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Susanna Moodie

by Charlotte Gray | January 24, 2005

Susanna Moodie: CanLit’s Matriarch

When Susanna Moodie sailed into the St. Lawrence in 1832, she was overwhelmed by the New World. Accustomed to the cosy villages, gentle streams and ancient churches of her native Norfolk, England, the 29 year old immigrant found the scale and emptiness of British North America almost too much to absorb. She clung to her six-month-old daughter Katie, and her husband John. John was a former soldier who had brought them across the Atlantic to take up a free land grant to which he was entitled in Upper Canada. “Cold, heart-weary and faint,” Susanna wrote, “I sat and cried.”

Those first years in the bush – felling trees, tilling the land, feeding themselves and their growing family, enduring failed harvests and harsh Canadian winters – were hard for the Moodies. Even harder for Susanna, however, was her struggle to maintain her identity as a writer. Before she left England, she was a well-known poet and novelist. As one of six well-educated sisters, five of whom were published writers, she had moved in stimulating literary circles in London.

Now she found herself in a country in which the immigrant population was thinly scattered over a harsh landscape, and in which the publishing industry was barely launched. Settled on a miserable, hard-scrabble farm on the banks of Lake Katchewanooka, near present-day Lakefield, she and John were two days journey from Toronto. Her only consolation was the presence in the neighbouring log cabin of her sister Catharine Parr, married to Thomas Traill, another former British army officer who had come to take up a land grant in the British colony.

Yet despite loneliness, poverty, exhaustion, and her fears of bears in the backwoods, Susanna stuck to her writing. When her children (five of her seven babies survived) were in bed, she would light an oil lamp or a resin-filled knot of pine, dip her steel-nibbed pen into home-made ink, and transform her life into literature – stories, poems and letters home. John, the husband she adored, was usually away, trying to boost family fortunes by filling administrative jobs with British troops charged with keeping the peace after the 1837 rebellion in Upper Canada. During the long dark, cold winters, Susanna was often able to feed her children only because of the generosity of her Chippawa Indian neighbours who would quietly leave a rabbit or bird on her doorstep.

In 1839, John finally managed to get a permanent job in Belleville, a prosperous little town on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Susanna packed up her few possessions, and waved goodbye to the backwoods cabin and her Indian friends. Once settled in Belleville, her writing career on this side of the Atlantic finally took off. She edited a new publication called The Victoria Magazine. And she sent off some of her scribblings from the past few years to a publisher in London, England. When they were published in 1852, under the title Roughing It in The Bush, the book became a bestseller in Britain, Canada and the United States. One year later, Life in The Clearings appeared, to favourable reviews.

Susanna Moodie never made much money from her writings: the wolf was always at the door in the Moodie household. But she was one of the very few British immigrants to Canada who recorded what life was like on the scattered pioneer farms in the early years of colonial settlement, three decades before Confederation. And she also established the character of the tough, resilient woman who survives against the odds, and who continues to crop up in novels by Canada’s best novelists – Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Jane Urquhart. It is a very different woman from the lady-like and often helpless female characters found in novels by English writers.

Susanna and John Moodie stayed in or near Belleville for the rest of their lives. They kept in close touch with Catharine Parr Traill, who also managed to keep writing despite her family responsibilities, but Susanna could never afford to return to England to visit her other four sisters. And she could not afford to give her own two daughters and three sons the excellent education that she herself had enjoyed in the Old Country. When John died in 1869, Susanna fell apart, and never wrote another word. But when she died in 1885, the leading newspaper of the day, The Globe, correctly predicted that her books would last “long after the landmarks with which they are associated will have disappeared.”

resources for this story
  • Sisters in the Wilderness, by CHARLOTTE GRAY, Viking Penguin | 1999
  • Roughing It in The Bush, by SUSANNA MOODIE, New Canadian Library
  • Sussana Moodie, Letters of a Lifetime, by BALLSTADT, HOPKINS and PETERMAN, eds., University of Toronto Press | 1985
  • This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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