Queen's University

Through women writers’ eyes: New portraits of old Canada

From the shelves of Queen’s libraries and Archives, 29 women called out, telling us — in voices excited or plaintive, youthful or seasoned, familiar and strange — stories of Canada over three centuries of its history. Only one mentioned Queen’s, and she was “quaking.”

Some years ago, Barbara Robertson, MA’57, and I decided to make an anthology, providing substantial examples of writing by women – known and unknown, professional writers and amateurs – who visited or lived in Canada between the 17th and early 20th centuries – in the woods, in the Maritimes, in Quebec, in “muddy York,” on the desolate or flower-strewn prairies, in idyllic B.C., and the Far North.

Lady AberdeenLady Aberdeen (Queen's Archives photo)

Many of these works 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. There is Letitia Hargrave’s account of life in the remote fur-trading post of York Factory in northern Manitoba, and Juliana Horatia Ewing’s descriptions of the garrison town of Fredericton just after Confederation. We have Mrs. Jameson, eminent scholar and friend of poet Robert 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.” All of this material was known to scholars rather than the general public.

Barbara and I had already collaborated on three similar projects. As usual, after an idea struck, we haunted the Stauffer Library, raiding the shelves for possibilities. During weekly lunches at the University Club, after sharing the problems and joys of family life (like Mother Lears, we each had three daughters), we laughed and argued, drank far too much coffee, while brandishing the latest rara avis from the stacks.

Just when the bulk of the reading was done, the selection complete, Barbara suffered a devastating stroke. She lingered, and died in 2006, never knowing that the manuscript had been accepted. As a passionate Canadian historian, how she would have enjoyed and significantly contributed to the final stages!

I continued to inhabit the library, writing small biographies for each “contributor.” Barbara’s daughter, Sarah Robertson, Artsci’82, a Toronto-based editor, provided encouragement and cogent comments. Although the anthology was meant as a trade book, it seemed a good idea to provide a few academic fangs with a scholarly introduction.

“Why don’t you ask Jane Errington?” suggested Mary-Alice Thompson, Law’92, during another University Club lunch. Prof. Errington, MA’81, PhD’84, teaches in the History Department at Queen’s and is also Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College. When she agreed, my literary journey became less solitary. She soon became a full and enthusiastic collaborator in the project.

The editor requested two illustrations for each author. We went online, of course, but also back to the library. Among its treasures, Queen’s W.D. Jordan Special Collections inside Douglas Library possesses a family album of mosses, flowers, and ferns “collected and arranged by the aged hand of Catharine Parr Traill” for her grandson in 1891. Librarian Pat Hitchcock patiently made photocopies, and they have been used as dingbats (printer’s ornaments) to separate the sections.

Paul Banfield, MA’85, Queen’s Chief Archivist, supplied another gem: the Balliingall Diary, which yielded several entertaining sketches. In all, we owe a quarter of the illustrations and the design on the back cover to our Queen’s connections.

But there’s more. At the last minute, there was a sudden, vexing, permission question. We discovered that Laura Salverson’s work was not out of copyright. Her son George held it, but he was dead. Some detective work found his daughter, Julie Salverson, Artsci’78, teaching in the Drama Department. More Queen’s luck!

But here let me make a confession. Of all the 29 contributors to our book, Early Voices: Portraits of Canada by Women Writers,1639-1914 (Natural Heritage Books, $28.99), only one had a Queen’s connection. On April 28, 1897, Queen’s awarded an honorary degree to Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor-General – the first such degree to a woman in Canadian history – although women had long been admitted to Queen’s and had been granted degrees for 30 years.

In her journal, Lady Aberdeen writes: “The ceremony was a decided ordeal and I simply quaked.” The students sang, “For she’s a jolly good fellow” and chanted (as for a football game), “What’s the matter with Lady Aberdeen? She’s all right, you bet!”

Queen's Alumni Review, 2011 Issue #2Queen's Alumni Review
2011 Issue #2
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