Isabella Valancy Crawford


Isabella Valancy Crawford (Image Source)

Last time, we took a quick look at Barcelona as a City of Literature, and in particular at Catalan poet Maria Mercè Marçal.  In this post, as usual, we switch back to Peterborough and its literary heritage.  And in particular we are going to see whether we can find any common thematic ground between Marçal — fiercely feminist, left-wing, and nationalist — and the late-19th century Peterborian poet Isabella Valancy Crawford.  Read on…

Isabella Valancy Crawford was born in Dublin in 1850 (Wikipedia says 1846), and her family emigrated to Canada when she was a child.  They lived, at various times, in Paisley, Lakefield, Peterborough, and Toronto and it was in Lakefield that she began writing.  Her first published poem appeared in a Toronto newspaper in 1873 (by which time Crawford was in Peterborough), and after her father died in 1875, she supported herself and at times her family through her writings (no easy feat at all for a female writer in that place and time).  Her work was published in newspapers and magazines, and she also produced one published collection of her poetry: Old Spookses’ Pass, Malcolm’s Katie, and Other Poems (published 1884).  Crawford died in Toronto, at the young age of 36, in 1887, her death described in a letter by her friend and landlady Mrs. Charles J. Stuart: “I caught Miss Crawford in my arms, and she looked up and said, ‘What a trouble I am Mrs. Stuart.’ just after that she gave one gasp and expired.”

Crawford’s life was not only tragically short, it was a tough one as well.  Nine of her eleven siblings died in childhood or adolescence, and her father, though a doctor, was never able to make enough money to support the family (an embezzlement scandal that forced the family to leave Paisley did not help).  In fact, Crawford reportedly began her writing career when the family was living as a charity case in the Lakefield home of Richard Strickland — brother to another couple of Peterborough’s well-known female writers in Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie.  And, although she was able to make a living from her poetry and other writings, it was always a tenuous and difficult livelihood, and it was not until after her death that she began to receive the widespread exposure and critical acclaim that she probably deserved.  Northrop Frye, for one, described Isabella Valancy Crawford as “the most remarkable mythopoeic imagination in Canadian poetry.


Fragment of the original manuscript of “Malcolm’s Katie.”  (Source, with full-size version of the image)

Crawford’s most famous, and certainly most analyzed work, is her long blank-verse melodrama “Malcolm’s Katie.”  Its plot is fairly rote: Girl (Katie) and Boy (Max) are in love, to the mild concern of Girl’s father (Malcolm).  A romantic rival and Villain (Alfred) appears, misunderstandings are misunderstood, adventures are had, and Katie has her life saved a couple of times.  All ends happily for everyone except Alfred, although even he is forgiven in the end.  But underneath that simplistic plot there is a lot going on — the poem is in fact a fun one both to read and to ponder.  And we will return to it several times here in the course of this post.

So, can we draw any connections between Crawford and Marçal, beyond their gender, their writing of poetry, and the fact that both died young?  I will remind you here of Marçal’s own, signature poem, the very short piece entitled “Divisa” and translated as follows (check the last post for the Catalan-language original):

To fate I am grateful for three gifts: having been born a woman,
of low class and oppressed nation.
And the turbid azure of being three times a rebel.

It is a very succinct laying-out of Marçal’s identities.  Can we find any trace of those identities — feminist, Marxist, or nationalist — in the poems of Isabella Valancy Crawford, a century earlier and on another continent?  The answer, you may or may not be surprised to hear, is “yes.”

Crawford’s feminism was not that of Marçal — not so fiery, nor overt — but it is present nonetheless.  That quietness, as much as anything, is a product of Crawford’s own time and place, and the forms that feminism took then and there.  Crawford was no suffragette, or if she was, she kept any such mention from her poetry.  However, it is possible to give “Malcolm’s Katie” a very feminist reading, despite the fact that the poem follows such a by-the-book melodramatic plot.  The introduction to “Malcolm’s Katie” at, quoting Luce Irigaray, notes one example of a feminist theme cropping up in the poem:

“Surely it is not without significance that Crawford, whose ‘own fate was inextricably tied to her father’s . . . created in Katie a heroine who is nearly killed by a phallic log inscribed with her father’s initials— ‘the potent ’G.’ and ’M.’, / Which much he lov’d to see upon his goods . . .”” (III, 166-167).

It is far from the only example in the poem, or in Crawford’s work in general.  It was put to me recently the Crawford’s poem “The Canoe” might actually be a slyly sarcastic critique of the masculine institution of hunting, or at least of hunting’s more masochistic side.  It is entirely possible, and this passage in the poem jumps out at one a bit:

My masters twain sang songs that wove
(As they burnish’d hunting blade and rifle)
A golden thread with a cobweb trifle—
Loud of the chase, and low of love. (ll. 39-42)

Though the language and medium are obviously very different, there is something in there of Bugs Bunny scornfully referring to Elmer Fudd as “Nimrod” (and thank you to P.W. Conway of Voyageur Storytelling for the suggestion about the poem).

Crawford’s identity as a member of the lower, or at best lower-middle, class is also visible in her work, particularly “Malcolm’s Katie.”  While the heroine’s father is fairly bourgeois, her inamorato Max is a simple backwoods boy seeking to carve out a simple backwoods homestead for his bride-to-be.  And as for Alfred, the villain of the piece, the first two descriptive words we hear of him are: “Reputed wealthy” (III, 56).  At one point, the poet gives us a utopian, bucolic, view of the joys of the having one’s own patch and working it, and thus throwing off of the shackles of being lower-class in the industrial age.

There the lean weaver ground anew his axe,
Nor backward look’d upon the vanish’d loom,
But forward to the ploughing of his fields,
And to the rose of Plenty in the cheeks
Of wife and children—nor heeded much the pangs
Of the rous’d muscles tuning to new work.
The pallid clerk look’d on his blister’d palms
And sigh’d and smil’d, but girded up his loins
And found new vigour as he felt new hope.
The lab’rer with train’d muscles, grim and grave,
Look’d at the ground and wonder’d in his soul,
What joyous anguish stirr’d his darken’d heart,
At the mere look of the familiar soil,
And found his answer in the wordsMine own!” (II, 215-229)

While that last line, read literally, would seem to be rather non-Marxist endorsement of private property, there is more than just a little of the liberation of the proletariat in the passage as a whole.  And again, that is but one example.

This class-consciousness is tied up intimately — so much so that is difficult to separate them — with Crawford’s nationalism, the nationalism of a late-19th century Irish immigrant to Canada.  This nation was, at the time, a young one, nervously aware of being caught between two superpowers neither of which was 100% sure that Canadian independence was really what they wanted.  Crawford’s Irish origin, meanwhile, meant that she came from a country whose relationship with those two powers carried its own, often tragic, complexities.  She could easily have been writing for both Ireland and Canada when, in her poem “Canada to England,” she wrote of the nation’s voice speaking to the Empire:

Sounds it not like to thine—the whispering vine,
The robe of summer rustling thro’ the fields,
The lowing of the cattle in the meads,
The sound of Commerce, and the music-set,
Flame-brightened step of Art in stately halls,—
All the infinity of notes which chord
The diapason of a Nation’s voice?

“We are here,” in other words — and for better or worse, as the poem also recognizes some of the pitfalls of nation-building (militarism, for example).

Crawford’s expression of her national identity (or identities), like that of many of her contemporaries, also takes the form of reverent awe for the Canadian wilderness, particularly for its plenitude of natural resources and the potential they offer.  This love for the landscape is, again, particularly evident in “Malcolm’s Katie;” for all that the word “Canada” (or “Canadian” etc.) occurs not once in the poem, it is very much about the building, sometimes literally, of this nation.  The quoted lines above about the “lean weaver” and his colleagues provides an excellent example of this, and “Malcolm’s Katie” closes with the following lines, spoken by the heroine herself (something that yet again harkens back to Crawford’s feminism, by the way):

“And these wild woods and plains are fairer far
“Than Eden’s self. O bounteous mothers they!
“Beck’ning pale starvelings with their fresh, green hands,
“And with their ashes mellowing the earth,
“That she may yield her increase willingly.
“I would not change these wild and rocking woods,
“Dotted by little homes of unbark’d trees,
“Where dwell the fleers from the waves of want,—
“For the smooth sward of selfish Eden bowers,
“Nor—Max for Adam, if I knew my mind!”


Grave of Isabella Valancy Crawford, Peterborough.  (Image Source)

As I mentioned up top, Isabella Valancy Crawford did, posthumously, receive some of the recognition that probably should have been hers when she was alive.  She is buried in Peterborough, in Little Lake Cemetery, under a fairly elaborate gravestone that was erected just a few years ago.  Crawford has also been commemorated by having a park named after her in Toronto, and there is a historical plaque in her honour in Peterborough (in Millenium Park overlooking the Otonabee River) and at the house where she died in Toronto.  And most importantly, her works have been published, re-published, and widely analyzed by those interested in Canadian literature.

This has been an almost shamefully superficial look at the writings of Isabella Valancy Crawford; much more in-depth works on her have been written, and I encourage to hunt them up and read them (you can start with Elizabeth Galvin’s biography of the poet, titled Isabella Valancy Crawford: We Scarcely Knew Her).  In particular, there is a great deal of interesting material out there on Crawford’s treatment of mythology, and especially Aboriginal mythology, in her writing; she was by all accounts fascinated with Native myths and legends almost from the time her family arrived in Canada.  Her dealings with these stories are very complicated, and very interesting, and we shall return to them in the course of poking Peterborough along as a City of Literature.

However, for the time being this will do as a short introduction to Crawford’s feminism, class-consciousness, and nationalism.  Those three elements, of course, interact with, feed off of, intertwine with, and support each other in the poet’s writings.  All three are a constant presence, if sometimes a subtle one.  And by that presence they do indeed connect her thematically to Maria Mercè Marçal, a poet who lived a century later and a long way away.

Thank you for reading.

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