Dogged ladies of Upper Canada
Sisters Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill created literary classics out of pioneer hell
Sisters in the Wilderness
By Charlotte Gray Penguin, 376pages, $35
The names Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill conjure up dusty images of doughty pioneer wives, bravely carving out a place in the wilderness of 19th-century Upper Canada, writing about it, and living happily ever after in cozy log cabins.
The reality, however, is infinitely more interesting. In a vivid new biography, Britishborn, Ottawa-based writer Charlotte Gray peels away the hoary stereotypes to reveal the tumultuous lives of two sisters whose prolific writings added immensely to cultural life in the young colony. Sisters in the Wilderness is a meticulously researched historical account graced with the narrative drive, elegant prose and complex characters of an accomplished novel.
The Strickland girls, as the sisters were born (Catharine in 1802, Susanna in 1803), grew up amid prosperity in Suffolk, England. But the death of their businessman father in 1818 left his widow, six daughters and two sons in greatly reduced circumstances. Like her unmarried elder sister Agnes, who later achieved fame and fortune as a royal biographer, the fiery Susanna concluded at a young age that her only entree into better society would be through writing. Against considerable odds, she established herself as a rising star in London’s
literary circles by her late 20s.
But her life changed dramatically when she decided to wed an ebullient but poor Scottish officer, John Moodie. Just over a year after they married, she was on a ship to Canada with the first of their seven children. Her sister Catharine crossed the ocean at the same time on another boat with her new husband, Moodies lugubrious friend and fellow Scot, Thomas Traill. The cosmopolitan four had no idea what they were getting into. Instead of the rich farmland and social elevation they had anticipated, they found themselves in an oppressive struggle for survival.
The details of the life that prompted Susanna to write her best-seller, Roughing it in the Bush, and Catharine’s far more sanguine but almost equally popular The Backwoods of Canada, are harrowing. The two families homesteaded in a beautiful
but rugged area about 15 km north of Peterborough, Ont. The hard labour of clearing and planting was too much for the two ex-army-officer husbands. Many times, it was their wives who made the crucial difference. On one occasion, Susanna had to get her brood out of their burning cabin in the middle of a sub-zero winter night while her husband was away. As the pine roof began collapsing, she dragged heavy dresser drawers into the snow, lining them with blankets and putting a child in each one. They all survived, but it was one of too many near-disasters. After less than a decade, both families admitted defeat. The Traills drifted from one ramshackle but cleared local property to another, while the Moodies retreated to Belleville, Ont., where John took a government job.
Gray has done a superb job of using the sisters’ newly published correspondence, as well as archival material, to reconstruct their family lives. Despite Susannas often difficult temperament and ambivalent attitude to motherhood, she and her husband sustained a passionate relationship. He was her muse, inspiring her to churn out endless manuscripts, ranging from poetry to fiction to accounts of pioneer life. After his death when she was 65, she wrote virtually nothing. She died at 81, still mourning his loss.
The warm, intensely maternal Catharine, on the other hand, was saddled with a chronically depressed mate. Although she bore nine children—the last at 46—she wrote furiously throughout her marriage, pardy to bolster the family’s wretched finances. After her husband’s death when she was 57, she never looked back: together with an artist niece, she published a book on local botany—her life’s obsession—which was hugely successful. She was still scribbling a few days before she died in her sleep at the age of 97. These remarkable women deserve far more attention than they have received, and Gray’s biography is a winning remedy for the oversights of history.