Susanna Moodie

Presented by Mooréa Gray to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club
November 19, 2019

One of Many Immigrants:
Susanna Moodie and Her Teacups Come to Canada

In the early 1800s in the backwoods of Upper Canada, Susanna Moodie established herself as an early female settler and a pioneer in Canadian literature. Her most renowned work, Roughing it in the Bush, is described as “a canonical work of Canadian literature, and is valued as much for its historic and cultural significance as for its literary merit.”

Susanna Strickland was born in 1803 in Suffolk, England and was raised in a highly literate, middle-class family. Mr. Thomas Strickland was a good provider for his family; however, the Stricklands never belonged to the higher ranked society of prosperous landowners. When Susanna was in her teen-age years, the Stricklands fell upon hard financial times, followed by the death of their father. In order to financially help the family, while maintaining their ladylike gentility, five of the six sisters became published writers and soon entered the literary circles of London.

In the early 1820s, Susanna began publishing poems and short stories for various magazines in London. She tried her hand at children’s stories and in 1831 published a well-received anthology of poetry entitled Enthusiasm and Other Poems. In 1830, Susanna met Mary Prince—a former Antiguan slave who stayed at the home of Thomas Pringle and his family in London. Pringle was a writer and advocate for anti-slavery and had become a friend and literary supporter to Susanna. Under Pringle’s guidance, Susanna transcribed Mary’s story of slavery into a pamphlet entitled “The History of Mary Prince.”

The Pringle family also introduced Susanna to the Scottish soldier, John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie, who became her husband in April 1831. Moodie had a half-pay military pension and a small property, so neither he nor Susanna had sufficient finances to raise a family as they would like in England. Since Moodie was eligible to receive free land in Upper Canada for his service in the army, the small family set sail on July 1, 1832 for a more prosperous life across the Atlantic.

For many early settlers, the harsh Canadian environment made day-to-day survival difficult, if not impossible. The social element was also challenging since the distances between neighbours were often great, the dependency upon one another was necessary, and the lack of a familiar social structure was disconcerting. The Moodies immigrated to Canada with the intentions of “effortlessly [rising] to the top of the colonial society.” Upon arrival, however, Susanna realized that the social structure they knew in England had no bearing in the Canadian backwoods.

Writing provided Susanna with a much-needed escape from her daily hardships.  Susanna published many of her works in Canadian and American periodicals, and she continued to send her writings to journals in England. In 1850, Moodie encouraged Susanna to publish a book in England about her experiences in the bush. Susanna compiled poems, various anecdotes, and published sketches into a coherent narrative about her first seven years (1832-1839) as a Canadian settler. Her manuscript was sent to the London publisher, Richard Bentley, and in 1852 Roughing It in the Bush; or, Life in Canada was introduced in print in two volumes. While this book is Susanna’s most celebrated and profitable of all her writing, and she received positive reviews in England, it also brought her much grief and controversy. Susanna was asked to write an “emigrants’ guide” by her editor for British emigrants moving to Canada. Susanna’s pessimistic view of the new world is prevalent as she writes more about the hardships rather than the advantages presented to emigrants. 

Roughing it in the Bush concludes with the Moodies moving from the bush to the town of Belleville, in the county of Hastings, where her husband was appointed Sherriff. Her sequel Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush (1853) is a continuation of her experiences in Upper Canada, with an attempt to offer a more positive view of Canada and her opportunities. Following Life in the Clearings, Susanna published fictional novels including Flora Lyndsay; or, Passages in an Eventful Life (1854); and Geoffrey Moncton: or, The Faithless Guardian (1855).

Numerous supplemental works and biographies have been published within the last fifty years, which have helped promote Susanna’s writing. Biographies include Charlotte Gray’s biography Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill (1999) and Michael Peterman’s Sisters in Two Worlds: A Visual Biography of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill (2007) among others.  Carol Shields, L.M. Montgomery, Timothy Findley, and most notably Margaret Atwood (The Journals of Susanna Moodie, 1970) have been influenced by Susanna’s works.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” writes L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel, The Go-Between. Canada’s past is indeed a foreign country, a place and time when things were done differently, where the people and landscapes told different stories, and where different cultures were often forcibly woven together for mere survival. As one of the many early nineteenth-century immigrants, Susanna Moodie and her literature provide modern readers with at least one, British perspective on Canada’s history and the making of Canadian culture.