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Reviewed by:
  • A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: The Journals, Letters and Art of Anne Langton
  • Katherine M.J. McKenna (bio)
Barbara Williams , editor. A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: The Journals, Letters and Art of Anne Langton. University of Toronto Press. xxxvi, 436. $55.00

Anne Langton belongs to that small but noteworthy group of gentlewomen settlers of early Canada who recorded their literary reflections on backwoods life. Unlike her better-known counterparts such as Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Trail, she did not write for the public, and her letters and journals were only privately printed for the family. It was not until 1950, almost sixty years after her death, that her nephew Hugh Hornby Langton published the first version of A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada, now out of print. Since that time, Anne's original writings have disappeared.

Barbara Williams has rescued Anne Langton from obscurity with this new volume. She has improved upon Hugh Langton's efforts by assiduously uncovering what few documents remain and restoring many edited passages. Most of these deal with domestic and personal details that Hugh deemed too trivial but that are of interest for the social history of pioneer life in Upper Canada. Williams has also prefaced this new edition with a substantial essay introducing the story of the Langton family, the times they lived in, and Anne's life and works as an artist. This is clearly not only a scholarly work, but also a labour of love for Williams, who has written poetry in the voice of Anne Langton and gives public lectures on her life and art.

Anne Langton was born in 1804 into an upper-crust English family who had made their fortune in the hemp and flax trade. The Langtons spent almost six years touring the cultural centres of Europe to educate their children during Anne's teen years. The collapse of the family business in 1821 ended this charmed life, forcing them to live in seclusion in genteel poverty through Anne's marriageable years. She thus became the stereotypical Victorian middle-class spinster, condemned by convention to remain a dependent upon her family.

Anne, however, was exceptionally talented - not only as a writer but most especially as an artist. With her father's reluctant approval she was able, primarily through painting portraits, to finance her own needs and save a little money for her future. Williams is committed to staking Langton's claim as an artist in her own right and has curated an online exhibit of Anne's work for the Archives of Ontario (http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/english/on-line-exhibits/langton/index.aspx). [End Page 570] It is regrettable that none of the samples of her art in this volume are reproduced in colour.

Anne's journals and letters focus on the years 1836-46 following her migration with her aged parents and aunt to join her brother, John, in the Kawartha Lakes region. This was the 'Canada Project,' intended to be the final solution to their financial woes. Anne's journal was written for the family who remained in England and contains much fascinating detail. Given her deep familiarity with the sources, I was surprised that Williams comments so little on Anne's life as revealed through the journals. Helen Smith and Lisa Sullivan have persuasively argued in their 1995 Ontario History article that the pioneer experience was an empowering one for Anne and that her valued labour as mistress of the household and her community roles as nurse and teacher gave her a sense of self-worth and purpose not usually experienced by women of her class and marital status. After Anne's parents and aunt died, she returned to England and accepted a position as a teacher in a girls school. This plan was changed when her newly married brother John asked her to come back to Canada to help raise his growing family. Williams suggests in the absence of direct evidence that this life of domestic servitude was welcomed by Anne, but one wonders if that was truly the case. What is clear, however, is that she was a much-valued member of John's household until her...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 570-571
Launched on MUSE
2010-08-07
Open Access
No
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