Belleville Author Susanna Moodie Remains an Icon in Canadian Literature

By Barry Penhale

Interred in what at the time was the new cemetery in Belleville overlooking the Bay of Quinte, author Susanna Moodie’s (1803–85) legacy of published work remains of interest to a whole new generation of readers. The same can be said of her older sister, Catharine Parr Traill (1802–99), an indomitable woman whose writings, though perhaps not of Susanna’s literary quality, remain among the most authentic observations of a pioneer’s experiences in the Canadian bush. Together they are our “Bronte” sisters and it is to our advantage that not only their early books remain available, but that the women themselves continue to fascinate. They have become the subject of books by present-day writers, most notably Charlotte Gray’s best-selling Sisters in the Wilderness (1) and Sisters in Two Worlds (2) by our foremost Moodie/Traill authority, Michael Peterman, Professor Emeritus, Trent University.

In The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie an important voice from the nineteenth century comes alive in a book of “creative fiction” many believe Susanna Moodie would have loved.

In The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie an important voice from the nineteenth century comes alive in a book of “creative fiction” many believe Susanna Moodie would have loved.

In introducing readers to Susanna Moodie through references to incidents in her late-in life but productive Belleville/Quinte years, I have elected to also mention her remarkable sister, Catharine. I also point out the importance of our having at least some modest awareness of their family background in the United Kingdom to better appreciate the upbringing that shaped them. 

In her award-winning book about the two English gentlewomen, popular biographer Charlotte Gray reminds us that prior to their arrival in Upper Canada the Strickland sisters had for a period of time in their lives known a comfortable existence at Reydon Hall in Suffolk, a rambling brick manor home that was built in 1682. To quote from Sisters in the Wilderness: “Reading was our chief resource, Catharine would recall in later years. We ransacked the library for books, we dipped into old magazines of the last century” and ended with the statement: “We wanted to be very learned. …”

In many respects the daughters of Thomas and Elizabeth Strickland, five in all, would appear to have known an idyllic life until their father’s passing in 1818. Without her husband’s income the widow Strickland was compelled to let staff go and shutter many rooms. To the extent it was possible in that era, the family put on a brave face. Though of widely differing temperament and personalities, Catharine and Susanna’s affectionate and rare relationship was forged in those difficult times and the two sisters would remain close throughout their lifetimes. 

Sisters in the Wilderness, a beautifully written biography by Charlotte Gray adds to an already impressive body of work that includes bestselling biographies on Canadian icons Alexander Graham Bell and E. Pauline Johnson.

Sisters in the Wilderness, a beautifully written biography by Charlotte Gray adds to an already impressive body of work that includes bestselling biographies on Canadian icons Alexander Graham Bell and E. Pauline Johnson.

Much has been documented of their Suffolk countryside childhood and the most fulsome accounts of their lives appear in the celebrated works cited by Gray and Peterman. Since the in-tent of this article is to consider Susanna Moodie’s time in Upper Canada, it is necessary to leap “editorially speaking” to the year 1832, when Susanna and older sister Charlotte, both now married, had crossed the Atlantic to take up roles as pioneering wives in the backwoods of Upper Canada. By candlelight, as they built new lives in a harsh almost uninhabitable environment the sisters began writing their lived experiences of those times, ultimately giving us such classics as Roughing It In the Bush (Susanna) and The Backwoods of Canada (Catharine). In Peterman’s informative and lavishly illustrated Sisters in Two Worlds, a most helpful map shows the areas where the sisters settled: “Though only forty miles separated the Moodie’s first farm near Cobourg from the Traill homestead in Douro [Township], getting from one to the other was an arduous journey of a day or more.”

Things did not go well for Susanna and John Dunbar Moodie and after 13 disappointing months they took up a land grant north of the Traills who were now nicely settled into their bush home with its view of Lake Katchewanook. (3) Now a mere one-mile walk through woods separated the sisters. But the constant struggle of life in the Peterborough hinterland was to prove most disheartening for the Moodies and following six years of unsuccessful attempts at farming they moved to Belleville in 1840. There John took up his appointment as the first sheriff of the newly formed County of Hastings.

SUSANNA MOODIE’S FINAL RESTING PLACE IN BELLEVILLE IS MARKED BY AN IMPOSING MARBLE ANGEL. PHOTO CREDIT: COMMUNITY ARCHIVES BELLEVILLE AND HASTINGS COUNTY.

SUSANNA MOODIE’S FINAL RESTING PLACE IN BELLEVILLE IS MARKED BY AN IMPOSING MARBLE ANGEL. PHOTO CREDIT: COMMUNITY ARCHIVES BELLEVILLE AND HASTINGS COUNTY.

Though once settled, their circumstances were to improve over time, the Quinte years were to prove to be “bittersweet” with the couple being called upon to endure great personal losses. Undoubtedly the worst of these involved their young son, John “Johnny” who aged five years and six months accidentally slipped on a wet dock and fell into the Moira River and drowned on June 18, 1844. It was “the saddest and darkest [hour] of my sad eventful life,” she later wrote in Life in the Clearings — Belleville, Canada West, 1852 where she included her heartfelt poem “To the Early Lost,” (4) which declared that “the voice of mirth is silenced in my heart.” This was a particularly difficult period for the Moodies having earlier dealt with the death of another male child only one month following his birth in July 1840.

In Roughing It In The Bush, (first published in two volumes in the 1850s and reprinted many times since) Moodie’s observations of pioneer life chronicle an era that continues to fascinate readers. Various early editions of the work in the hands of either British or American publishers suffered from the extremes of too much editing or too little, and input from the author was minimal. Most volumes were published as small paperbacks and the public had a long wait before a Canadian edition was available. But in spite of questionable editorial decisions along the way, it became the author’s most widely-read book and is considered a Canadian classic, an important part of our literary heritage.

The attractiveness of this visual biography, Sisters in Two Worlds, is only exceeded by the authoritative text reflecting a lifetime of study into the lives of the two pioneer writers.

The attractiveness of this visual biography, Sisters in Two Worlds, is only exceeded by the authoritative text reflecting a lifetime of study into the lives of the two pioneer writers.

For Susanna Moodie the Belleville years, family losses not withstanding, found the writer gaining a wide readership for published poems, articles, and stories. Hardly surprising, it was only a matter of time before several prominent Canadian writers of a more recent vintage discovered the Strickland sisters who then made their way onto the pages of books by Margaret Attwood, Timothy Findley, and Robertson Davies. More recently a charmingly illustrated “toolkit” for historical cookery based on Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide (5) (I855) and a highly praised fictional book of diaries (6) which Susanna Moodie could easily have kept, have further delighted the sizeable and growing audience of Traill/Moodie admirers.

Today the profound influence the Moodies had on Belleville can easily be found by visitors to the city. The attractive stone cottage once occupied by the Moodies, now a heritage site, still stands at the corner of Bridge and Sinclair, marked by an historical plaque. Susanna Moodie and her sister Catharine remain of much interest to scholars and to those of us whose interests include Canadian literature. Historical plaques to both can also be found in the Kawartha Lakes within the village of Lakefield. That even more publications and deserving recognition is to follow, I have no doubt. 

Acknowledgements/Sources

1. Sisters in the Wilderness. Charlotte Gray, 1999. Penguin Group.

2. Sisters in Two Worlds. Michael Peterman, 2007. Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited.

3. The site of Lakefield College, Lakefield, Ontario.

4.  See Country Roads website: www.countryroadshastings.ca for Moodie’s lament for her son Johnny.

5. Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant‘s Guide /Cooking with a Canadian Classic, edited by Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas, 2017. McGill-Queen’ University Press.

6. The Lost Diaries Of Susanna Moodie, a novel. Cecily Ross, 2017. Harper Collins Publishers Limited.