Family Connections: Early Artistic Endeavours of the Strickland Sisters

Stream: Session A
Date: Wednesday, 20 July 2022
Time: 11.00 am – 12.30 pm


Family Connections: Early Writings of the Strickland Sisters In “The Victorian Novelists: Who were they?” the last chapter of Victorian Fiction: Writers, Publishers, Readers (1995), John Sutherland points out “the dynastic effect of the great Victorian novelist on those around him/her, particularly close relatives” (157). Among his examples, which include Charles Dickens, Frederick Marryat, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Frances Milton Trollope, he cites Charles and George Henry Kingsley. Charles “wrote 10 novels of the first rank,” and “Only slightly less far behind in critical standing was his brother Henry Kingsley, with 20. A daughter of Charles, Mary St Leger, whose married name was Harrison and whose pen-name was ‘Lucas Malet,’ wrote 12 novels. A younger sister, Charlotte (married name ‘Chanter’) wrote a bestseller, Over The Cliffs, in 1860. Altogether, this Kingsley constellation accounts for 45 works of Victorian fiction, all of very high literary quality” (158). Sutherland concludes these comments by stating that “it is clear that one of the main predisposing factors to writing Victorian novels was to have a close relative, or intimate acquaintance, who wrote Victorian novels” (159). In the nineteenth century, however, it was not just novelists whose family connections were a factor in encouraging them to write such works as autobiographies, histories, memoirs, and travelogues as well as novels and short stories. One particularly interesting example of a family of authors who practised all these genres is that of six of the nine children of Thomas (1758-1818) and Elizabeth Homer (1772-1864) Strickland: Elizabeth Strickland (1794-1875); Agnes Strickland (1796-1874); Jane Margaret Strickland (1800-88); Catharine Parr Strickland Traill (1802-99), Susanna Strickland Moodie (1803-85), and Samuel Strickland (1804-67). Their “literary production,” especially if we include that of Susanna’s husband, John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie (1797-1869), their daughter, Agnes Dunbar Moodie Fitzgibbon Chamberlin (1833-1913), and their granddaughter, Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon (1851-1915), in its “volume” resembles that of “the Brontës, the Edgeworths, and Trollopes” (Carl Ballstadt, “Strickland, Susanna (Moodie),” Dictionary of Canadian Biography). Since its subject matter includes Canada and South Africa as well as Great Britain and Europe in works published between the 1810s and the 1890s in London, Edinburgh, New York, Montreal, and Toronto, a study of this family, in fact, provides a multi-dimensional illustration of authorship, publication, reception, and textual transmission and transformation over three continents and in Imperial/Colonial contexts. This paper, of course, cannot deal with all these topics. Rather, it concentrates on the early writings of the Strickland sisters, including Elizabeth’s Disobedience (1819), Agnes’ The Moon House (1822), Jane Margaret’s Moral Lessons (1820), Catharine Parr’s Little Downy (1822), and Susanna’s Spartacus (1822 or 1823). It attempts to show, first, how these poems and stories were shaped by the sisters’ upbringing in rural Suffolk, with its ancient ruins and even older legends, by parents who not only believed in education for women, and, thus, encouraged their reading in Thomas Strickland’s library, but who also encouraged them to cultivate gardens and learn about the local animals, flowers, and other specimens of natural history. It attempts to show, second, how their juvenile productions foreshadowed subjects and themes in the later works of each sister. In The Literary History of the Strickland Family (1965), for example, Carl Ballstadt writes that Agnes’ “first published verse was a ‘Monody Upon the Death of the Princess Charlotte of Wales’ which appeared in the Norwich Mercury in 1817,” and that “Before her father’s death in May, 1818, she had a longer poem completed, Worcester Field; or, The Cavalier, a metrical romance set in the civil war period” (71). In view of these poems, it does not seem surprising that Agnes’ interest in European royalty, as well as her admiration for the Stuarts, developed into her becoming probably the most well-known of the Strickland sisters because of her numerous works, some co-authored with Elizabeth, on the Queens of England and on Mary, Queen of Scots. Nor does it seem surprising that Catharine Parr’s early interest in a field mouse should have developed into a series of works on the animals and plants in Canada, to some of which both a daughter and a granddaughter of John and Susanna Moodie contributed. By describing the sisters’ early writings and discussing the relationship of this juvenilia to their later works, this paper argues, then, that, for these members of the Strickland family, what this conference calls the “materiality” of their upbringing in Suffolk helped shape all their literary production and, as a result, contributed both to British history and literature and to the development of various “things” in English-Canadian culture.

MARY JANE EDWARDS is an internationally known scholar of Canadian Literature and Bibliographical and Textual Studies. A Distinguished Research Professor at Carleton University, Ottawa, she was the General Editor of the CEECT Series of scholarly editions of early English-Canadian prose, which included Susanna Strickland Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush (1852, 1988) and Catharine Parr Strickland Traill’s The Backwoods of Canada (1836, 1997) and Canadian Crusoes (1852, 1986). Richard Bentley and the British Empire, which she edited and to which she contributed “‘My Dear Mr Bentley’: Richard Bentley and Susanna Strickland Moodie Correspond,” was published by EER, Publishers, in 2019.