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A Shabby Genteel Story
by Patricia Heighington

Isabel Mackenzie, the youngest child of Ontario's "Little Rebel", William Lyon Mackenzie, was to become the mother of Mackenzie King, the dour bachelor who became Canada's prime minister. She was born in New York City in 1843, when there was still a price of a thousand pounds on her father's head in Canada. But as soon as he was pardoned, he returned home, the family arriving in Toronto Harbour by lake steamer in 1850.
Isabel inherited her father's confidence. In 1851 he boldly ran for a seat in the provincial legislature and won. He gained a salary of six dollars a day. A few years later, generous supporters bought the family a house on Bond Street, now a Mackenzie museum. Although dogged by poverty and debts, the Mackenzies were determined to live like gentlefolk. Two of their daughters married lawyers: Janet's husband was Charles Lindsay (Mackenzie's first biographer), Isabel's was John King.
The Mackenzies' last child never wanted to be a rebel. In her, this Scottish Presbyterian family had produced a lively girl who loved pretty clothes and going to parties. Unfortunately, the man she married, though he had political ambitions, lacked the drive to succeed in politics, or in the law. The Kings spent most of their married life struggling to stay put. John King's struggles were sweetened by the occasional Toronto dinner party with Professor Goldwin Smith at the Grange, Isabel's by parties at William Mulock's and other Toronto merchants' homes. She made her own clothes and always looked elegant.
The Kings' married life became a long struggle with poverty and debt. A mysterious scandal damaged John while they lived in Berlin, Ontario. Though he was a worldly failure, Isabel and he succeeded where many of their married contemporaries did not: they produced four healthy children; they sent the two sons to university; and their daughters were educated to be ladies-and so could not contribute to the family income.
The rebel's daughter was no feminist (unlike, for instance, her near contemporary Emily Stowe, one of Ontario's first women doctors). When John King failed her, she put all her hopes in her elder son, Willie. And he rewarded her. He won a scholarship to Harvard. Thanks to a letter of introduction from Goldwin Smith, he made influential friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The big turning-point for his family came in 1900, when he was appointed editor and manager of the Labour Gazette in Ottawa. Now he had a good salary. Isabel did not hesitate to ask for a cheque to keep things going. She was never refused.
The Kings were an affectionate, close-knit family. When Willie left home, a stream of letters began, Isabel to Willie, Willie to Isabel, his sisters to Willie, etc. These letters have been a rich source for Charlotte Gray's biography, often as much a biography of a family as of one woman. If Isabel survives in history, it is as the mother of Mackenzie King. His early concern for her approval became an obsession: it survived even her death. Although Gray clearly perceives her charm, she also sees her as the subtle manipulator of her children's emotions, even implying that her son learned his skills as a politician from her. Didn't he also learn a stubborn loyalty? Gray writes, "No visitor to the Kings' home could miss seeing the poster that advertised the reward for her father's capture: it hung in the front hall." That might put some steel in a man!

 Patricia Heighington's father told her that tomato juice ran in Mackenzie King's veins.


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