- The Life Writings of Mary Baker McQuesten
She gazes out at the world from page 235, an alert and candid-looking individual, natural face and hairstyle contrasting with the imposing lace collar and high-necked gown of the proper Victorian Canadian. Here, one suspects, is a witness who will give a straight and sensible, if perhaps acerbic, account of that period of dizzying change between when the [End Page 312] protagonist graduated from Toronto Ladies' Collegiate Institute in 1868 and her death in 1934. Away with the horses and corsets; bring on the motor-car and the Great War! What the hundred and fifty letters (hundreds more on a website) of Mary Baker McQuesten lack in style, they make up for in intelligent observation. McQuesten and her family followed the passage of the years, always interested in religion, reform, health, nature, culture, the Royals, education, and travel. While illuminating those topics, the book throws back the lace curtains of the Victorian mansion to show us how those big families actually got along. Husband Isaac died (a rumoured alcoholic and suicide) leaving six children under fifteen; Mary Baker McQuesten struggled for twenty years to restore the family finances and reputation. With most letters between the widow and two sons away at school or work, the collection is particularly revealing of that bond.
One might deal first with the business of high necks and stiff lace. M.B. McQuesten (as she signed her name) was a pillar of Hamilton's McNab Street Presbyterian Church and its female Missionary Society (later joining the provincial executive). She helped found Hamilton's YWCA, crusaded in the 1902 Ontario Temperance Referendum, and inspected the now infamous Residential Schools. Staunchly anti-Catholic, she repeated hoary myths (current since Maria Monk's lurid 1830s 'revelations') that Montreal nunneries existed to service priests sexually, Montreal orphanages to care for their bastards. M.B.M. was on the losing side of the 1920s battle for Union of the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches and for acceptance of Higher Criticism of the Bible ('poisonous,' she called one preacher's advice that certain passages be taken literally only by children). The volume contains a few excerpts from McQuesten's speeches to missionary meetings lamenting members' preference to stay home with laundry. One can see why. Occasionally they liven up with impassioned pleas for widows buried alive and impressive statistics on how many could be saved - with more funding and less ironing! Involved in perennial battles of control of the substantial missionary funds raised by women, McQuesten protested 'the nonsense of government of the Church by men' - who skipped major meetings to play golf! She turned away at least one daughter's suitor because he drank (all six children remained single). This was a reflective Presbyterian conscience though: she later questioned her interference. Family appreciation of environmental influences on morality also underlay their commitment to the City Beautiful movement. Operating on a tier below other reformers such as suffragist Nellie McClung (a fellow critic of the Great War), parliamentarian Agnes McPhail, and WCTU leader Laetitia Youmans, Mary Baker McQuesten represents many a tireless local activist affected by maternal feminist convictions that women must clean up the mess men had made of society, for the sake of everybody's children.
The McQuestens knew that charity began at home. As a young widow M.B.M. carefully assessed the potential of each of her six offspring. The [End Page 313] eldest boy, Calvin, was mentally and physically frail. He received most of her twice-weekly missives, as he limped from a stalled journalism career to unsuccessful homesteading to a precarious ministry. One brilliant daughter, before dying of tuberculosis, taught and financed schooling for athletic young Tom. As a lawyer, Tom would eventually replenish the family fortunes. His mother called him 'Tomsie' and 'Dear Tomity.' He repaid her affection by attributing to her love of beauty his own work as parks commissioner to bring the Botanical Gardens, High Level Bridge, and other attractions to Hamilton. Her epistles dispensed advice on rooming arrangements, reading...