J. I Little (ed) ‘Love as Strong as Death: Lucy Peel’s Journal in Lower Canada’

Lucy Peel was the wife of a naval officer on extended half-pay leave and in 1833 she and her young husband  Edmund arrived in Sherbrooke, Lower Canada, “attracted to a romantic and utopian dream of creating their own genteel Eden in the wilderness, but they were pragmatic enough to regard a permanent return to England as a possibility” (Little 1999 p.58).  And indeed, this is what happened- some three years later they returned, despondent that their plans had not come to fruition:

Edmund is, after four years hard labour, convinced that nothing is to be done by Farming in Canada; the land here produces too little to pay the labour requisite to cultivate it.

Lucy’s diary  has been published as Love strong as death: Lucy Peel’s Lower Canadian Journal 1833-1836, edited by J. I. Little (2001).    It was written as a “letter diary”, where she recorded the letters that she sent as monthly instalments to her mother and occasionally to her sisters and in-laws.  Her husband Edmund also contributed a few letters as well.  The letters survived as transcriptions in three bound volumes titled “Letters from Canada” and the transcriptions, written (and possibly culled?)  in two different hands, were donated to a university archive by a great-great-grandson. As such, it should be seen as a series of letters rather than a journal as such, and subject to the qualifications about letters discussed and commented on previously by Hels and Yvonne.

I have not been able to locate a copy of Little’s book here in Australia, but Googlebooks has a generous excerpt that includes the introduction and the Canadian Historical Association’s journal has a downloadable version of Little’s article “Gender and Gentility on the Lower Canadian Frontier: Lucy Peel’s journal 1833-36.”

Little cautions us:

While it is necessary to remember that journals such as Lucy Peel’s reflect the experiences and views of a small, privileged sector of society, their authors were nevertheless sharp observers of their social and natural surroundings and they provide valuable insights into the ideology and behaviour of the families who dominated the Canadian colonial socially and politically in the pre-Rebellion era. (2001 p. 2)

My interest is in Upper Canada, and at this stage I am not sure how much the mindset in terms of social expectations within the English community differs between Upper and Lower Canada.  Of course, the French presence in Lower Canada was a major distinguishing feature between the two provinces.  Little notes that English gentry preferred Lower Canada to the more sparsely populated Upper Canada, which was afflicted with cholera and malaria. (In my total ignorance of Upper Canadian climate at this stage, the reference to malaria surprises me.)   Peel, at least in the excerpts and article, does not make much comment on the French at all, but she does describe the English community and expresses some fairly virulent anti-Americanism, and I would expect that similar sentiments would apply in Upper Canada as well.

The excerpts reveal a lively, perceptive letter writer, and their marriage seems to be a loving one.  Little uses Vickery’s book The Gentleman’s Daughter as a thematic touchstone for describing Peel’s writings and identity as a gentlewoman on the frontier : love and duty; fortitude and resignation, prudent economy, elegance, civility and vulgarity, and propriety.

Both she and her husband Edmund are engaging and surprisingly modern writers, and I was touched by Edmund’s description of his wife’s experience of childbirth.  I suspect that many men stumbling out of the labour ward today might say the same thing, perhaps less eloquently (although possibly with fewer commas!) :

I was present all the time to support Lucy and I was much distressed to witness her agonies.  I thought it the proper place for a husband at such a moment, considering it nothing more than false delicacy which would make a man absent himself at a time when his presence and support are most required, it is a fearful thing to see a woman in her pain, I could not have believed it possible they had suffered so much, at times I felt quite distracted, as soon as the child was born I staggered into an adjoining room and cried like a child until I saw Lucy smiling and free from pain, her face last seen was distorted with pain, the impression made on me will not be forgotten (19 Dec 1833 entry by Edmund, cited in Little 1999)

Move over, Lucy- I think I’m a bit in love with him myself!

Sources:

J. I. Little Love “Strong as Death”: Lucy Peel’s Lower Canadian Journal , Ontario, Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2001. Googleview excerpt

J. I. Little  ‘Gender and Gentility on the Lower Canadian Frontier: Lucy Peel’s Journal 1833-1836.’ Journal of the Canadian Historical Association Vol 10 (new series), 1999

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