This biography of Sarah Jameson Craig (1840–1919) illuminates a remarkable set of experiences that deserve fuller recognition in Canada's cultural history. Joanne Findon, Sarah's great-granddaughter and an English professor at Trent University, has drawn on Sarah's diaries and other family documents to bring us the colourful and unpredictable narrative of one woman's quest for betterment during the second half of the nineteenth century. By following the course of one life, this book shows how the threads of people's ideas and social communities interact across boundaries, thus countering the frequency with which scholars tend to impose national or provincial borders on their analysis of the past, or highlight one particular line of activity. Sarah's simultaneous participation in radical dress reform, alternative health movements, temperance, and Utopian Christianity highlights the porousness of conventional categories, while her personal story presents a remarkable account of determination and survival.
Sarah Jameson was raised in rural poverty in New Brunswick, in the parish of St. Patrick, where rapidly growing families struggled to make a living through subsistence farming, lumbering, and ship-building across the border in Maine. Her parents' insistence on literacy inspired their eldest daughter to plan to become a writer; at the age of fourteen she tried to leave home to pursue a literary career and two years later she had two poems published in the local newspaper. At the age of seventeen, she rejected the standard form of clothing for women and adopted a "reform dress" of loose trousers under a knee-length tunic that she would insistently wear for many decades. At nineteen, she married a cousin who shared her interest in reform movements linked with Christianity; these included the water-cure (hydropathy), the formation of self-sufficient communities of people with like-minded intellectual and spiritual interests, and the temperance movement. Despite continual poverty and recurring disasters, Sarah's energy and optimism seemed boundless as she bore thirteen children in twenty-two years, nine of whom survived into adulthood. After the death of her husband in 1886, she attempted to fulfill her dream of joining a Utopian colony by moving her family to New Jersey, [End Page 177] but the settlement soon failed. Sarah and her younger children then joined family members in Ontario before moving west in 1901 with sons who took up homesteads in Saskatchewan. She spent her last years in British Columbia's Okanagan region, where her sons turned to the more prosperous occupation of fruit farming. During her later years, Sarah published a family memoir in a volume on The Jamesons in America (1901) as well as several poems.
To contextualize Sarah's life and ideas, Findon brings us into a complex environment of nineteenth-century reform movements, showing us the perspective of farming-class participants who advocated impossible ideals and contributed to the newsletters that supported their causes. While many feminists believed in discarding the constraints of Victorian corsets and fulsome skirts, few did so as insistently as Sarah. She raised her children as strict vegetarians and practiced the water-cure therapy in her community, possibly achieving better outcomes than those produced by the standard prescriptions of backwoods medicine. Women from Sarah's cultural and social milieu are rarely portrayed in such detail because they seldom preserve their experiences as consistently and eloquently as she did in her diaries, which are quoted frequently. Forever "urging the cause along and seeking our Eden," to cite her words that give this book its title, Sarah finally achieved a degree of contentment and a house of her own in Rutland, British Columbia, pictured in one of the many family photographs that enhance this engaging volume.