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Heirs, Apparently: Nation-Building in Isabella Valancy Crawford’s Winona
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Winona; or, The Foster Sisters, only recently reprinted for the first time since its serialized appearance in 1873, is one of Isabella Valancy Crawford’s first publications. Editors Len Early and Michael A. Peterman, in their extensive introduction to the 2007 edition, detail the novel’s origins in a contest promoting Canadian national identity. Winona won this competition asking for a “quintessentially Canadian story” (52) to be “formed on Canadian history, experience and incident” (25). The novel “appeared serially in twelve installments from 11 January to 29 March 1873 in The Favorite, which was, like its predecessor The Hearthstone, a weekly ‘story paper’ ” (10), one of many short-lived publications of its kind and time interested in bolstering Canadian national spirit (23–24). Early and Peterman explain that Crawford was writing in “an unsupportive Canadian literary milieu” (15) and, after the story paper defaulted on its cash prize for Winona, Crawford “direct[ed] her fiction almost exclusively to an American market” (30). Winona, then, presents an important opportunity to consider the place of Canadian settlement and nation-building in the work of this canonical Canadian writer. This paper examines inheritance in Winona as it suggests a conception of merited belonging in early Canada.

Winona falls into a genre typical of the story paper context in which it first appeared—the Victorian sensation novel. Along with an emphasis on popular appeal, the sensation novel also presented a challenge to reigning cultural conceptions. As Winona’s editors explain, the sensation novel was involved in the debate about the “so-called ‘woman question’—the controversy over women’s nature and place in society” (37). Lyn Pykett, examining the sensation novel, women writers, and representations of women in nineteenth-century society, writes that sensationalist writing combined several “dominant female forms of the early nineteenth century,” including “domestic realism” in such a way as to challenge women’s “prescribed social and familial roles” (6). For Early and Peterman, “With its climatic triple wedding, Crawford’s novel certainly reinforces the most conservative of ‘solutions’ for women in nineteenth-century Canada and in the world of nineteenth-century fiction,” but Winona’s “status as ‘Indian’ … permits her contravention of the normative femininity represented in all the other women” (42). Yet, ultimately, this potential challenge to dominant roles is undermined in Winona. In this family, the wife is settled into the domestic, the “Indian” is excluded as outsider, Winona reinforces these conservative roles, and Winona (the text as a whole) reinforces their prominence in its narrative.

In this narrative featuring—as Ailsa Kay argues in “Sensation and Civility: Protecting the Confederation Family in Isabella Valancy Crawford’s Winona; Or, the Foster-Sisters” (1)—a family that is itself a confederation representing various Canadian identities, a significant aspect of Winona is its anticipation of Crawford’s ongoing exploration of Canada as nation. In particular, the editors note, “a passage on pioneering (134–35) looks forward to the central ‘nation-building’ passages of both ‘Malcolm’s Katie’ and Hugh and Ion” (34). While Crawford continues to consider nation building in her later, most well-known works, she had also been investigating the theme since her earliest writings. Margot Dunn examines the “fairy stories” which Crawford seems to have written in her late childhood or teenage years (19), finding this work to “show the roots of her optimism about the growing civilization of Canadian society” (27). Dunn also finds in this early writing that “Crawford’s presentation of the idea of the woman (or female principle) holding the world together and the man (or male principle) venturing forth to other worlds translates into a study of the Victorian family situation, not very changed a century later” (29). This combined interest in the family and the nation is important in considering Winona’s family-as-nation as well as the demonstration of a particular conception of belonging and entitlement that I find in Crawford’s depiction of the early Canadian nation.

While Dunn notes Crawford’s optimism about Canadian nation building, Early and Peterman point to the critical disagreement surrounding Crawford’s later stance on settlement (13). In Winona, this ambiguity is most evident in Winona’s position in the story...


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