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You might think that all we have to do to write about love and marriage in 19th-century Canada is to dig up the documents-the journals and the love letters. But it is not that simple.
We have a wealth of information about middle-class family life in Upper and Lower Canada, but much of it is not very personal.
Letters were an important part of daily life, keeping friends and family members in touch with one another, but often letters did not survive. Those that do exist tend to deal with practical things-business, errands or family news-not with emotional issues. Personal diaries were much the same, recording day-to-day events, but leaving emotions out of it. It was, after all, an era of reticence.
Frances Tweedie wrote in her diary on July 18, 1868: "Out on green in evening, left alone W & I. Retired at two, strange feelings that night. The heat awful, a little breeze. Hannah tearing around forenoon, layed on bed all afternoon. An odd day in all." You would not know from these few words that this was the day that she and Hannah's brother William Milne became engaged (Noël, 27).
Most courting couples came from the same small social group and therefore did not need to leave written records, although there are exceptions. In 1831, Robert Hoyle was sitting with Eliza Nye when he gave her a brief, formal note asking her permission to propose:
"Dear Madam, Entertaining a very exalted opinion of your Character and worth, I am inclined to enquire if you are at liberty & disposed to listen to me on the subject of marriage. I am, Dear Madam, most respectfully your obt. & Humble Servt. R. Hoyle" (Noël, 25).
Eliza responded positively but with equal formality:
"Dear Sir, I am at liberty and certainly not indisposed to listen to one, whom I esteem as highly as yourself, on any subject. With esteem from, Eliza K. Nye" (Noël, 25).
Amédée Papineau's journal does record his joy at learning that his beloved Mary Westcott had changed her mind and would accept him as her declared lover. He says as much-in two brief sentences, as shown in the accompanying images. He writes nothing of the day they became formally engaged.
Strong emotions do sometimes break through, however. James Westcott, Mary's father, writes Amédée an impassioned letter expressing his deep distress about losing his daughter-his only surviving child-to marriage. And sometimes, in Mary's letters, powerful emotions well up. Her first letter to Amédée after their engagement might as well be marked "Contents under pressure":
The last time I was seated to write to you a letter, dearest friend, was in my own home-it was long ago! but oh! Full well do I remember every moment of that painful hour; with weary, aching head, and weakened hands, I strove to tell you that I was changed. My spirit felt crushed within me, nor pride, nor hope could wrest it from the blightening [sic] conviction which weighed me down. I thought, most surely thought, it would be the last I should ever pen to you. But now-I find myself with joyous heart ready to send you a missive, which alas! can but half tell you of the love and devotedness of her, who less than a year ago promised herself that she would banish forever every thought of you! How startling the change! How is it? Is it true[?] (MEW to LJAP, May 28, 1845).
Mary Eleanor Westcott Papineau fonds, 1810-1889. Textual record. Library and Archives Canada. Archival reference no.: R4386-0-7-E; (MG24-K58).
Noël, Françoise. Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1780-1870: A View from Diaries and Family Correspondence. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.