- Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1780-1870: A View from Diaries and Family Correspondence
In the historiography of the British North American middle class, with a few exceptions there has been little attempt to analyse the affective and subjective dimensions of this group of men and women or to explore those locations in colonial society where private and public intersected, where domesticity interacted with community, and where men, women, and children carved out interstitial spaces that provided much of British North America's social fabric. Thus Françoise Noël's Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1780-1870 is a welcome addition to the field. Based on a careful reading of over thirty collections of family papers, the majority unpublished, Noël's book explores the meanings of family; courtship; the emotional ties that developed between husbands and wives, parents and children; and the family's relationship to the community. The subjects of this study were francophone and anglophone, rural and urban, Catholic [End Page 269] and Protestant (and of varying denominations within that latter category), and, in the case of Lower Canada's Abraham Joseph, Jewish.
In clearly written narratives that stay close to the letters and diaries, Noël gives us detailed pictures of how her subjects experienced daily, domestic life. Despite the larger structures and institutions that provided the formal framework for gender- and age-based inequalities within families, such frameworks do not appear to have dictated the tenor of familial relations. In Noël's book, with few exceptions, family life was governed by notions of companionate relationships between husbands and wives, nurturing concern for children's emotional well-being and future prospects, and care for aging, physically and mentally fragile parents. To be sure, her research turned up a few instances of marriages that seemed less affectionate than others, and a case where the ill-treatment of children by paid caregivers may have been tacitly condoned by their father; however, such examples are few and far between in this book. The third (and, for me, the most interesting) part of the book, 'Kinship and Community,' examines the extensive social networks, such as kinship and friendship ties, that, even over widely dispersed geographic areas, were crucial to families' surviving and thriving. Noël points out that 'family celebrations, visiting, acts of mutual assistance and reciprocity, and correspondence' helped create and maintain 'kinship and community links'; 'much of family life,' she observes, 'took place beyond the front door.' In contrast with the northeastern United States, though, she did not find that occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas had undergone a transformation into publicly observed markers of domesticity; along with birthdays and wedding anniversaries, these events tended to be observed quietly or hardly at all (New Year's, however, was a different matter). Funerals were less a means of allowing family members to express their grief publicly than social events, marked by religious ritual and community participation.
Family Life and Sociability, with its clear prose style and thoughtful use of illustrations, could well appeal to a readership outside of scholars of British North America. However, Noël's close focus on the diaries and letters is both a strength and a weakness: a strength because she takes great pains to respect the thoughts and subjectivities of her subjects as expressed in their pages but a weakness because the expression of those thoughts and subjectivities might not have been confined only to those sources. For example, Noël does not explore or even speculate if or how the wide range of cultural materials that was becoming integral to the middle-class cultured subject (which some, such as the Moodies, were actively engaged in producing) might have affected conceptions of domesticity or helped such people understand the meanings of affection and sentiment. While she notes that their diaries and letters are a better indicator of their [End Page 270] thoughts about family than prescriptive literature, novels...