From the Publisher
“Canada: A Portrait in Letters . . . is a lovely book . . . handsome and valuable.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Charlotte Gray has a knack of making Canadian history come alive. . . . With correspondents both famous and previously unknown, it’s uncanny how Gray always provides a clear social context for each letter writer.”
“Enthralling, thought-provoking and frequently moving . . . Canada: A Portrait in Letters should find a permanent home in most Canadian home libraries. . . . It is a celebration of the written word, of the now almost-forgotten joy of correspondence.”
“Gray’s is a wonderful collection of missives, both engagingly personal and historically noteworthy. . . . A gem, a colourful, compelling mosaic of a country’s history.”
—London Free Press (ON)
Read an Excerpt
Letters have a magic all their own. When my mail arrives each morning, the mere sight of a particular envelope addressed to me can induce a rush of expectation or foreboding. When I am sifting through someone else’s correspondence in an archive, I am mesmerized. Hours vanish as I dive into the unrequited passions, servant problems, sibling rivalries, or political ambitions of another life. I never know what angels or demons will be released as I open each envelope, but as I unfold its contents I know the plot will move on. Like locks of hair, letters encapsulate some essential element of the personality of whoever holds the pen. I can almost hear the writer speak to me, across time and distance. I am drawn into a conversation with an unseen and often unknown protagonist.
The physical heft of a personal signature or a handwritten page has a potency that no phone call or e-mail can match. One of the most unforgettable instances of this I know is the letter that arrived for the Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) in March 1898. In February, Pauline had attended her mother’s funeral in Brantford, Ontario. Now, two weeks later, she was startled to recognize her mother’s handwriting on the envelope. As she felt death approach, the elderly Emily Johnson had roused herself to write and mail a letter to her beloved daughter. When the fateful letter arrived, Pauline could only finger the envelope nervously. Months went by, and still she did not open it. Years passed, and it remained sealed. When Pauline died fifteen years after her mother, the letter was found, unread, tucked among Pauline’s brooches in her jewellery case. It signified Emily’s enduring presence in her daughter’s life part of a conversation that Pauline did not want to end.
Over the past months, as I selected the letters to include in this collection, I felt as though I was eavesdropping on history. It is not the conventional history of Canada, filled with nation-building heroes and great events. It is a history that goes in fits and starts, that speeds up in times of prosperity and slows down during periods of anguish. People write letters when they are separated from loved ones by emigration or wars, or when they are desperate for help in poverty and famine. They write letters when they are lonely, or in love. And for the most part, they write about the texture of their daily lives, rather than the achievements of politicians or leaders. I found no mention of Confederation in the private correspondence I discovered from 1867, but the arrival of the telegraph or the railway in a small community was always cause for comment. “History may intend to provide us with grand patterns and overall schemes,” Margaret Atwood once commented, “but without brick-by-brick, life-by-life, day-by-day foundations, it would collapse.” The letters in this volume capture that life-by-life, day-by-day reality.
But letters are more than a record of the past. A letter is rarely written with a view to posterity: instead, it captures the unique moment at which it is composed. The actual writing happens over a greater period of time than a conversation, allowing the writer to explore her thoughts or reflect on his circumstances. In September 1846, for instance, William Hutton, a successful farmer and schoolteacher near Belleville, Ontario, sat down to write to the mother he had left behind in Ireland years earlier. He mused about the dilemma common to immigrants: which is my country? “Dear Mother, A blessed day of rest amongst its many gratifications gives me that of writing home, a phrase, I suppose, we shall not forget till grandchildren scattered around shall cause us and our children to regard our own cottage as that sacred place.”
This is history as it is being made, spontaneous and unselfconscious. Listen to Lucy Maud Montgomery, telling a friend about her first major literary breakthrough in 1907: “Well, I must simply tell you my great news right off! To pretend indifference and try to answer your letter first would be an affectation of which I shall not be guilty . . . Last fall and winter I went to work and wrote a book. I didn’t squeak a word to anyone about it because I feared desperately I wouldn’t find a publisher for it. When I got it finished and typewritten I sent it to the L. C. Page Co. of Boston and a fortnight ago, after two months of suspense, I got a letter from them accepting my book and offering to publish it on the 10-per cent royalty basis!” We know about the significance of this moment, and the enormous success of Anne of Green Gables. But Lucy’s letter allows us to travel back in time and hear her as she stood on the brink of a brilliant career.
The mere act of putting pen to paper may be cathartic for a correspondent. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the mail service was so unreliable that early settlers had little confidence that their letters would reach their destinations. Yet they wrote letters in quantity: the volume of immigrant letters from this period is wonderful. It is as though a one-sided conversation with family back home eased the isolation of life in the backwoods. “My dear brother,” signed off John Capling in 1832, in a tragic letter to his brother in England in which he described the death from cholera of his wife and four of their eleven children soon after their arrival in Upper Canada. “Remember me to all relations, and all enquiring friends. I hope, by the blessing of God, you are all well, as I thank God it leaves me, and the remainder of my family, at present. I hope you will write to me, as soon as you can.” The intensity of John’s loneliness is overwhelming.
Writing a letter appears to offer a particular kind of personal therapy for those caught up in the uncontrollable circumstances of war. In 1916, young George Haddow unburdened himself to his family in Canada about the brutal fatigue of life in a military camp in England. He concluded his diatribe: “I feel like tearing this letter up now I have it finished, but I did that once before and it takes too much time to write them. When you can’t unload yourself of what occupies your mind about eighteen hours a day, you have to shoot off a little hot air somewhere.”
Similarly, in 1992, a Canadian peacekeeper in Sarajevo wrote to a correspondent in Nova Scotia: “I am really sorry as this is not a letter for anyone to read, but it helps to get it off my chest, as we don’t talk about it among the soldiers. I wouldn’t dare say this to my wife, so you are helping out a lot by reading this whether you realize it or not.” He desperately needed to record on paper the horrors of the Serbo-Croat conflict, as one way of working through his own confused emotions. Other, more literary types might have used a personal diary for these experiences, but this pragmatic young soldier required a friendly “ear.”
Not every letter is intended solely for personal consumption. I have included several letters to newspapers and a handful of official letters. These are public statements, geared to attracting general interest or provoking debate. Often the letter I have selected catches a stage of our history. In 1899, the Toronto Globe published an inquiry from a reader who recalled the clouds of passenger pigeons he saw during his boyhood in Ontario: “They would flock together by the thousands and after the young were able to fly they would return south until next spring; but where they are gone I would like to know.” Other times, a letter to the editor is a chance for an expert to correct a widely held false assumption. In 1987, Canada’s uncrowned master of the letter to the editor, the indefatigable Eugene Forsey, waded into the constitutional negotiations then under way: “The proposal for a ‘triple-E’ Senate (equal, elected, effective) includes provision for six senators from every province. That alone is enough to prove that it is just flailing the air, whistling in the wind, blowing soap bubbles.”