- Sisters in Two Worlds: A Visual Biography of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill
Most striking about this book is not its well-woven biographies of Catharine Parr Traill (1802–1899) and Susanna Moodie (1803–1885)—Michael Peterman has digested his previously published research into a text suitable for a general audience—but rather its visual appearance. In shape and modest length, Sisters in Two Worlds resembles a colour-filled modern version of the Victorian family album. A remarkably pretty and affectionate book, in one fell swoop it compensates for the ugliness of many of the volumes that Traill and Moodie saw published in their lifetimes, the elder’s Canadian Wild Flowers (1868) and Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885) being the obvious exceptions.
Biography lends itself to the visual representation of places and personages in the old world and the new that these sisters and their families inhabited. In 1832, they immigrated to Upper Canada from Suffolk, England, on different ships, Traill aged thirty and a month married, Moodie aged twenty-eight, married a year, and the mother of one daughter. For scholars looking for further insights into these women’s lives and literary careers, this book will be a disappointment, for the text chiefly rehearses what has been offered previously in different forms. But scholars are not [End Page 233] this book’s choice of reader; rather, its ideal reader seems to be the history buff eager for an introductory-level rendition of history and literary history—simple, straightforward, with discursive endnotes but no citations after quotations or references.1 As sketch is to story, this “visual biography” is to biography. Although it is understandable that Margaret Atwood’s poetic portrait would haunt any would-be biographer of Moodie just as Rudy Wiebe’s fictional portrait of Big Bear would haunt any historian, the brief portraits of her and her sister that Peterman has already provided in other genres and decades are not advanced here; Atwood’s portrait not challenged. And one cannot but wonder why.
In the decades during which Peterman has been working on Moodie and Traill, the editorial work by Kathryn Carter (The Small Details of Life ) and other early-Canadianists to treat the writings of Frances Stewart, Lady Simcoe, Anne Langton, and many diarists now demands that these two sisters be read contextually. The era when independent treatments can contribute meaningfully to discussions of them has passed. Some of those women succeeded splendidly in the settings that defeated the Moodies and Traills, but in which their younger brother Samuel Strickland (1805–1867), who emigrated seven years before them, thrived with the help of three successive wives. Peterman helpfully profiles the brother’s success, but he does not offer a sustained treatment of his two subjects as people or as writers of more published literature than anyone else in Upper Canada except Major John Richardson; rather, he contents himself with suggestion. Tantalizing topics, such as the piracy by U.S.-American publishers of the women’s books, are mentioned several times—Peterman claims that the U.S.-American sales of Roughing it in the Bush rivaled those of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (125)—but not followed up. Moodie’s relationship with London publisher Richard Bentley is described, but one is left wondering if it is exceptional or if Bentley treated other authors of settler narratives similarly. And so on.
Because Peterman stays at the level of chronicle and of suggestion, no deeper discussion dissects the idea that the failure of the women’s father to become a squire and raise genteel children predictably doomed Traill and Moodie to colonial fates in a settler culture with husbands incapable of [End Page 234] or unsuited to menial work, tangled up in a frustrating existence between two worlds. But was it not Moodie’s husband rather than her father who set her on her course to Upper Canada? In a wider sense, after...