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The Life Writings of Mary Baker McQuesten

Victorian Matriarch

Mary J. Anderson

Publication Year: 2004

How did a privileged Victorian matron, newly widowed and newly impoverished, manage to raise and educate her six young children and restore her family to social prominence?

Mary Baker McQuesten’s personal letters, 155 of which were carefully selected by Mary J. Anderson, tell the story. In her uninhibited style, in letters mostly to her children, Mary Baker McQuesten chronicles her financial struggles and her expectations. The letters reveal her forthright opinions on a broad range of topics — politics, religion, literature, social sciences, and even local gossip. We learn how Mary assessed each of her children’s strengths and weaknesses, and directed each of their lives for the good of the family. For example, she sent her daughter Ruby out to teach, so she could send her earnings home to educate Thomas, the son Mary felt was most likely to succeed. And succeed he did, as a lawyer and mpp, helping to build many of Hamilton’s and Ontario’s highways, bridges, parks, and heritage sites, and in doing so, bringing the family back to social prominence.

Mary Baker McQuesten was also president of the Women’s Missionary Society. The appearance, manner, and eloquence of various ministers and politicians all come under her uninhibited scrutiny, providing lively insights into the Victorian moral and social motivations of both men and women and about the gender conflicts that occurred both at home and abroad.

This book will satisfy many readers. Those interested in the drama of Victorian society will enjoy the images of the stern Presbyterian matriarch, the sacrificed female, family mental illness, the unresolved death of a husband, and the dangers of social stigma. Scholars looking for research material will find an abundance in the letters, well annotated with details of the surrounding political, social, and current events of the times.

Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Series: Life Writing

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xv

This book has a similar story to tell about its inception: One afternoon in 1988 I visited Whitehern Museum, located at 41 Jackson Street West, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. As I was graciously received at the front door by an attendant in period dress, I was immediately captivated by the floor-to-ceiling ...


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pp. xvi

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pp. xvii

I am grateful to Wilfrid Laurier University Press and SSHRC for the confidence they have shown in this book and for their assistance, both financial and technical, in bringing it to publication. I wish to thank my professors at McMaster University, Drs. Carl Ballstadt, Lorraine York, John Ferns, and Richard Morton, ...

McQuesten-Baker Family Tree (1675-1968)

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pp. xviii


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pp. xix-xx


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pp. xx-xxii

Part One: Mary Baker McQuesten’s Biography

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Mary Jane Baker’s Childhood

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pp. 3-7

Mary Jane Baker was born on 10 October 1849, in Brantford, Ontario, the only child of the second marriage of Commander the Reverend Thomas Baker (1796-1887) and his second wife Mary-Jane McIlwaine (1809-82). She later shortened her name to Mary Baker and, after marriage, always signed her letters “M. B. McQuesten.” ...

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Mary Baker’s Marriage to Isaac B. McQuesten

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pp. 7-10

Mary Baker and Isaac Baldwin McQuesten met formally in 1869 and they were married four years later, on 18 June 1873.2 Mary had broken off their engagement at least once (the reason likely was Isaac’s habitual use of alcohol) and he wrote in contrition: “My darling, it will be a lifelong wonder to me that you ...

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Mary Baker McQuesten’s Widowhood and Matriarchy: Six Children and Lives of Genteel Poverty

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pp. 10-14

With Isaac’s death, Mary’s story changes abruptly from one of privilege to relative impoverishment, as she became the single parent of six children between the ages of fourteen and three: Mary (fourteen), Calvin (twelve), Hilda (eleven), Ruby (nine), Thomas (six), Edna (three). Isaac had had the forethought to arrange ...

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The Restoration of the Family

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pp. 14-20

With Thomas’s income, the family finances finally began to improve a little, but the heavy bills for Edna and Ruby and for the maintenance of Whitehern continued. However, the McQuesten family was finally restored to political and social prominence by Thomas McQuesten, who eventually fulfilled his mother’s expectations ...

Part Two: Mary Baker McQuesten’s Work with the Presbyterian Missionary Societies

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Mary Baker McQuesten’s Work with the Presbyterian Missionary Societies

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pp. 23-29

In the passing of Mrs. McQuesten, the Presbyterian church has lost a devout and faithful daughter, and the mission field one who was ever on the alert to help the cause. Mrs. McQuesten’s advice, always considered and wise, was much sought on many matters, and in the organizations in which she was such a power ...

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Postcolonial Considerations

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pp. 30-33

There are obvious political aspects to the recovery of writings and they are essential for revisionist analysis and postcolonial considerations. Just as there are political aspects in the initial writing, the collected works will offer an even greater potential for political and historical comparison. ...

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Selections from Mary B. McQuesten’sMissionary Society Addresses

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pp. 33-48

And now let me try to enlist your sympathy, on the behalf of the women & children, in those heathen lands. I want each one of you to-day to picture herself as born in a heathen country, and not in our own Christian Canada. Remember, it was only the kind Providence of God, that made us Canadian women & not heathen ...

Part Three: The Victorian Narrative

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Mary Baker McQuesten’s Letters as Literature: A Victorian Narrative

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pp. 51-60

Proust’s reference to “materials for a work of literature” suggests the broad and inviting possibility of constructing narrative out of a broad range of documents such as personal letters, diaries, journals, photographs, oral histories, and, more recently, digital collections. All these forms are records of ...

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Personal Letters as Life Writing

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pp. 60-63

Marlene Kadar, in her collection Essays in Life Writing (1992), argues for the inclusion of letter writing within the genre of life writing. She notes that life writing as a term was popular “for a part of the eighteenth century, before the Greek and Latin rooted words ‘biography’ and ‘autobiography’ fell into current usage” ...

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The McQuestens and Their Victorian World

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pp. 64-72

Mary Baker McQuesten was among the most enlightened women of the Victorian and Edwardian age in Canada, yet she is little known. Although Mary never wrote for publication (few women did at that time) she was a “prolific and uninhibited letter writer“ (Farmer, CMQPW 13), an articulate public speaker, ...

Part Four: Mary Baker McQuesten’s Letters

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Letters 1873-1903

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pp. 75-120

But I have not time to write a lengthy epistle and therefore I must come at once to the point, which is to invite you to my wedding. We shall all be very glad to see you and in fact will be very disappointed if Isaac’s only brother is absent. It is to be a quiet affair, and therefore not very much inducement ...

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Letters 1904-1908

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pp. 120-176

Three weeks ago only to-day since Christmas and it seems like as many months. This week has been occupied with meetings till I feel sometimes like running away. Monday was invited by Mrs. Sanford with a few ladies to afternoon tea to meet a Miss McKinney who is here in the interests of a mission to India ...

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Letters 1909-1934, Eulogy by Rev. Beverley Ketchen

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pp. 177-234

The box and trunk arrived in good shape. I hope to send off your parcel to-morrow. The weather keeps wonderfully mild and the snow keeps off, which saves the snow cleaning for me, but it is hard on the unemployed. Had two letters from Ruby which you can send on to Tom, but return the photos to me, ...


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pp. 235-238


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pp. 239-318


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pp. 319-324


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pp. 325-337

E-ISBN-13: 9780889205413
Print-ISBN-13: 9780889204379
Print-ISBN-10: 0889204373

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2004

Series Title: Life Writing