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  • Far-Flung Families and Transient Domesticity:Missionary Households in Metropole and Colony
  • Esme Cleall (bio)

Children dear! Don’t set your young hearts too fondly on this old home—for amidst such changes are everywhere [in] S. Africa we can scarcely help dreading or expecting some change and uprooting for ourselves— and alth’ [sic] it is painful to feel this when we have become so fond of our home, yet we must think little of that if, by all these painful processes changes everywhere, God’s kingdom is to come.

—Elizabeth Lees Price, The Journals of Elizabeth Lees Price (1856)

So wrote Elizabeth Price from her home in turbulent late nineteenth-century Bechuanaland to her children at school in Britain. The wife and daughter of evangelical missionaries, the mother to fourteen children, and a prolific correspondent, Price used copious letters to grapple with the traumas of frequent domestic upheavals and lengthy separations and to hold together her geographically disparate family. Terrified that while in England, her daughters would turn into “fastidious ladies,” contemptuous of the “rough” missionary life of their parents and alienated from her, their mother, she urged them to identify with and imaginatively evoke their “old home” (326, 307). But as the geopolitical situation once again led to upheaval, Price also started to prepare her children for the possibility that this “old home,” like many others before it, might be lost.

Across the empire, British missionaries strove to use their families as “object lessons” for indigenous people to imitate, suggesting they embodied an idealized form of the Victorian family, structured around a companionate patriarchal marriage, with providing parents and dutiful children living together in a “civilized” private home (Langmore 84–89). But many missionary families, the Prices’ included, found that coloniality posed many challenges to such a model (see Cleall). Family members lived thousands of miles apart, spoke different languages, and had radically different experiences. Words like home signified not just a place of residence but also the [End Page 163] British Isles themselves, which seemed to them a foreign country that they rarely visited and with which they often felt ill at ease—and yet to which they felt emotionally tied. Living places were often temporary and could be confined to disordered wagons. Intimate emotions, expressed in letters and delivered by post, could take many months to reach their destination. As in Britain, family membership was far more fluid than biological kinship, and missionary work overseas in some ways exaggerated the extent to which the family was a malleable construct. In addition to their own fourteen children, the Prices sometimes fostered indigenous children as part of their “civilizing” project. They also relied heavily on live-in servants to maintain their European way of life. Far from private, their homes were open to long-term visitors, and the happiest years of Elizabeth’s life were spent when she and her husband, Roger, lived with their friends and colleagues Ellen and John Mackenzie as part of a wider missionary family “so mixed up together & dependent upon each other’s prospects, circumstances & plans that one cannot act without the other. ‘One hand washes the other’” (Price 123). Other missionaries ran orphanages and boarding schools intended to be institutional families to their inmates; they imagined themselves as mothers and fathers to a large family of indigenous Christian converts (adults and children). At the same time, like those of many families back in Britain, missionary households often lacked (either through long-term absence or death) members who were usually considered central to the family; their writings often speak of missing parents, children, siblings, and partners and of the empty spaces created in their families as a result. As the opening extract suggests, the Prices were a family defined by lengthy separations, constant upheavals, and transitory, unstable, and vulnerable homes.

This article uses the letters of Elizabeth Price as a lens through which to investigate the missionary family in the British Empire, and to explore the ways in which the missionary family both encapsulated and undermined ideas about Victorian family life. In doing so, the article builds on the burgeoning scholarship on colonial families. Such work has, among other contributions, illuminated the...


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pp. 163-179
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