August 17, 2011

Stack of 19th C and Early 20th C Books

One of the great things about a trip back to Canada is getting to scout the shelves of used bookstores and thrift shops.  Here's a stack I selected.

Roughing It In the Bush, The Backwoods of Canada, and A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada are all either epistolary or autobiographical, each written in the early 1800s by a British immigrant woman about her life as a settler in the British colony that would become the province of Ontario.  The Imperialist is a novel set in Ontario and written by a Canadian woman in the very early 1900s while an expat in Britain and India.

I read Roughing It In the Bush in university and I'd meant for a long time to get around to reading The Backwoods of Canada because I'd heard the authors, who were sisters, present dramatically different perspectives on much the same experience.  Frankly, Moodie's writing is painful and I wanted to read Parr Traill to wash the taste out of my mouth.  This second go-round, though, I feel more compassion for Moodie given all she had to put up with, and I find Parr Traill to be precious and unreal.

I have a hard time forgiving Parr Traill for evaluating the great wheel's value for settlers on the basis of how charming a young woman looks while walking back and forth spinning yarn.  Moreover, I find her meeting with the good wife who spins and outfits her family in homespun to be rather flat and static, like a catalogue description.  Compare that to Moodie's stories of the rascally, independent old handspinner neighbour who tries to cheat a young man by selling him re-footed socks.

The quaint title of A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada made me want to buy it, along with its self-portrait of the author looking someone on the front of a Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer novel.  I like Langton.  I can't decide whether she comes off well as a person compared to Moodie and Parr Traill–Langton strikes me as having been much better adjusted to the life of a settler–or whether I prefer Langton to them because she is a much less self-conscious writer.  Her letters and journals are directed solely to family members back in England and she never revised their pages for publication.  What I am trying to say is, she hasn't got an axe to grind.  She get on with things.  She writes:
One of the novelties John saw on his late trip was a lady knitting a pair of stockings in one, that is, doing double knitting from top to toe, and after taking off the latter, having the one stocking completed within the other.  This will be more interesting to Cicely than to you. The lady thought it saved time, I cannot understand how it should do so.  I do not, however, comprehend the performance exactly; perhaps I may be able to obtain some further information through John.  
She relates the information because she thinks this Cicely will find it interesting and possibly helpful, not because it will serve to dissuade would-be settlers from emigrating (Moodie) or prepare them (Parr Traill).  Langton finishes up by describing her current knitting project for her brother, a "pair of mitts for driving in, having a forefinger as well as thumb distinct, with space, however, for it to join its three companions, when not requiring its own separate home."  (Anyone driving in 1838 would be driving a team of horses.  Although I've gone by sleigh I can't remember how a driver holds the reins, but the shape of the mitts must make practical sense somehow.)

Duncan's The Imperialist is absolutely brilliant.  The author takes ordinary things and turns them into subtle commentaries on character, often as complete zingers.  This excerpt about a bachelor's housekeeper (where the omniscient narrator illuminates the bachelor's point of view) is better when read in context but I think you will get the gist: "Mrs. Forsyth was an excellent hand at pressed tongue [food] and a wonder at knitted counterpanes, but she had not acquired tact and never would."  Another character's industrious nature and perpetual state of indignation is established early in the book when the hired girl takes the May 24 holiday off without permission:
"I believe I know the reason she'll say," said Advena.  "She objects to rag carpet in her bedroom.  She told me so."
"Rag carpet–upon my word!" Mrs. Murchison dropped her knife to exclaim.  "It's what her betters have to do with!  I've known the day when that very piece of rag carpet–sixty balls there were in it, and every one I sewed with my own fingers–was the best I had for my spare room, with a bit of ingrain in the middle.  Dear me!" she went on with a smile that lightened the whole situation, "how proud I was of that performance!  She didn't tell me she objected to rag carpet!"
"No, Mother," Advena agreed, "she knew better."
I like how ridiculously unaware the mother is that she's advancing a specious argument.  Having a rag carpet in your spare room is not exactly the same as using a rag carpet yourself and it doesn't give you the moral authority to insist your employee like the rug as a hand-me-down.  Power relationships underlie the entire book, between people, town and country, Empire and Canada.  The narrator lets the reader in on all of it while the characters move between obliviousness, recognition, and epiphany.  It's done with a wonderfully light touch.

I read these books hoping to find clues about how handspinners used to fit into Canada's history and how they might again, and I found some.  You can't get away from imported cloth and Manchester gets mentioned quite a few times as the source of industrial production.  The settlers depended on their relatives in England purchasing and shipping goods to them.  Still there is some hand knitting locally, for personal use or for pay, and quite a lot of clothing and household textiles constructed on the spot.  The Imperialist is very good for getting an idea of how farmers' markets operated a hundred years ago, something that relates to the post I will do next.

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