27 December 2010

Roughing it in the Bush

I've been meaning to read Susanna Moodie's 1852 account of her early years in Canada for years now, ever since I first heard about it. She emigrated from England to Ontario in 1832 and spent the first eight years here farming, first near Cobourg and then north of Peterborough. After that time, her husband was appointed Sheriff of Hastings County and the family moved to Belleville. Roughing it in the Bush describes the family's experiences in their attempts at farming. Most of the book was written by Susanna, with a few chapters by her husband, John.

The Moodies emigrated almost exactly 175 years before we did, so the book was sure to be interesting, in seeing how things had changed for new emigrants in all that time. As someone with a fairly strong interest in history, I thought I would be bound to enjoy it. I was disappointed. There were some interesting details about household and farming life in the mid-nineteenth (I had no idea you could make coffee from roasted dandelion roots, for example), but the overwhelming impression I gained was of Susanna Moodie's strong sense of entitlement and even stronger sense of self-pity. I found her irritating in the extreme. For example:

My husband and I had worked hard in the field; it was the first time I had ever tried my hand at field-labour, but our ready money was exhausted...and there was no help for it. I had a hard struggle with my pride before I would consent to render the least assistance on the farm

In the end, the best part of the book was towards the end of it (I'm glad I persevered), when she talks about Prince Edward County a little (having moved to Belleville - whose population was 4,554 at this point). Suddenly her tone changes completely and it's like reading one of today's local business development brochures. Here's what she had to say about the County:

Large quantities of wheat and other farm produce are transported over the ice to Belleville from the neighbouring county of Prince Edward, which is an exceedingly propserous agricultural settlement, yielding wheat of the finest quality, and particularly excellent cheese and butter. The scenery on the shores of Prince Edward is exceedingly picturesque, and there are numerous wharfs at short distances, from whence the farmers roll their barrels of flour and other articles on board the steamers on their way to market. I have seen no scenery in Upper Canada presenting the same variety and beauty as that of the shores of Prince Edward in particular...Certain it is, that more quiet, industrious, and prosperous settlers, are not to be found in the Province.

I particularly liked her description of the local women-folk:

The counties of Hastings and Prince Edward are celebrated for female beauty, and nowhere can you see people in the same class more becomingly attired. At the same time there is nothing rustic about them, except genuine good nature and unaffected simplicity of manners. To judge by their light elastic step and rosy smiling countenances, no people on earth seem to enjoy a greater share of health and contentment.

I'm going off now, to try to perfect my light elastic step.

1 comment:

Esther Montgomery said...

Oh, if only we could all step elastically!