Sisters in the Wilderness

The names of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill are now little mentioned except in literary circles or Canadian history classes, but in their day, they were household names on both sides of the Atlantic.  Susanna and Catharine were well-known authors in England before immigrating to Canada in 1832.  Both continued writing in Canada, describing their experiences as mothers trying to raise families in a new and strange country.  Charlotte Gray’s biography Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill  (1999, Penguin, ISBN 9780143168362) is an interesting and engaging look at these two women (which made me think that my life as a mom isn’t as hard as I thought!).

Charlotte Gray (centre) with Susanna and Catharine

Childhood: The Stricklands in England

Charlotte Gray begins the biography by introducing us to the two sisters in Canada, then takes us back to their growing-up years in England.  Catharine and Susanna were the youngest sisters of the Strickland family, a family Gray compares to Jane Austen’s—poor gentility.  All eight Strickland children were well educated and well read.  Five of the sisters and one of the sons would become published authors.

While the sisters turned to writing at first as a way to make a bit of money, it soon became a passion (completely opposite of my experience!).  Writing introduced them to London society and heady fame.  Catharine wrote children’s stories while Susanna wrote romances for popular magazines.  Then, just as Susanna seemed fated for spinsterhood like her sisters, love appeared in the form of handsome John Moodie.  Shortly after Susanna’s marriage to John, Catharine married John’s good friend Thomas Traill.

Immigration: The Moodies and Traills in Canada

Gray does an excellent job of providing background information to the story without overwhelming the reader with historical facts and details.  She explains the economy of the day in England, reasons for immigrating, and what conditions were like for the immigrants.  The Traills and Moodies were fortunate enough to have a bit of money to purchase cabins for the voyage across the ocean and to have a good start in Canada.

Immigration to Canada, however, did not turn out to be the magic solution that they hoped.  While Susanna and Catharine had a brother in Canada who was doing very well, they lacked his skills.  Poor money management soon meant that the Moodies were in debt.  Both sisters moved several times, seeking better opportunities and trying to escape debts.  For a time, they lived within a mile of each other and were able to offer companionship and assistance to each other.  As a mom, I could identify with this need for another mom to share your life with.

With money tight, both sisters returned to writing to make ends meet.  This time it was harder, as their publishers were in England.  In 1836, Catharine’s sisters in England helped her edit for publication The Backwoods of Canada.  It sold well, but made Catharine little money.  Susanna wrote for American magazines who were happy to have material from a famous Strickland sister.  In 1852, she also published her memoirs of immigration, Roughing It in the Bush.

Conclusion: A Place in History

Life never got easy for either the Traills or the Moodies.  Money problems plagued both families.  Susanna and Catharine wrote until their deaths, but made little money off their writing.  Fledgling Canadian publishers could pay little and they were too far from their English publishers to bargain for decent royalties as their sister did.  They did both receive fame and recognition in Canada for their work; Catharine, who outlived Susanna by fourteen years, became especially famous as Canada’s “oldest living author.”

Today, several of the sisters’ works are still in print.  Gray explains that “plenty of contemporary Canadians have shared the feelings [the sisters] captured on paper about emigration.” She provided an introduction to a 2006 Penguin edition of Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush.  The sisters’ other works and letters, and Catharine’s scrapbooks of native flowers, are in Canadian archives.  Their legacy to Canada lives on.

Charlotte Gray provides a very readable biography of the sisters.  For women interested in learning more about Catharine and Susanna, I recommend picking up a copy of their books, although they are much slower reading than Gray’s biography.  Susanna’s biography also includes some of her poetry.

For more about Charlotte Gray and her other biographies, visit her website.  For more about Susanna and Catherine, check out the Collections Canada website.

Bonnie Way (http://www.thekoalabearwriter.com) is a freelance writer, editor and blogger who enjoys encouraging and connecting with other moms online. She has three daughters (ages five, three, and three months) who keep her from spending too much time on the computer. When she’s not blogging or playing with her girls, she enjoys rock climbing, scrapbooking, and reading.

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7 Responses to Sisters in the Wilderness

  1. Elva Roberts says:

    May 31- I love Biographies and I love stories about life in pioneer days in Canada. Thank you for introducing these sisters to us as I was not aware of them. el03ro
    e.m.roberts@hotmail.com

  2. Shirley says:

    I would like to read that and learn more about the history of Canada.

  3. stephy905 says:

    I’ve never heard of these women before. I’d like to start reading biographies.

  4. rlee1950 says:

    thanks so much for introducing me to these remarkable women. love reading about this topic

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