- In the Interval of the Wave: Prince Edward Island Women’s Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Life Writing by Mary McDonald-Rissanen
In this well-researched book, Mary McDonald-Rissanen offers an interdisciplinary study of nineteenth and early twentieth century Prince Edward Island women’s “journals intime.” She performs a close reading of the eighteen women’s diaries she has identified “buried in archives”—all but one handwritten [End Page 1157] manuscripts—and she draws on a broad array of critics and theorists of culture, feminism, and travel writing, including Nancy Armstrong, Philippe Lejeune, and Mary Louise Pratt, in analyzing the thematic issues and the writing practices that emerge. McDonald-Rissanen argues that through private writing, the women were able to document and to reflect on their lives, discursively constructing evolving selves that negotiated the parameters of identity created by the material conditions and the ideologies of the time period and the location where each lived and wrote. Issues of sexuality, class, and nationality are revealed and explored through this gendered reading of the journals and the specific cultural contexts in which they were produced. The diaries are categorized by their setting—rural, urban, or travel—and they transverse key historical moments in Canadian and Western history, from the development of the British colony on PEI to Canadian independence, from the opening of the teaching profession to women to twentieth-century modernity.
In her first chapter, McDonald-Rissanen establishes both her overall methodology and her personal connection to one of the journals, which inspired her research. Although most of the chapters focus on individual diarists, McDonald-Rissanen’s frequent cross-references and her liberal use of thematic sub-headings create cross-generational conversations amongst the women. That conversation is expanded to include us, McDonald-Rissanen’s fellow scholars, through her occasional personal anecdotes and her analysis of contemporary reading practices of historical life writing.
The first chapter opens by acknowledging well-known PEI author Lucy Maud Montgomery, whose private journals were posthumously published in five volumes. Montgomery is again discussed in the second chapter, but only rarely referenced thereafter. Her legacy is paradoxical: a talented writer who transcended gender barriers in publishing her writing, but whose shadow has eclipsed the “more humble and cryptic texts of ordinary women whose diaries have survived by luck and the kindness of families who donated them to public archives” (51). The second chapter examines the representations of women in local nineteenth and early twentieth century newspapers, advertisements, songs, and folk stories—representations the “ordinary women” diarists would have seen and heard throughout their lives. McDonald-Rissanen also considers history texts and contemporary statistical analysis. Her findings are not surprising: women were almost entirely left out of historical records and accounts, and commercial print media idealized domesticity and motherhood while problematizing the female body through a “preoccupation with women’s health” (47). Examining “ordinary women[’s]” life writing to identify how they constructed themselves as physical and intellectual subjects thus becomes crucial to better understanding social history and the “subtle politics [End Page 1158] of cultural selection,” as McDonald-Rissanen applies Ian McKay’s terminology (219).
Chapters three through five each primarily focus on an individual rural diarist: Emma Chadwick Stretch, writing between 1856–60; Amy Darby Tanton Andrew, 1910–1915; and Lucy Bardon Palmer Haslam, 1884–1943. Stretch’s diary began as an account ledger while she and her family lived in England, and she resumed writing in it three years after emigrating, incorporating brief accounts of daily farm life into records of purchases and trades; in this way Stretch writes herself into a new identity as a pioneer woman. Andrew also inscribes a shift in her identity during the years her diary spans, from a single woman living with her family to a married woman starting her own family and managing her own house and farm. This shift manifests over time, the demands of her new role and her insecurities indicated by cryptic entries...