The Peterborian Saga-ists


“Westove,” the Lakefield home of Catherine Parr Traill.  (Image Source)

We recently talked a bit about the early “Sagas of Icelanders,” and I suggested then that we might find echoes of the genre in early Peterborian writings as well.  Time to investigate that idea a bit more closely.  Can we identify a group of Peterborough saga-ists, and if so what kind of sagas did they write?  Read on…

First of all, what can we define as a “Peterborian Saga” based on the Icelandic model? Well, as discussed last time, those Norse sagas dealt largely with the experiences of those who came to a new place to stay.  They also provided advice and admonition, both practical and cultural, for those following after, and all in the form of stories.  And we can indeed identify a number of works from this geographical area, early in the history of its settlement, that fit that pattern.  True, the narrative element is a little less pronounced here than in the Icelandic works, but it is there nonetheless, at least in the form of anecdotes.  And these early works do fulfill the purpose of recording the histories of early settlers while also providing guidance to later arrivals.

It seems to me that we can identify five major “saga-ists” from early Peterborough, three of them from the same family.  There were subsequent saga-ists, for sure, but these writers represented the first wave.  They are:

George Arundel Hill (1796-1861):  We have already spoken of Hill, and his Guide for Emigrants likely counts as Peterborough’s first saga (it is certainly the earliest to have survived).  His is also the shortest of the sagas, but it covers a lot of ground: Hill describes his voyage to Canada, his settlement in Dummer Township, and the general situation of the area.  While his saga is very much on the positive side as regards settlement, he does not avoid the darker side of early settler existence, including the dangers of alcohol abuse and his concerns about bees (the kind where you invite all your neighbours over to build a barn, not the kind that make honey).

Catherine Parr Traill (1802-1899):  Sister of Susanna Moodie and Samuel Strickland, and from an extremely literary family, Traill may well be the best-known of the early Peterborough saga-ists.  Her major saga was a collection of various writings on early settler life published in 1836 as The Backwoods of Canada, but she also subsequently penned The Female Emigrant’s Guide much along the same lines.  While Traill is generally viewed as the “sunnier” counterpart to her sister, and her writing about settlement is indeed more optimistic, she does not hide from the harsher realities.  Her positivity is more of the “we can cope” variety, rather than “everything is good.”

And there is another work in her collection that bears examination, and can count as a saga if we squint a little bit.  Traill’s 1852 novel Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains, is fiction (the other Peterborough sagas, and those from Iceland, are not, although they may have their fictional moments), but it has a number of interesting elements on the “advice” side of things that lead me towards including it as a saga.


Susanna Moodie. (Image Source)

Susanna Moodie (1803-1885): Another well-known name, Susanna Moodie (sister of Catherine Parr Traill and Samuel Strickland) also penned three of the early sagas: Roughing it in the Bush, Life in the Backwoods, and Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush.  The first of those in particular is a remarkable look at the life of an early settler in the Peterborough area, so unflinching in its portrayal of the hardships thereof that according to some evidence it had a negative effect on immigration for a couple of years after its publication in 1852.  It also earned Moodie some criticism; Life in the Clearings, about her family’s time in Belleville, was written as a gentler and more optimistic look at early Canada, at least partially in response to that criticism.  Like Hill, Moodie was no fan of bees.

John W.D. Moodie (1797-1869): Probably the least-known of our Peterborian saga-ists, the husband of Susanna Moodie write just one book, and it differs from the others in its form.  Rather than a full-on guide/memoir, J.W.D. Moodie’s Scenes and Adventures as a Soldier and Settler During Half a Century is collection of diverse writings: reminiscences, historical and biographical sketches, essays, and the like.  And most of them have little to do specifically with this area.  However, they provide some interesting background on, and insight into, a fairly typical mid-19th-century arrival in the Peterborough area (Moodie, like Hill, had fought in the Napoleonic Wars), and in particular the sketch entitled “The Ould Dhragoon” presents a very vivid picture of a backwoods settler family.

Samuel Strickland (1804-1867):  Brother of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, Samuel Strickland’s lone saga was his Twenty-Seven Years in Canada West,  reportedly written at the forceful behest of his formidable sister Agnes as a more optimistic and positive response to Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush.  In any case, Twenty-Seven Years is an explicitly positive look at the settler experience, one that occasionally crosses the line into outright advertisement or perhaps even propaganda.  However, that is not to say it is worthless; quite the contrary, in fact, as it does complement the other works in our little corpus of Peterborian sagas.



For the next post, I want to go back to Traill’s novel Canadian Crusoes, and look at it in more detail — it is an interesting piece of early Canadian literature indeed.  Until then, thank you for reading!

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