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Jan 1 2000

In recent years several texts have been published which serve as models for my thesis, and some precedents have been set in theory and in literature which suggest that the writings of ordinary people could be and should be included as a genre or a sub-genre of literature, that of life writing. Many of these precedents argue implicitly for the classification, analysis and criticism of life writing as a way of ascribing value and, therefore, encouraging their preservation and recovery. Without such recognition, the letter collections and personal writings that are extant are in danger of being devalued, destroyed and lost forever.

The journal, Mosaic, devoted a special issue to "Life-Writing" [sic] (Fall 1987). Evelyn Hinz, the editor, in the "Introduction," notes life writing's "generic touchstones" as biography, autobiography, memoirs and letters (v). The issue includes essays such as: "The Gospels as Hellenistic Biography" by David E. Aune, "Canadian Servicemen's Memoirs of the Second World War" by Michael A. Mason, and "Behind Every Great Man: Frida Kahlo's Letters to Ella Wolfe" by Marlene Kadar. Unfortunately, although the door was opened, and the memoirs are significant, there are no essays dealing specifically with personal letters by ordinary people with no literary connections. Kadar's essay is the nearest example. It concerns the exchange of letters between the wife of Bertram Wolfe (the author of Diego Rivera's biography) and the wife of Rivera, the artist. As a recovery for women's studies, the analysis of this rich correspondence discloses that in both cases the husband and wife were a "creating couple" (145).

Marlene Kadar, in her collection of Essays in Life Writing (1992), notes that life writing is a term that was popular "for a part of the eighteenth century, before the Greek and Latin rooted words 'biography' and 'autobiography' fell into current usage" (4). Kadar argues for the inclusion of letter writing within the genre of life writing: "It is a kind of writing about the 'self' or the 'individual' that favours auto-biography, but includes letters, diaries, journals, and (even) biography. This kind of life writing may be written by literary men and women, or it may be written by 'ordinary' men and women (5). In the genre of life writing she includes "archival materials by women or men who never became celebrities, or diaries and letters to loved ones and friends, some notable examples of which have been uncovered in recent years" (6). Clearly, the McQuesten letters fit these criteria and it is my intention here to add to the scholarship already existing in the genre of life writing by recovering some further "notable examples" (Kadar Essays 6).

The example that Kadar gives in Essays is the writing of a seventeenth-century philosopher-nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who was "non-high culture" and never became a celebrity. She "recorded her own life in what has been called 'an epistolary self-defense' and an 'intellectual autobiography'" and used it to structure a "feminist ideology" (7). In "Part Two" of Kadar's book the essays focus on non-literary life narratives and personal oral narratives such as court testimonies, life histories, and "ethnography" (113). Kadar has clearly led the way to further scholarship in the genre of life writing.

Since beginning my study Kadar has collaborated with a number of writers as editor of the "Life Writing Series" published by the Wilfred Laurier University Press which has published eight titles in the series (to date). Two titles in the series are especially relevant to my work. In the first work of the series, Kadar provides the "Afterword" to Edna Staebler's collection of her sister's letters, Haven't Any News: Ruby's Letters from the 50's (1995). This work reclaims the letters of the "ordinary voice" of Ruby Cress as "women's life writing." Kadar justifies Ruby's letters as literature when she compares them to the epistolary novel on the basis of distinct and recurring themes, a narrator's self-representation, temporal unity, and a sub-text of longing which "gives it writerly unity and depth" (159-64). Kadar notes that the first person style in "autobiography, letters, diaries . . . in which the author does not want to pretend to be absent from the text" actually assists the reader in the critical practice of attempting to "glean the written self." The reader is encouraged "to develop and foster his/her own self-consciousness in order to humanize and make less abstract (which is not to say less mysterious) the self-in-the-writing" (12). As such, the letters are valuable to critical practice because they provide texts for analysis that express the self-representation of the subject. The cultural and cross-disciplinary potential of this aspect of life writing cannot be overstated.

Another work in Kadar's "Life Writing" series that is important to my study is Marilyn F. Whiteley's The Life and Letters of Annie Leake Tuttle: Working for the Best (1999, Series #7). It represents the recovery of the letters and memoirs of Annie Tuttle (1839-1934) the "matron" of the Women's Missionary Society of the Methodist Church in Victoria, British Columbia in 1887. This work provides a valuable comparison with Mary Baker McQuesten's life and writings which cover the same dates, and also have a strong missionary society content. A cultural comparison would recover further details of women's contributions on both sides of the country, as well as any political or ideological variations in the Protestant Church and its missionary work.

Frances Hoffman and Ryan Taylor's Much to Be Done: Private Life in Ontario from Victorian Diaries (1996) is a collection of nineteenth century women's diary and journal writings which portray all aspects of domestic life in Ontario from childbirth to funerals. Some of the characters and events also appear in the McQuesten letters.

Elizabeth W. McGahan's Whispers From the Past: Selections from the Writings of New Brunswick Women (1986) is a recovery of women's writings from 1830 to 1954. The writings are by women of all ages and the collection contains examples of letters, memoirs, minutes of meetings, notebooks and diaries.

Margaret Conrad's No Place Like Home: Diaries and Letters of Nova Scotia Women 1771-1938 (1988) is a model for the recovery of women's life writing from a feminist perspective. Conrad and Toni Laidlaw and Donna Smyth have compiled the diaries and letters of ordinary (unpublished) writers. Their clearly stated contribution is to the recovery and "chronicling" of "women's stories" and "voices" for feminist and women's studies. Conrad's work has some important implications for my project since it deals with unpublished writers, and establishes their diaries and letters as "stories" and "chronicles." It seeks to blur the boundaries between disciplines, which is achieved in its collaboration of editors from History, Education and English.

Hoffman's, McGahan's and Conrad's work can be seen as companions to the McQuesten letters. They provide "selections" and "whispers" from a large number of women; however, Mary's letters represent one long sustained dialogue with a constant cast of characters and a narrative continuity. Both styles of recovery have value and are complementary to one another for cultural purposes.

Re(dis)covering Our Foremothers: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers (1990), edited by Lorraine McMullen, is the product of a symposium at the University of Ottawa. It is a collection of essays by scholars who have scoured reference works such as the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (1978), the Literary History of Canada (1965), and various anthologies and archives, for unpublished, and previously published but neglected, women's writings. Although it does not classify them as life writing, some of these references are to letter writers, such as Letitia (Mactavish) Hargrave, wife of a Hudson's Bay Company Officer, who sent many letters home to Britain. Some of the references are to archival materials, diaries, memoirs and correspondence, such as that of Amelia (Ryerse) Harris of London, Ontario, the wife of a public officer. Francess Halpenny, in her essay in the above text, "Research-Problems and Solutions," notes that it has been customary in Canadian studies to bring within the purview of literary history at least, if not always literature as such, a good deal of material that originally had a private purpose . . . and the resources I have been describing . . . can and are being examined from points of view other than the strictly historical" (39).

An historical work such as Halpenny describes is Kathryn Bridge's Henry & Self: The Private Life of Sarah Crease 1826-1922 (1996). It is an admirable work of recovery of the "voluminous correspondence" of Sarah Crease, "wife of a struggling lawyer-manager-politician-judge . . . and matron of the Victoria colonial elite" (113, 9). The collection consists of letters, journal writings, paintings and photographs. It is written by an historian as an historical biography but could be included under the genre of life writing, and (to echo Halpenny) "examined from points of view other than the strictly historical."

An interesting variation in life writing is the use of oral accounts in literature which is evident in Bill McNeill's Voices of a War Remembered: An Oral History of Canadians in World War II (1991). McNeill's stated purpose in making the collection is the recovery "of individual stories [which] need to be saved for future generations" (1991). This is a valuable record for life writing and for cultural studies since it chronicles the Canadian servicemen and women's experiences in foreign and hostile countries under extreme conditions of danger, fatigue and loneliness. Since many of their letters are lost, the oral histories must bear witness to the "horrors of hell" that they endured (211). The liberal use of photographs, such as those from Buchenwald by airman, James Anderson, also makes this a valuable text for study.

In canonical Canadian literature, the epistolary tradition is evident in several texts listed by date: Frances Brooke's epistolary novel, The History of Emily Montague (1769), has claim to be the first Canadian novel. Catherine Parr Traill's epistolary form is clearly revealed in the long and descriptive title of her Backwoods in Canada: Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America (1836). Anna Brownell Jameson's Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838) presents "'fragments' of a journal addressed to a friend" (Jameson 9). Kadar notes that Jameson's work is called an "epistolary dijournal" because it bridges generic classifications and openly displays its "undisguised subjectivity" (Kadar Essays 19, 43). Margaret and Thomas Blom's Canada Home: Juliana Horatia Ewing's Fredericton Letters 1867-1869 (1983) is the work of an established author and her personal and informal letters are selected to concentrate "on what she has to say about Canada and about her activities as an author" (xxii). There are also several examples of the publication and analysis of the personal letters of literary persons in Canada, notably, Susanna Moodie: Letters of a Lifetime (1985), and I Bless You In My Heart: Selected Correspondence of Catharine Parr Trail (1996), both edited by Carl Ballstadt et al. There is no difficulty in declaring these letters as literature since they are written by established and published authors and, therefore, serve to complement existing publications and scholarship. For example, in Carl Ballstadt's essay, "'The Embryo Blossom': Susanna Moodie's Letters to Her Husband in Relation to Roughing it in the Bush," he notes that Moodie's letters "serve as a gloss" on her published work, and sometimes reveal more about backwoods society than the book itself (McMullen 138, 3). Similarly, the recuperation of the letters of unpublished writers serves to expand the research base for any particular era.

Some interesting parallels are apparent between Catharine Parr Traill and Mary McQuesten. In both cases their husbands suffered from mental illness, both were widowed with many children to raise in genteel poverty, both were very religious and both were prolific letter writers. The Whitehern archive also invites literary and historical comparison with the Moodie letters in Susanna Moodie: Letters of a Lifetime (1985) and her writings in Roughing It in the Bush, published in 1852. It was in 1852 that Dr. Calvin McQuesten purchased Whitehern (then Willowbank), and together they provide a comparison between two different settlement cultures in Ontario, the rural and the urban. Susanna Moodie (1803-85) came from England in 1832 and her work describes the hardships of frontier and backwoods settlement near Peterborough, about one hundred and fifty miles northeast of Hamilton, Ontario. At the same time, during the mid 1830's, Dr Calvin McQuesten (1801-85), an entrepreneur from New England, began the industrial development of Hamilton and established its first foundry.

Lucy Maud Montgomery's life (1874-1942) and journal writings also provide some areas of comparison and contrast with Mary McQuesten's life and letters. Both women were educated, intelligent, outspoken, and closely involved with the Presbyterian Church and missionary societies in Southern Ontario. However, Montgomery, even though she was a minister's wife, was a reluctant participant, avoiding leadership or giving addresses, and she found such meetings "deadly dull" (Selected Journals Vol. II, 139). Montgomery had a fulfilling other-self as a writer, while Mary's other-self was precisely that of the zealous missionary society leader that Montgomery avoided and found "hopelessly uninteresting." It is likely that they encountered one another at some of the conventions at which Mary gave her passionate pep-talks (see Appendix), but they would have had little in common.

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The development of this website was directed by Mary Anderson, Ph.D. and Janelle Baldwin, M.A.
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