I found this rather obscure book (to Americans) in a used bookstore in Chicago…in the Canadian edition (pictured above), no less…and at a discount because it had been on the shelf more than a year. The cover confused me, and I wasn’t sure it was really going to grab me. Maybe the cover isn’t that descriptive because Canadians know who Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill were? I don’t know. Anyway, the back cover alludes to the fact that the women lived in the Canadian wilderness and that they wrote, but still, it doesn’t give you much.
I think I really decided to read it because I realized that it is rather an obscure find (in the U.S.), and since I’m cheap, I’ll be honest, after a quick check of my phone, I realized that I would have difficulty finding it for less than the roughly $6 I paid.
Why You Should Read about the Canadian Wilderness
Although this book is a slow read at first, I found it intriguing on several levels.
First, I don’t know that much about British Canada, and as an American it’s interesting to see the parallels between the development of Canada as a nation (if not yet a state) and the United States…because certainly if we had lost the Revolutionary War, our path would have been much the same.
The sisters and their extended families also made a unique contribution to Canadian literature not so much for the quality of what they wrote…I don’t think…but because they actually managed to record a unique time and place when few, if any, others were able to do it. Susanna Moodie mostly focused on writing about people, which her sister, Catharine Parr Traill, focused on recording the natural world around her, and world that had already started to disappear by the time the sisters died.
The two sisters profiled in this book are also interesting in that they represent two of five sisters, four of whom writers. So not only does their story allow us to follow the development of Canada, we also get to compare the professional paths of the two sisters who remained in England to the two sisters who emigrated.
Women’s Drive to Write
Finally, to me this story asks questions about the drive to write, particularly in women. Feminine literature makes much of the “silences” born by all the women who would have written if they first, were allowed to be literate, and second, were not “burdened” by other concerns. But both Traill and Moodie continued to write while both raising large families in wilderness. Yes, it’s true, as the book asserts, that both women were struggling to make ends meet. It’s also true that both women were smart enough to figure out that they were never going to make it as writers, under their circumstances in Canada. The publishing market in Canada was fledging. The sisters were forced to rely on markets in the United States and the U.K., both of which were rife with pirating of literature at the time.
There is the side story of Susanna’s daughter, Agnes, who, when faced with the unexpected death of her husband and goes to great lengths to successfully produce an illustrated plant book, only to give up her work completely when she marries again.
Does Making Money Demean Writing?
So would Moodie and Traill continued to write if the didn’t “have” to? Or was it something deeper?
You may know that many women started writing in the late 19th century because it was supposedly one of the few ways that women could make money. However, it’s important to qualify that statement: It was one of the few ways for women of a certain class to make money. Their literacy was, in fact, their most marketable skill.
Ironically, because they were early settlers in Canada, both sisters developed skills that might have been more marketable than writing. There was still the class thing, yes, but was that in their minds more than in reality? Or did they really want to write?
It just seems way too pat to me to say that women wrote because “they had to make money”, when men could write for any number of reasons.
Reading about the Canadian Wilderness in the U.S.
Regardless, Sisters in the Wilderness is fascinating on several levels. It’s an unusual story about colonial Canada and a very unusual look at the development of Canadian literature. This story makes me think about “The Road Less Taken” because you get to follow the paths of two different writing pairs, one in the U.K. and one in North America.
Check out this vintage interview with Charlotte Gray with more details about this story here: Roughing it with Moodie and Traill
If you are in the United States, you aren’t going to find Sisters in the Wilderness outside of a university library. You can find nearly all of the sisters’ original work in e-editions, for free.
Susanna Moodie was known for about writing about people, while her sister Catharine was known as more of a naturalist who wrote about nature and plants.
Moodie’s most famous book is Roughing it in the Bush.
You can find free open source copies of this and other writings by Moodie at Project Gutenberg Canada here.
Catharine Parr Traill
This version of Traill’s famous guide for living in the Canadian wilderness is available at full price, with updates, in the edition below. You can find perhaps more difficult to read versions for download if you look around.
This book would make a great gift for the right person!
This is Traill’s most famous work in her lifetime.
The three books below are known for the beautiful illustrations such as the ones below, that were done by Traill’s niece and Susanna Moodie’s daughter, Agnes Moodie Fitzgibbon Chamberlain. Sudden widowhood left Fitzgibbon in sudden need of funds…which ended when she married Chamberlain.
While Traill’s legacy is of a naturalist, she also wrote Canadian adventures for children. The most famous of these is Canadian Crusoes.
Free downloads of some of these books, and others, can be found at Project Gutenberg Canada, here.
Samuel Strickland was the brother who Moodie and Traill joined when they emigrated to Canada. He wrote his own account of his life there.
A free download of this book with no log in is available at Project Gutenberg Canada, here.