Susana Moodie, a Canadian literature pioneer
We had the great pleasure of living in the little village of Durham Ontario for about six years, hence the name Lord Durham Rare Books and this blog The Lord Durham Report. Durham is wedged equidistance between Lake Huron, Owen Sound and Georgian Bay, which would lead to very long and very snowy winters. It was not unusual to see kids on Halloween night having to try and pull their costumes over snowsuits and fleece wear in order to stay warm. Clever parents would just assume that boots and winter wear would be required and would wisely create a costume that would incorporate these garments hence there were a great deal of ghosts, Frankensteins, and monsters.
When our kids located themselves in the Niagara region, we were constantly told that “it never snows in Niagara, and if it does it is gone in 24 hours, come to Niagara!” And so we did.
Let’s be clear, it does snow in Niagara. Granted the first few years we were here, the snow was minimal at best and as was promoted did not linger, HOWEVER, last year and this year in particular , winter has been relentless.
Okay, so why the winter tale? It is times like this that I wonder how in the world did those brave pioneer men and women survive in the cold, harsh winters of Canada in the days prior to heat and hydro? Think about it. We whine and complain bitterly when the power is off for a few hours and our lives are inconvenienced. No lights, no heat, no TV and god forbid, no Internet! Imagine living in a cabin with no insulation and nothing but a fireplace for heat, candles for light and the fire for cooking. No wonder large families were the norm.
In my personal opinion, one of the finest writers describing the hardships and trials of pioneer life is Susanna (Strickland) Moodie.
Susanna. Moodie was born in England to Thomas and Elizabeth Strickland. She was one of the famous literary Strickland family, which boasted Samuel Strickland and Catherine Strickland later to be known as Catherine Parr Traill. Another sister, Agnes Strickland remained in England and was responsible for the publishing of a number of Susanna’s books. Agnes was also to become one of Susanna’s greatest critics, not only for her literary efforts but in expressing her disappointment in Susanna’s constant melancholy and preaching of doom and gloom in the wilderness. Eventually Agnes refused to be involved with the publication of Susanna’s works and eventually disowned her as a sister. Maybe Agnes should have tried walking a mile in Susanna’s snowshoes and then she may not have been quite so harsh on her sister.
Catherine and Susanna produced work for children, gift books and for ladies’ periodicals. Susanna moved to London in 1831, where she worked with the Anti-Slavery Society. It was through her work here she met and married John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie. She wrote 2 antislavery tracts, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave (1831) and Negro Slavery Described by a Negro (1831), “establishing her humanitarianism and sensitivity to the range of character and moral outlook among “respectable” people”, Canadian Dictionary
Poor finances poorer prospects of a bleak future had the Moodies immigrating to Canada in 1832. Susanna was quite reluctant to leave her home in England and referred to the departure for Canada as entering the “fearful abyss” as she recalled it in Roughing it, but the decision was one of “stern necessity.”
Unlike her brother and sister who cleared the land and built their homes, Susanna and her little family chose to live in Cobourg Ontario on a cleared farm. It was to be an unsuccessful and unfortunate choice that resulted in the Moodies having to sell and move on to Douro, a backwoods township north of Peterborough. While the move was difficult it did bring the Moodies in closer proximity to Samuel and Catherine.
Sadly, John and Susanna were unable to make a go of farming life and again had to move on. They ended up in Belleville and it is here that it is most likely that Susanna produced much of her well known writings, of which “Roughing it in the Bush” 1852 would be the most popular.
Mrs. Moodie wrote as she felt. She was not a “happy camper”. She was often depressed, tired, angry and lonely. John was away a great deal of the time leaving Susanna to cope on her own with their young family. Her writing depicts life as being very hard, physically and emotionally challenging. She refers to the backwoods as “the prison-house.”. The book is filled with the tales of sickness, death, danger and continuous disasters. Unlike her sister Catherine who wrote of the tribulations of pioneer life reveling in the beauty of nature and her surroundings, Susanna was according to Catharine Parr Traill, impulsive, “often elated and often depressed.” Catharine observed in her sketch of the early life of Susanna that her sister’s imagination was “romantic, tinged with gloom and grandeur, rather than wit and humor.” I tend to agree with Catherine Parr Traill finding on occasion to find Susanna whiny and churlish however, her tales of the trials of living in the backwoods in the mid 1800’s are informative, enjoyable and on occasion quite exciting. Life for Susanna was certainly eventful if nothing else.
While living in Belleville, Susanna devoted her life to her literary career and was rewarded with some success including the publishing of a number of books and collections that gained recognition back home in England. This of course was attributable to her highly talented and judgmental sister, Agnes.
Good fortune would not shine its light on Susanna and John for long. They just seemed unable to make a go of anything for any period of time. Even as their family grew they struggled financially even at one point selling out to their son and daughter in law in exchange for “maintenance” for the rest of their lives. This too backfired when they fell out with their daughter in law and refused to accompany the young couple on their move to Delaware.
As I write this blog, the sun is shining. Judging from the steady dripping I can hear it would appear the sun is having an impact on the snow and ice causing some thawing. At least I hope that is what the dripping is and not a leak somewhere. Maybe this is the end to the snowmeggadon of 2015 but even if it is not, the plow will arrive, I am warm and toasty inside my lovely insulated home. I shall plug in the kettle for a cup of hot tea that I shall sip in front of the gas fireplace whilst checking my email. I will give thought to what life might have been like for Susanna Moodie and others like her “Roughing it in the Bush” on a cold winter day. It really is no wonder she was a tad bitchy.
I borrow the words of the splendid and dramatic writer, Susanna Moodie, “Reader! my task is ended.”
Article written by Julia McLaren, The Lord Durham Report editor
© text and some images Lord Durham Rare Books, all rights reserved.