Australia.   The reason I purchased an I-River Story was to have a keyboard for notes, and that function worked well enough, although it was clunkier to shift between memo and book than I anticipated.  I found it good for reading in bed- none of that grappling with the left hand page when reading lying on your side, and I certainly felt more relaxed reading it in this format than gingerly turning pages in an old volume.