Wednesday, May 30, 2007

finally, proof you didn't have to be a giant bitch to be a strickland sister

I'm floored by the difference between Catharine Parr Traill and her sister, Susanna Moodie. When I picked up this book I was fully expecting Roughing it in the Bush 2: Rougher, Bushier, and With More Hatred for the Indians. I was pleasantly surprised to find such a different voice in this text... But let me get to the blog entry with haste, because I have to get to the gym so that I can go and see Shrek the Third having accomplished much and with zero guilt. Hot.

The Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters from the Wife of and Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America

[you can tell it's a bestseller, with that catchy title]
by Catharine Parr Traill (the non-bitchy Strickland sister)

... they complain that their wives are always pining for home, and lamenting that ever they crossed the seas. This seems to be the general complaint with all classes; the women are discontented and unhappy. Few enter with their whole heart into a settler's life. They miss the little domestic comforts they had been used to enjoy; they regret the friends and relations they left in the old country; and they cannot endure the loneliness of the backwoods.

This prospect does not discourage me: I know I shall find plenty of occupation within-doors, and I have sources of enjoyment when I walk abroad that will keep me from being dull. Besides, have I not a right to be cheerful and contented for the sake of my beloved partner? The change is not greater for me than him; and if for his sake I have voluntarily left home, and friends, and country, shall I therefore sadden him by useless regrets?

But I shall very soon be put to the test.

Catharine Parr Traill is Susanna Moodie's younger sister, and like Moodie, Traill married a half-pay officer and moved across the world to try her hand at starting a brand new life with her husband. Like Moodie, she and her husband cleared a patch of land, started a family, and were poor as dirt in the new country. Like Moodie, Traill was a permanent resident of Canada, and was eventually buried in her new land -- like Moodie, she never found her way back to England.

That's about where the similarities end, however, because where Moodie retains a subtle disdain for Canada throughout her narrative, and seems to sit constantly in judgement of the people and things around her, Traill has a child-like openness and excitement for all that her new country has to offer.

The difference in the two is evident from the opening. Where Moodie starts her narrative in England, which allows for her to constantly be looking backwards to her original home and allows for a constant hearkening back, Traill begins her narrative en route to Canada. At the opening of Traill's text, she is eager to touch Newfoundland and move into her new home -- she is looking towards a new future. This subtle choice of whether to start the narrative in England or heading for Canada colours the whole thrust of the text, and determines whether the narrative will be forward-moving or looking backwards. This means that Traill's narrative is significantly more positive-seeming for the reader, who instead of reading about the author's regrets, gets a more hopeful narrative.

The narrative is also more hopeful because it is a series of letters home that refer to things people are writing to her. Moodie feels extremely isolated in the bush and is angry at how everyone back in England, she believes, has forsaken her. She sees it as natural that everyone forgets about the poor, disadvantaged emigrant. Traill, conversely, shows through her text that a connection to home can be retained, no matter how infrequent -- and this from the poorer sister, the one who couldn't send letters except with people travelling to New York who could get the letters onto the boats at no charge. For Traill, it is important to convey to her readers that all of home is not lost in coming abroad. Also, through her nature sketches, botanical research, and home taxidermy, she proves not only that England's influence is needed in the colonies, but also that Canada has something to teach and send back to the mother country. Traill takes steps here to create a Canadian identity and find Canadian-ness both as opposed to and in relation to England and the United States.

Traill also finds an important connection to the land. Where Moodie says that her major connection to the land is that she has buried her children there, and thus she connects to the land through life, Traill's connection is more creative. Traill names the plants of the new world -- calling herself a "fairy godmother" -- and thus her closest connection to Canada is through life and creation. It's no wonder she remains more positive than does her sister!

In short, Traill avoids standing in judgement against people. For example, where Moodie condemned the Logging Bee as a time and place for debauchery and drunkenness at her own expense, Traill embraces the event. She doesn't condemn the drinking, but instead understands the needs of people who work hard and expend a lot of energy. She doesn't begrudge the efforts it takes to feed the group, but instead enjoys and revels in the company and the novelty of the experience. Finally, instead of looking at all that isn't done at the end of the bee (although she does comment that she didn't know what went into building a house at first!), she is grateful for the work of her friends. Traill's positive attitude and lack of judgement make the text, overall, significantly more enjoyable to read than Moodie's narrative.

That isn't to say the book isn't without issues. In the depiction of Aboriginal people, Traill is most impressed by those who have become Europeanized and Christianized -- and indeed, Traill sees this in all the First Nations who surround her, which suggests that Traill is making a trope out of these people to support her own philosophy. Traill, throughout the narrative, tries to show the balance that can be struck between what the old and the new worlds have to offer. Where Moodie saw the "half-breeds" as embodying the worst of all possible worlds, for Traill they are the embodiment of the success that comes from standing half-way between the old and the new worlds, and they show her that the success of Canada is in European immigrants adopting those Aboriginal skills that are useful. This is certainly problematic (and somewhat userous), but it's at least a more problematic and troubled reading of the situation than Moodie's own.


Joe said...

Without being too obvious and/or clever...there's a reason one is called Moodie.

Brenna said...

Hee hee, I like that!