- Emigration, Nation, Vocation: The Literature of English Emigration to Canada 1825–1900
Emigration is a deeply personal act. It is an act, however, that does not take place in a vacuum. The decision to emigrate is influenced by the stories emigrants hear and by the literature—fiction and non-fiction—that they read. In these ways and others, the experience is framed by the prevailing ideas of the day. Carter F. Hanson seeks to explain this milieu through an examination of middle-class understandings of work and, more specifically, of vocation in the context of nineteenth-century emigration from England to Canada.
Hanson notes that he became interested in what “middle-class Victorians thought of emigrating to Canada and working there” after reading George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) (ix). He was particularly struck by the dilemma faced by a minor character, Rex Gascoigne, who, after being spurned by Gwendolen, longs to leave his Oxford studies behind for a hard-working rural life on the Canadian frontier. Gascoigne realises, however, that this desire would highlight his own failure, as he should not so easily want to be separated from his “old ties” (qtd. in Hanson ix).
The dilemma facing Gascoigne was all too familiar in nineteenth-century Britain. On the one hand, emigration seemed to offer an opportunity for those in the overcrowded middle classes to retain their genteel position. But was it actually possible to remain a gentleman on the Canadian frontier? This dilemma, Hanson shows, was a common concern of writers, present in both fictional accounts of Canada (written both in England and Canada) and settler autobiographies.
Compared with other emigrant destinations, Canada did not attract the interest of writers of fiction, with juvenile religious fiction being the notable exception. Hanson suggests that “the colony’s perceived lack of exotic attributes stymied English literary interest in Canada” (1). Its relative proximity made it too familiar, and it did not have Australia’s convict origins to provide characters with a path toward redemption. Consequently, Hanson is drawn to explore how writers made Canada more appealing to potential middle-class English emigrants.
To be “English” is to embody certain qualities and, as Hanson uncovers, these qualities shifted in emphasis over the course of the nineteenth century. Although focusing on a relatively small selection of writings, Hanson manages to traverse a wide sweep of the literature on nineteenth-century Canada, ranging across the genres of domestic, adventure, juvenile, and religious fiction as well as biography. Through his reading of these works, he detects distinct changes in how the emigration of the English middle class was depicted and made palatable to prospective emigrants.
The retention of a class structure is at the heart of Hanson’s discussion of pre-1870 emigration to Canada. In literary representations of migration, the desire of middle-class English emigrants tends to be to maintain the sense of superiority over the working classes they had enjoyed at home. In their efforts to do so, they are seen to have drawn on a strong sense of duty and vocation, which helped stabilise their social status. Their endeavour found support in the fashionable colonisation theories of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, which proposed land be sold at a sufficiently high price to ensure that working-class migrants were prevented from purchasing it immediately on [End Page 129] arrival. It was a system intended to provide a ready pool of labourers (assisted emigration would also be funded through land sales) and preserve a stratified social structure (although I was surprised by Hanson’s specific reference to the implementation of this plan in New South Wales, for South Australia and New Zealand were more truly Wakefieldian progeny).
The centrality of land to status was also reflected and examined in the writings of Catharine Parr Traill, Frederick Marryat, and Elizabeth Hely Walshe. Yet in the colonies where all classes had the potential to own land, the middle class maintained its distinctive status in that its migration was paternalist in...