I Bless you in My Heart:
Selected Correspondence of Catharine Parr Traill

459 pages,
ISBN: 0802008372

Post Your Opinion
The Old Lioness
by Germaine Warkentin

Take two photographs (as Michael Ondaatje once challenged us to do, in another context: his poem "King Kong Meets Wallace Stevens").
From the dust-jacket of this fine new selection of Catharine Parr Traill's letters, the miniature of a flashing-eyed beauty, in Regency dress and crowned with flowers, looks sideways at the viewer, as if her attention has been suddenly distracted from some other task. Inside, the frontispiece gives us a portrait, at once formal and domestic, of a cheerful old lady in Victorian cap and ribbons, gazing intelligently past us at some objective of her own, and surrounded with a flowery wreath. The distance between the two pictures roughly corresponds to the scope of the 136 letters Carl Ballstadt and his fellow editors have selected from the nearly 500 that exist. The earliest printed here, to Catharine's sister Susanna, dates from 1830, when she was twenty-eight; the last was started, though never finished, two days before her death in August, 1899.
In the course of the long lifetime chronicled in the letters, Susanna married John Dunbar Moodie, Catharine married Thomas Traill, and the sisters followed their brother Samuel Strickland from Suffolk to Upper Canada and began the careers that justify our interest in them. Susanna Moodie became one of the foundation myth-makers of English-Canadian writing; her Roughing it in the Bush (1852) is a narrative of emigration, disillusion, and adaptation-a story that is begun afresh daily at immigration offices across the country and around the world. Catharine Parr Traill became one of Canada's early intellectuals; her lifelong preoccupation with the plants of the Ontario countryside issued in 1885 in Studies of Plant Life in Canada, with its detailed descriptions, in everyday language, of dozens of plants she well knew were disappearing under the advance of civilization.
In 1872, the widowed Susanna went to stay with the widowed Catharine for several months at her home in Lakefield, near Peterborough. A few people in the village mistook her for Catharine, whose arthritis prevented her from getting about much; Susanna mused to her daughter Katie Vickers, "I cannot see why for I am dark and much older looking and she is a pretty old lady with a soft smiling face and nice pink cheeks." The pretty old lady lived to watch her sister decline into senile dementia, only one of a series of trials which would have broken the will of anyone but the possessor of that vivid gaze. By the time of her own death Catharine had written dozens of stories and books (many of them for children), acquired a serious reputation as a botanist, raised a large and often troubled brood, endured her husband's descent into clinical depression, and survived poverty and illness of a kind I-who was definitely not born to privilege-can hardly imagine. The letters record all this, in a down-to-earth prose which, in its sweet-natured rambling, contrasts interestingly with the worldliness and energy of Susanna's letters, already edited by the same team. How did this woman achieve what she achieved?
Three intertwined themes unify the letters: family, illness, and writing. The Strickland connection was a large one; I wonder how many Ontarians reading this review might find they are descended from that prolific clan. Catharine was intensely attached to all of them; a modern psychiatrist like John Bowlby might say that her capacity for "attachment" was one of her central strengths. The Moodies were poor and suffered much, as we all know, but the Traills were poorer by far, constantly shifting residence, their lives disrupted by fire, the failure of investments, Thomas Traill's depression, even by the murder of a son who was a guard in Kingston Penitentiary. In early years the terrifying illnesses of children and the vicissitudes of childbirth are a constant topic; soon, however, a recurrent theme becomes Catharine's own incapacitating frailties. I wish the editors had provided, as an appendix, a medical assessment of her afflictions; she suffered back troubles which suggest a slipped disk, and lumbago and arthritis were constant until in very late life she records that recently she has been remarkably well. Catharine's illnesses were genuine, beyond all doubt, and her constant references to them are not in the least self-pitying. Rather, writing about illness seems to provide her with a language in which to express her experience of a life lived as much under the sword of fate as under the arm of Providence. Despite her constant illness, the letters are lively with family, literary, and community gossip.
They yield very little information about Catharine's botanical interests, because she had almost no-one to share them with beyond the "old settlers' wives, choppers, and Indians" she mentions in Studies as sources of information. Her attraction to natural history is often compared with that of Gilbert White, author of The Natural History & Antiquities of Selborne (1789), whom she much admired, but more likely it emerges from the "household culture" of early modern women, which historians of feminism and science are mutually investigating. As Jeremy Maule recently pointed out in a Toronto lecture, modern science begins in part at the intersection between the chemist's laboratory and the herbalist-housewife's kitchen. Catharine relied on her sharp powers of observation, got her husband to help her with the Latin of Frederick Pursh's North American Flora, and wrote about what she saw in knowledgeable, unpretentious, affectionate prose. Besides shorter works written for young naturalists, she produced first Canadian Wild Flowers (1868) with colour plates by her artist-niece Agnes Chamberlin, and then in 1885 Studies of Plant Life in Canada, which surveyed a wide range of Ontario wild flowers and concluded with fifty-eight pages on varieties of ferns alone. Ferns were her specialty, though she had no-one to talk to about them; instead she constantly made up little samples of them, pressed and mounted, to sell through the network of women friends who were her correspondents. Catharine and her many relatives left behind a mass of manuscripts, and the editors of this selection, led by Carl Ballstadt, have spent nearly two decades bringing it to readers. The overall format of the volumes was established by their edition of Susanna's letters (Letters of a Lifetime, 1985): the material is divided into sections, unified by substantial biographical links, and the texts are reproduced with a minimum of editorial intervention. The notes are very full, though limited to the strictly factual, and Catharine's letters are prefaced by a useful chronology, a device that would have improved the two volumes of Susanna's letters. Yet to come from Michael Peterman is a critical text of The Backwoods of Canada (expected this spring), and a complete bibliography of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill. Projects like these are dismantling the crude fictions we have built up about our literary past, and restoring to us some awareness of the nuances we need to capture as we re-evaluate it.
After Traill's death in 1859, Catharine was able to gather about her at Westove, in Lakefield, her daughter Kate and later Katie, the daughter of her murdered son. There the three Kates lived for many years, the arthritic old lady still venturing out with a stick to investigate fossils or collect ferns, pottering in her garden, travelling when her health permitted, writing constantly to her son William, a fur trader in the far North West (whose wife and children she cherished but never met), to her beloved friend Frances Stewart and Stewart's daughter Ellen Dunlop, to her sisters in England, and to the proliferating descendants of Susanna and Samuel. Despite her isolation, she became a woman of note. In 1884, staying in Ottawa with her niece Agnes Chamberlin, she was invited to a winter-evening fête at Rideau Hall, and in the midst of a delighted account of the tobogganing, the bonfires, and the courtesies of Lady Lansdowne, tells Ellen Dunlop,
"The only thing that I did not like was that when I was left in the tea-room everybody kept staring at me, and some edged nearly up to me, and I kept hearing-`Thats her-thats Mrs Traill-' and so on, and short people stood on tiptoe, and others peered over shoulders and pushed those before them aside peering at poor me as if I had been the shew piece of the play. The poor old lioness squeezed herself into a corner (I believe some people expected her to roar or wag her tail) not being accustomed to be gazed at in that way-it was a little oppressive."
The old lioness survived for another decade and a half; at ninety-three she published Cot & Cradle Stories, and two years before she died at ninety-seven, reputedly the oldest author in the Empire, she was the recipient of an award from the Royal Literary Fund. Goodness knows what she might have accomplished if she had lived a bit longer.

Germaine Warkentin is a professor of English at Victoria College in the University of Toronto.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us