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Jan 1 2000

Mrs. McQuesten had a real Puritanical sense of right and wrong. Her uncompromising conscience would not countenance anything that was not utterly honourable. But with all that inflexible integrity were blended a very great kindliness and the graciousness of a true lady. She was an aristocrat by birth and breeding; she was an aristocrat intellectually and spiritually, too. (Eulogy by Rev. B. Ketchen, December 10, 1934, see W0148a. )

Mary Baker McQuesten (1849-1934) was among the most enlightened women of the Victorian and Edwardian age in Canada, yet she is little known. Although Mary never wrote for publication (few women did at that time) she was a "prolific and uninhibited letter writer" (CMQPW13), an articulate public speaker, and an outspoken critic of the times. Her forum was the home, the community, the Presbyterian Church and its Missionary Societies. Her writings reveal the political strength and matriarchal power that was gained by some exceptional women in Ontario during the patriarchal Victorian age1.

In Mary's case her matriarchal power was likely gained partly by nature through a naturally strong will and constitution, partly by nurture through her father's teaching and example (little is known of her mother), and partly by necessity through her life's trials and circumstances.

My aim in this research is the recovery and presentation of Mary's life writings, which will add to the literature of the Victorian era. It will add to the growing body of women's cultural and political history in Hamilton, in Ontario, and in Canada. These writings are important artifacts that provide documentation of, and insights into, the Victorian family and society from 1873 to 1934.

Mary's life saw the reign of three monarchs: Queen Victoria (1837-1901), King Edward VII (1901-10), and King George V (1910-36). The period spanned a time of great change in Canada and the Western world, including such significant events as Canadian Confederation, the Boer War, industrialization, immigration, World War One, the depression, and the increasing effects of Darwinian theory, humanism, liberalism and modernism. The turbulence of the age was accompanied by a growing optimism inspired by the progress promised by science and technology. Presbyterians were particularly influenced by the social ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment and demonstrated the missionary evangelical and colonizing spirit that presumed the cultural superiority of Britain and its "manifest divine destiny" (Moir Enduring 185).

During the Victorian age a demand for the education and liberation of women was accompanied by a growing criticism of the rigid patriarchal forces of society that prevailed in religion and politics, and that tended to disregard the needs of women. One of the earliest forms of the feminist movement in the Victorian age was the Women's Missionary Society. and it provided a focus and a forum for women's desire for social change. Mary's letters reveal that it was a matriarchal structure that was organized by women for the benefit of women; they raised their own funds and administered them, and resisted male dominance in their "gender struggles" both at home and abroad. (see W4651). Mary was one of an emerging body of newly-organized women who were educated, outspoken, and highly motivated by a feminist impulse, although they may not have recognized their impulse as "feminism" at the time.

Mary's letters reveal the social, financial, and cultural forces of the era that both governed and limited a woman's aspirations for herself and her children, both female and male. As a widowed mother of six children, the most vital recurring themes in her writings are family finances, health, education, the Presbyterian missionary societies, and Victorian society and culture. These themes provide a framework to reveal the day-to-day lives of a cultured but impoverished upper-middle-class family in Ontario. They also reveal the gradual character development of a privileged young matron into a powerful matriarch and a forceful social activist.

The McQuestens' personal experience with illness, death and impoverishment is tragic; however, it also adds a broader cultural perspective to their writings that would not have been revealed if their financial circumstances and elite social status had remained constant. The letters frankly confide the family's anxieties about financial problems and health concerns, both mental and physical.

Mary's letters chronicle how she managed, as a widow, through more than twenty years of day-to-day scrimping (1888 to 1909) to maintain their stately home, Whitehern, and to raise and educate her six children. Mary was the acknowledged inspiration behind her children's achievements in education, journalism, the ministry, law, politics, and city planning. She also succeeded in finally returning the McQuesten family to some degree of its former social status. It is remarkable that Mary also had the energy and dedication to be a dynamic leader in the missionary movement in the Presbyterian Church.

Most of Mary's writings take the form of family letters in which she guided all aspects of her children's lives according to an inflexible Calvinist, Presbyterian morality: "Her advice, opinions, and reactions are as firm and un-negotiable as were the laws of the Medes and Persians" (CMQPW 14). Her letters demonstrate her ability to influence and control her children even from a distance. At the same time Mary urged them into social activism. She demanded of them the same strong social and moral conscience and sense of duty that she had learned from her father. That her children never married is evidence of her matriarchal power, and she actively broke up three of her children's prospective engagements. Were the prospective partners not suitable by social standing? Or was she intent on a eugenic solution to the inherited mental affliction that several family members suffered, including herself. It is evident that she experienced some regret finally but she may have felt that she had done what was necessary for the family at the time. Her reasons are not always clearly divulged in her letters, and are open to the reader's speculation and interpretation.

Mary saw it as her duty to write twice a week to her children when they were away from home at school or at work and, since Calvin (the eldest son), was away from home most often, many of the letters are to him. Although Ruby was away also, very few letters to her are extant. Perhaps Mary felt that Ruby did not require her guidance as much as Calvin did. Nevertheless, Mary was the center of the family and her epistles were circulated among family members, as was the custom of the age (W6331). Ruby states "You're the indispensable hub of the whole family wheel and your family would be utterly wretched and lost without you" (Ruby to Mother February 13, 1910, W6646). Many of the letters, especially Calvin's, were then carefully returned to Whitehern and preserved for posterity.

Letter writing was a family obligation which the members discharged with loving attention to one another, and Mary insisted on this program of communication, although writing was not permitted on the Sabbath. The family members rarely show a note of anger or impatience with one another in the letters and, in spite of their financial constraints, they are always generous, loving, encouraging, and often witty and teasing. They paid special attention to birthdays and health concerns, and often exchanged rich commentary on literature, social and world events, and politics. The children rarely challenged their mother, and sought always to spare her feelings or to avoid her wrath. However, there is some suggestion that some correspondence was carried on in secret or written on a separate page with injunctions to burn or destroy (W6281, W6310, W8164). A few of these are extant.

The McQuestens' family life was circumscribed by the MacNab Street Presbyterian Church, the church which Dr. Calvin McQuesten had helped to finance in 1854. It is only one block from Whitehern and the McQuesten family attended twice every Sunday for more than one hundred years. Mary was intolerant of other religions, especially of Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism (W6446). Mary's faith in a personal and loving God sustained her in the darkest times, although there is some evidence that she occasionally grew discouraged and impatient with His plan (W4670). This prompted her son Calvin to pray that "mother may get more comfort and happiness from her religion" (Diary 1918, 1920).

Mary's strict Calvinist moral interpretations and fundamentalist beliefs were aligned with the most restrictive injunctions of Presbyterianism. At the same time, and with apparently no concern for any rational conflict with fundamentalism, Mary demonstrated the enlightened Victorian interest in a kind of "social Darwinism": a trust in progress through the natural sciences, eugenics, social reform, and the belief that humans are shaped by their environment as well as their wills (Moir Enduring 174-75). The Whitehern library contains books by and about Charles Darwin and his theories. One might expect that Mary's fundamentalist convictions may have caused her to restrict her children's reading and education but she maintained and encouraged an educated and enlightened outlook. Mary insisted on a classical education for her children and promoted an interest in the broader world of literature, art, science and travel, all in the interest of preserving a very high intellectual and scholarly standard. She also guided her children's reading, just as her father, Rev. Baker, had guided hers.

The library at Whitehern consists of more than 3500 books, the oldest of which is dated 1569, a four-volume set entitled, "Corpus Litis Civilis. Digesta. Digestum Vetus, Compendium of Civil Law based on the compendiary of Florence, formerly called Pisan, Lugdunum, Lyons, 1569, Illustrated by Accursius, Notes by many other consults" (Minnes, Heaman, Whitehern). The library reflects the professional interests of three generations of the family in religion, medicine, law, politics, philosophy, architecture, town planning, the natural sciences, classical languages and Biblical exegesis. The library also contains an excellent collection of fiction, poetry, drama, Canadian literature and women authors. There are several books that demonstrate an appreciation for the epistolary tradition in literature. For instance, Mary comments on the three volumes of The Letters of Queen Victoria (1908) (W6347). Another text is Historical and Literary Curiosities: Consisting of Facsimiles of Original Documents (1875), which contains copies of the hand written letters of James Granger in 1769 and Tobias Smollett in 1756, and many others. The latter was presented to Rev. Thomas Baker by Mary and Isaac for Christmas 1879. Books were often the gifts of choice and were discussed frequently as Mary guides her family's reading and education, or as the children comment on their reading. The books were often loaned out but also diligently sought for their return: "I shall ask in every letter" (W4521, W4549).

The many books in the McQuesten library on history and social reform reflect the family's interest in social planning, such as, Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population (1872), which advocates "checks" on population growth (OCEL 509). The twenty-nine volumes by Ruskin in their library, includes The Political Economy of Art (1870), and the McQuestens were likely influenced by his social and moral philosophy in urban planning, architectural design, "organic nature," "national education" and "organization of labour." Ruskin was considered to be a "moral guide or prophet" (CBD 1275-76; OCEL 716). Ruby's letter of February 1903 describes a lecture given by a very young and "unabashed," [William] "L.M. King" on "Social Settlements" including Hull House in Chicago and Toynbee Hall in London (W4785).

The McQuestens' missionary zeal was inspired by that Victorian social conscience which linked aesthetics to social reform, a belief that morality was directly related to beautiful surroundings, and to the quality of public spaces. Mary's philosophy of social reform included a sense of the importance of the organic world; therefore, nature, gardens, beauty, health and morality were closely connected in her world view. Mary was the active and acknowledged influence behind her son Thomas, lawyer, politician and Member of Parliament, in his "City Beautiful Movement" (see Thomas' biography). Thomas's planning of parks and bridges was based on a renaissance ideal, and he "was possessed with an almost obsessive impulse to restore and beautify his surroundings" (Best 192).

Whitehern's large library, its works of art, and three generations of life writings at Whitehern, were all accessible to the McQuesten children, and provided a deep sense of pride in their heritage. Mary had an aristocratic sense of self-worth and a frankly elitist attitude which she instilled in her children, and which gave them all the courage to be critical of others, especially authority figures such as ministers and politicians. In spite of their impoverishment or, perhaps, because of it, Whitehern itself became an emblem of their status, and its possession and preservation was vital to their self-image.

We must credit Mary with consciously preserving the Whitehern archive even when she might have sold the home and sought more economical accommodation, which she considered doing, and she contemplated and rejected several offers. Even when she rented Whitehern to the Hamilton Club in 1907, she carefully packed all of the family possessions and placed them in storage. It was likely a culmination of Mary's influence and sense of posterity when, in 1959, twenty-five years after her death, her three remaining children collaborated to deed Whitehern and all their possessions to the Parks Board of the City of Hamilton; it was to be used as a Museum, so that everyone "may enjoy. . . the beautiful rooms of Whitehern and eat their lunches in its pleasant garden" (Address by Rev. Calvin McQuesten, November 3, 1959). Whitehern reverted to the city at the death of Rev. Calvin McQuesten in 1968.

When reading the story of Mary's life through her letters one is amazed that she could have accomplished so much and remained so determined, in spite of so many personal trials and hardships, including her own health problems. That she was able to restore her family to social and political prominence is remarkable; that she was also able to accomplish so much in the community, and in the missionary work, is astonishing. Her life and death are commemorated in the eulogy by Rev. B. Ketchen, the family minister for thirty years. Ketchen knew her well, and pays tribute to her formidable strength of character and indomitable will as he celebrates her life and contributions. The eulogy provides a fitting closure to Mary's letters.

1 I use Victorian throughout in the sense of its continued influence into the twentieth century. MacGillivray in The Mind of Ontario comments: "Explanation is needed for the late introduction of Victorianism to Ontario, and for its late departure. . . .The educated Presbyterian clergy with their Scottish associations and the attachment to rationalism appropriate to their intellectually-oriented religion, prolonged, no doubt unconsciously, the dominance of the Scottish Enlightenment." One of the reasons he offers is that it promoted a settled way of life rather than the disorder and fluidity of pioneering conditions. It provided a network of congregations for the dissemination of ideas, moral standards, literacy, higher education, family values, and the work ethic. (51-52)

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Copyright 2002 Whitehern Historic House and Garden
The development of this website was directed by Mary Anderson, Ph.D. and Janelle Baldwin, M.A.
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