‘A Life of Propriety’ by Katherine M. J. McKenna

Katherine M.J. McKenna A Life of Propriety: Anne Murray Powell and her Family 1755-1849 , Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994 , 260 p. & notes

Judges’ wives don’t tend to get much of a look-in in the judicial biographies written about their husbands. As you might expect, in such books the emphasis is on the judge and his interactions on the bench and amongst his judicial peers and government officials.  The wife and children- if they are acknowledged at all- tend to cluster off-stage in the folds of the curtains.

Not so in this book, which consciously focuses on Anna Murray Powell, the wife of  Chief Justice William Dummer Powell, of the Kings Bench Upper Canada. It was her husband’s position that gave Anna Powell her own prominence within York (Toronto) society, but I suspect that she would have been the subject of biography in any event.  The Powell family were prolific letter-writers, and more importantly, the letters were saved and now are scattered between archives in Ottawa, Toronto, Boston, New York and Washington.  Anne herself generated about 2,500 pages of letters alone, written over a span of 50 years, most particularly to her brother George Murray in New York.  These are rich letters for the social historian- full of family news and waspish commentary about York society- and they provide a solid basis for a study of Anna Powell and her family in her own right, not just as the wife of the Chief Justice.

Anna Murray Powell was born in Wells, England in 1755 to parents of a middle class background.  She emigrated at the age of 16 with her Aunt Elizabeth, who had herself emigrated to the New World at the age of thirteen and established a thriving millinery business in Boston.  On a trip back ‘home’, Aunt Elizabeth was horrified by the new ideals of middle-class female domesticity becoming popular in England, which did not sit well with her own ideas about female independence and business activity.  She did not have children of her own, and as seemed to be common at the time, ‘adopted’ her nieces and brought them back to Boston to manage her business.  What might have been a good solid business experience for a young man was greeted by Anne and her sister with reluctance and resentment.  She was mortified by working in ‘trade’ and she carried this sensitivity about her pre-marriage working life throughout her life, and indeed it may have contributed directly to the stiff-necked and inflexible ‘propriety’ that she demanded of her family, and all other York inhabitants in her social circle.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I ‘Learning and Living the Lessons of Propriety’ is largely biographical, tracing Anne’s childhood and adolescence, prolific childbearing years (nine births) and her establishment of her status within York society.  The narrative then bifurcates into a gender-based analysis of her family relations.  Part II ‘The Intersections of Male and Female Gender Roles’ examines Anne’s relationship with the men in the family: husband, brothers and sons.  Part III ‘The Transmission of Female Gender Roles’ examines education, marriage and childbirth within women’s lives in Upper Canada, and closes with a fascinating analysis of the lives of her three daughters.  Part IV ‘Conclusion’ deals with her life as widow and elderly matriarch- an aspect of women’s lives that is often dismissed in a few sentences- a life-stage which, as we (I) embark on an increasingly-lengthened old age will probably attract more historical scrutiny than it may have received in the past.

The book draws heavily on Barbara Welter’s 1966 article ‘The Cult of True Womanhood’ (American Quarterly, 18, 1966 p.151-74), a fairly dated article for such a recent book, and a choice that was questioned by several of the reviewers I have read.  McKenna cites Davidoff and Hall’s Family Fortunes, but it is the True Womanhood trope that she returns to most often.

Despite Anne’s strict insistence on ‘propriety’ and her incorporation of it into her own identity, you have to admit that her children were a bit of a disappointment.  The ‘good’ sons tended to die tragically, leaving the family with the duds.  Among her daughters, there was one ‘good’ daughter who trumped her mother in the fertility stakes, popping out ten children in an alarming succession. Another daughter remained the unmarried maiden aunt, a companion to her mother and built-in helpmate to her spawning sister.  The most fascinating chapter was that concerning the ‘unnatural’ daughter, Anne Murray Powell Junior.  It is  a very nineteenth-century take on the difficulties with parenting a wilful and troubled adolescent daughter.  The story of Anne Jnr.’s infatuation with John Beverley Robinson, the future attorney-general, has been told by other historians, but I suspect not with the sensitivity that McKenna brings to the situation.  It all ends tragically, and although the expectations and language of these unyielding 19th ‘pillars of society’ in their treatment of their daughter might not sit well with us today, the experience of parenting, loving, and losing transcends these differences.

Anne Murray Powell’s voice through her letters to her family is strong, censorious and inflexible.  Her letters are laced with a religious sentimentality which does not quite cover the snippiness, complaint and smugness that she expresses in almost the same breath.  Through the richness of the family archive, and through McKenna’s own insightful treatment, you feel as if you have been in the presence of a formidable woman.  I think I prefer her at a distance.

Sourced from : La Trobe University Library

Read because: it’s set in York at a time very close to my own research interest.

 

 

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2 responses to “‘A Life of Propriety’ by Katherine M. J. McKenna

  1. Not connected with this post. I just wanted to say that I continue to emjoy your writing.

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