Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill

by Charlotte Gray

In taking up the story of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, Charlotte Gray is dealing with material already familiar to many readers. However, by drawing extensively on their letters, she fills out the existing portraits, and deftly weaves them together. She shows how the sisters’ complementary personalities and common experiences forged the strong bond between them.

Yet her focus is not only on two sisters struggling for survival in the wilderness, but on two writers. Five of the six Strickland sisters became writers, and Gray contrasts the literary careers of the Canadian pair with those of the three who remained in England close to major publishers.

The literary star of the family was Agnes Strickland, acclaimed for her lives of the Queens of England. Researched in good libraries and in the private collections of stately homes, her biographies brought her not only a fortune but entrée into the highest social circles.

In contrast, Moodie and Traill found their material in their own hard lives, writing frankly about their bitter circumstances and deprivations. They depended on others to place their books with publishers and had no recourse if they were cheated. As a consequence, publication was endlessly postponed, and they received only a fraction of the royalties they deserved and desperately needed.

Most painful for Susanna Moodie was the disapproval of her subject matter. The reception of Roughing it in the Bush (similar to that of Wuthering Heights) was characterized by such words as “rude,” “crude,” and “savage.” Agnes, in particular, was mortified to think that the aristocratic friends she cultivated so assiduously should learn of her sisters’ hardscrabble lives. The resulting rift between them never healed.

The contrast between the author who is a celebrity in her own time but soon forgotten and the neglected writer whose works become classics is a recurring theme in the annals of literature. This version of it is one of the many delights of this superb biography.