We live in an age where the struggle for women's rights continues to be extremely real. However, in Canada at least, one field where female talent can be said to have thrived and, furthermore, been recognized, has to be that of literature. Uncannily, we're actually known for our women writers: Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, two of our most distinguished authors, are highly acclaimed both at home and internationally, and even a quick look at the short list for recent Canadian book awards shows that female talent continues to dominate the literary scene (re: Madeleine Thein, Emma Donoghue, Zoe Whittall, amongst others)
While you probably knew some of this, what you likely didn't know was that Canadian literature has seen women writers thriving since its conception a couple of hundred years ago. This tradition of strong female voices started at the same time as Canada was initially settled as a colony. In fact, it arguably started with a couple of sisters, unique in their voices, but united in their production of hearty material that has stood the test of time and continues to hold an iconic status in the Canadian literary canon.
So without further ado, let's get talking about Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie, what they wrote, and why it continues to matter today.
WHAT'S THE CONTEXT:
As Cynthia Sugars and Laura Moss describe it in Canadian Literature in English: Texts and Contexts, in the early 1800s, 'The British government needed to market, promote, and sell Canada in order to solve problems at home and build a stronger empire.' Faced with a surplus population that exceeded the demands for labour at home, and also in need of strengthening their colonies, getting citizens to emigrate to Canada became a solution to various problems for the British government. And so, they, along with private individuals and organizations, began publishing pamphlets trying to sell the 'Canadian dream' to citizens back home, along with guides that were written in order to educate citizens about life in Canada and answer various questions and concerns for potential emigrants.
Catharane Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie were both born in England as the daughters of a successful businessman who died leaving his family in a state of economic hardship. As Parr Traill writes in The Backwoods of Canada, 'Those that could afford to live in ease at home, believe me, would never expose themselves to the privations and disagreeable consequences of a settler's life in Canada.' However, neither Moodie or Parr Traill had married wealthy men, and so they couldn't afford to live that life in ease at home. Both emigrated to Canada in the summer of 1832, and having previously written at home, turned once again to the pen in order to earn additional income for their young families.
Parr Traill and Moodie were essentially the authors of guidebooks, or memoirs, about what it meant to be a settler in Canada. Parr Traill is best known for The Backwoods of Canada, which Sugars and Moss describe as 'a conduct book detailing everything a gentlewoman should know about what to expect and how to act upon finding herself in Canada'. Moodie, for her part, produced the seminal work Roughing it in the Bush, which Sugars and Moss declare to be 'perhaps the best-known nineteenth century work of Canadian literature'.
Both of these texts were written for an English audience, with Parr Traill and Moodie hoping to educate possible emigrants on what a life in Canada actually meant, rather than continue a fictitious narrative frequently told at home about Canada as a dreamy world of possibility that neglected discussing the hardships emigrant families would inevitably endure. As Parr Traill states in her Introduction to Backwoods, 'the writer of the following pages has endeavoured to afford every possible information to the wives and daughters of emigrants of the higher class who contemplate seeking a home amid our Canadian wilds'. Moodie, in her conclusion, similarly states that 'I have given you a faithful picture of life in the backwoods of Canada, and I leave you to draw from it your own conclusions.'
Catharine Parr Traill is arguably much more optimistic and cheerful in her writing than her sister, but nevertheless, she makes it abundantly clear that Canada is not England, and if anyone thinks it's going to simply deliver wealth and prosperity without work, it's not. Having been born a lady or a gentleman with a high social rank back home means nothing in this new world. As Parr Traill describes, this is a country where 'the old and young, the master and the servant, are alike obliged to labour for a livelihood, without respect to former situation or rank!'
None of the previous social hierarchies hold in Canada. Instead:
'Here the son of a gentleman becomes a hewer of wood and drawer of water; he learns to chop down trees, to pile bush-heaps, split rails for fences, attend the fires during the burning season, dressed in a coarse over-garment of hempen cloth, called a logging-shirt, with trousers to correspond, and a Yankee straw hat flapped over his eyes, and a handspike to assist him in rolling over the burning brands. To tend and drive oxen, plough, sow, plant Indian corn and pumpkins, and raise potatoe-hills, are among some of the young emigrant's accomplishments.'
Canada isn't an elegant or glamorous world, and Parr Traill explicitly admits that 'as far as regards matters of taste, early association, and all those holy ties of kindred, and old affectations that make "home" in all countries ... I must ever give the preference to Britain.' However, while different, Canada has its own clear benefits and advantages, particularly in terms of freedom and independence.
Sugars and Moss suggest that, at the time, as a new colony without traditions or established 'rules', Canada 'presented a space in which women's roles were being reassessed, in terms of both gender and class politics, and in which women could write, edit, publish, and earn a living.' Parr Traill, and her sister, were both free to write for income without the negative push back that likely would have followed back home in England from working while being a member of society. Effectively, they were able to do as they like, and this was something that did made Canada preferable.
As Parr Traill states in her writing, 'I must confess to you that I do prize and enjoy my present liberty in this country exceedingly.' Here, 'bush-settlers are more independent: we do what we like ... In these matters we bush-ladies have a wholesome disregard of what Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so thinks or says. We pride ourselves on conforming to circumstance.' While Canada isn't full of the luxuries found back home in England, it thrives in a different sense. One might have to undergo serious deprivations and hardships, but one also had the freedom to pursue a sort of 'Canadian dream', whether it be through farming, labouring, or writing. I think Parr Traill puts it best when she says, 'Canada is the land of hope; here every thing is new; every thing going forward'.
While there is certainly an optimism and cheery tone that pervades The Backwoods of Canada, Susanna Moodie is a tad harsher in her famed text, which is after all titled, Roughing it in the Bush. Highly critical of pamphlets and guides that encourage emigration wholeheartedly without discussing any of the struggle involved, Moodie exclaims: 'Oh, ye dealers in wild lands- ye speculators in the folly and credulity of your fellow men- what a mass of misery, and of misrepresentation productive of that misery, have ye not to answer for!' She describes how, 'Too many of these brave and honourable men were easy dupes to the designing land-speculators. Not having counted the cost, but only looked upon the bright side of the picture held up to their admiring gaze, they fell easily into the snares of their artful seducers.'
In Moodie's eyes, Canada isn't the land of plenty if you're a gentleman used to the finer things in life, with no experience of hard work and toil. For these gentlemen, 'Unaccustomed to manual labour, his services in the field are not of a nature to secure for him a profitable return. The task is new to him, he knows not how to perform it well ... Difficulties increase, debts grow upon him, he struggles in vain to extricate himself, and finally sees his family sink into hopeless ruin.' For such families, it would be better to simply remain in Britain then emigrate across to the New World.
However, Canada can be seen differently for the working man. To them, 'it presents many advantages'. As Moodie describes, 'The former works hard, puts up with coarse, scanty fare, and submits, with a good grace, to hardships ... Thus he becomes independent, inasmuch as the land that he has cleared finds him in the common necessaries of life'. Canada is a land of opportunity, but only for those that have the ability to work hard, and the knowledge in how to do so.
It's clear in reading Roughing It, that Moodie fits her own family into the category of the working family, for although she honestly describes their initial hardships and difficulties, she does ultimately come to love her new home and become accustomed to its way of life. In a later published book, Life in the Clearing, she states that 'Since my residence in a settled part of the country, I have enjoyed as much domestic peace and happiness as ever falls to the lot of poor humanity.' She goes as far as to say that, 'To the honest sons of labour Canada is, indeed, an El Dorado- a land flowing milk and honey.'
Like her sister, Moodie is clear that emigration was a necessity rather than simply a choice, and it springs from an emigrant's 'hope of bettering his condition'. However, she also beautifully explains that choosing to leave one's country and entire world behind, to make such a profound sacrifice, also stems from what she calls a higher motive, which 'has its origins in that love of independence'. Emigrants go forth in order to 'make for themselves a new name and to find another country, to forget the past and to live in the future, to exult in the prospect of their children being free and the land of their adoption great.'
What I like about this quote is that it articulates the motivation of an emigrant, the drive to be independent, to thrive in the future, even if it means giving up an entire world and way of life, and putting yourself through strenuous labour and hardship in the present. Really, emigration is always a form of sacrifice, but if the point of sacrifice is to give something up for the promise of something better, it's understandable why so many citizens of the world have chosen to do it.
WHY IT MATTERS NOW:
Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie may not be what comes to mind when we envision a typical Canadian emigrant. White, English speaking, stemming from a distinguished British family, they might not resemble many new Canadians. Yet at the same time, the stories they have to tell have so much in common with all emigrant experiences. Sometimes I think we forget it, but Canada is a land of emigrants. Every one of us is here because someone, whether it was us or one of our ancestors, made the choice to emigrate here. Along the line, someone was filled with that higher motive that Moodie talks about in her writing, the decision to 'forget the past and live in the future'. Whatever our race, our class, our anything, this holds true for all of us living here.
I don't think, for anyone, coming here has ever been easy. It's always required hard work, unfamiliarity, encountering the unknown, having to negotiate new values and expectations, and the need to carve out a future that will inevitably be vastly different from the past. And I think this is why the work of Parr Traill and Moodie remains relevant today: it honestly portrays this experience, as well as doing so from a female perspective which is always valuable, at the same time as it shows the beautiful potential of emigration.
In writing this, I've chosen to use the word 'emigration' to describe the experience of coming to Canada, largely because that's the terminology that is used in the works of Parr Traill and Moodie who I have focused on here. If you're unfamiliar, 'emigration' is a word distinct from 'immigration', although they both speak about the same process. 'Emigration' is the act of leaving one's country to live or reside in another, while 'immigration' is the act of coming to a country of which one is not native. The difference is slight, but it's in the emphasis: one is about leaving a place, while the other is about the coming.
Really, I think it's a bit of a shame we're forced to use one term in place of the other, because I think the process is always a bit of a combination of the two. Moving from one country to another always involves leaving a world behind, but it also always involves coming to a land that's new, and hopefully, full of promise and possibility. In the end, I think both Parr Traill and Moodie simultenously showcase the experiences of emigration and immigration in their works, and this is what makes them so valuable to us today. They make evident the leaving behind, the deprivation they've both had to incur, yet they also show the benefits of their new homes, the value in coming to a space that is new and wide open. Choosing to emigrate here likely won't be easy, but as Parr Traill ultimately concludes, 'I must say, for all it's roughness, I love Canada'.